“You want to join me to Kerala for flood relief work?” a friend asked.
“Yes, yes. But is it safe right now?”
“The area we are going is safe. I’m in touch with a localite, so don’t worry about that.”
“Ok. I’m in.”
I kept the phone and started thinking ‘Dude, I said yes but I am actually scared. I want to go but what if the road suddenly breaks or I get some sort of disease or something bad happens!’ But somewhere I knew I will go.
I was clear that I had to be responsible about my safety, without which my visit would only add to the existing misery. I dropped WhatsApp message to a couple of friends who are from Kerala to understand the situation better. Also, called a friend who was already volunteering to ask about things I need to know before my visit.
3 pair of clothes, 2 fully charged powerbank, 1 odomos, 1 diary, a phone and I was ready to go. That night, I went to a friend’s place in Bangalore where all the materials were being collected. A mini truck came in the morning and we placed 50 carton boxes in it. I along with a fellow volunteer left for Mysore in that truck. From Mysore, we took a bus.
’KSRTC Thiruvalla Bus Junction’ read the board at 5:30 a.m. Murli (local person) came to pick us and after a drive of 6 kms we were at our destination- Eraviperoor village, a place I didn’t know existed 3 days back!
We unloaded the carton boxes at Murli’s house and that place became our stay for coming days. After the tiring journey of 19 hours all I wanted to do was rest for some time. However, the moment we reached the situation was such that we had to immediately start making kits for distribution, which we did after a cup of kattan chai.
The volunteering began with preparation of kits from the material we got. After seeing so much material we were confused but eventually we came with this combination for kit: essentials, food items and clothes. Soon the president of gram panchayat arrived and we were ready to go to our first camp where people were staying since last 2 weeks. We spoke with them and distributed the kits. Having no clue of Malyalam, someone would translate for me.
While returning from camp, Murli showed me houses, paddy fields and streets which were flooded with water until 3 days back. And the damage was quite evident. It was Onam that day but unlike every year, there was no celebration.
Towards evening, we took 4 sacks of rice of 50 kg each for distribution in the area which didn’t receive any food items till now. People were waiting with their own bags to collect rice. Initially there were few of them, slowly number went to 50. I had never seen struggle for food from such proximity. As my hands were moving from sack to carry bag with bowl full of rice, there was something moving inside me too. While returning home, there was silence in car and silence within me too.
Next day we went to houses in the remote areas and distributed kits.
“The mark you see there on the wall, water was almost till the roof. Everything is ruined. We are 2 women running this house, I have called my sister from other village to help. But life is not the same now…” she said and broke down. The condition was no different in other houses. Outside every house the sight of either furniture or clothes drying out was common.
The process of distribution was quite intensive for 2 -3 days, slowly it reduced but went on for a week.
Next step was distribution of sanitation material for cleaning. We went to Thiruvalla taluk to collect the same where it was kept in a huge godown under government’s custody. Here, one could see relief material which was sent by individuals and organisations from all over India. The feeling was overwhelming. We collected material for Eraviperoor panchayat. Every Panchayat was allowed to take in limited number. I was confused because the material was less and houses to be cleaned were many.
“How will we be dividing the material?” I asked the president
“Based on wards. We have 17 of them. Out of which 9 are severely affected, 6 moderately and 2 are normal. So accordingly we will divide. We shall make 17 kits and keep them at ward member’s house. A team of volunteers is coming from Trivandrum tomorrow. They will collect from ward member’s house and start the cleaning.”
“Ahaan. Got it.”
So, we did a detailed stock count and in the evening, kept all the kits in a truck to keep at 17 different places which took us around 3 hours.
Now was the time for cleaning. For the same, houses were selected based on size and need. I joined a team of volunteer from Trivandrum. From cleaning of floor which was filled with mud, to utensils and washing of clothes- the day was a long one. Also, houses which had wells- the water was contaminated. Hence for that, panchayat had arranged a special team.
The process of distribution, sanitation and cleaning was going at its own pace now. As a way forward, Panchayat had planned things like conducting health awareness sessions in schools for children; training for civil engineering students so they go and check condition of houses; monetary support for people whose house was severely affected. It also made some long term plans. Their regular meetings with its ward members, frequent visits to affected areas gave access to real time information which was of great help. I loved how they mobilised local resources and put that into effective use. Working with this gram panchayat, I had an experience of a lifetime.
Needless to say, volunteering was a very emotional and overwhelming experience. Having no clue of place, people, language and work to having a bunch of people whom I can call a family today has been a journey worthwhile. The relief work is not a one person show, hundreds of hands go into it. No doubt, the sight of destroyed houses, broken trees, sad faces was disturbing. But with that there was hope too. Hope of building Kerala stronger and brighter. Flood did destroy the place but not the spirit of its people and nation.
PS this experience did bring a lot of learnings, which I shall be sharing in the next blog post. Stay tuned!