KOCHI — The Indian military is scaling down rescue operations in the southern state of Kerala, a tropical tourist haven where intense floods killed more than 300 people and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Decreasing rains and floodwaters means the navy can cut back on its rescue teams in Kerala, navy spokesman Capt. D.K. Sharma said in a statement Aug. 20. The navy has rescued nearly 16,000 people in the state.
The annual monsoon rains were already underway in Kerala when it was hit by torrential downpours beginning Aug. 8. The rains had decreased substantially by Aug. 20 and meteorologists are expecting light-to-moderate rains in coming days.
Thousands of people have been leaving Kerala’s relief camps over the past two days, heading home to check on damage and begin the long process of cleaning up.
“There was sludge and muck nearly up to my knee,” a dismayed Abdullah Aliyar said Aug. 21. The 65-year-old, who has been living with his family at a relief camp for more than a week, returned briefly to his nearby home Aug. 20 to find it uninhabitable and without drinking water or electricity.
For now, the family of five will remain at Union Christian College, a sprawling campus on high ground just outside Kochi. It is one of more than 3,000 relief camps created amid the havoc of the floods.
Volunteers at the camp estimate that up to 10,000 people were jammed into the schools’ buildings a week ago. Aug. 21, there are perhaps 1,500.
“People are going home, or to their relatives homes,” said K.H. Shahabas, a local elected official who has been working in the camp since it was created. He said thousands of people poured into the college a few days after the floods began, when other low-lying relief camps were inundated.
While water and electricity have returned to parts of Kerala, the state’s utilities were working to restore service to vast areas that still have no service, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
“In many areas the condition has improved wherein people can somehow return to their houses,” Kerala’s top elected official, Pinarayi Vijayan, told reporters Aug. 20. “Water is receding in many places, but in some places it may take a little more time.”
Vijayan said 223 people had died in Kerala since Aug. 8.
IANS adds that for the first time in many days, the sun shone brightly over Kerala Aug. 21, as rains abated and the flood waters submerging several areas of the state began receding, officials and residents said. But low-lying areas in the districts of Ernakulam, Idukki and Thrissur remained beneath a sheet of water.
The United Arab Emirates, home to hundreds of thousands of Keralites, has pledged $100 million for relief work in Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced.
"A new Kerala has to be built... Funds are the prime requisite for this. This will be raised by us through various sources besides getting it from the Center and other agencies," he told the media.
Both central and state agencies along with NGOs continued to rescue those still stranded in flooded areas and provide relief on a massive scale in the wake of the worst flooding in the state in a century that has left some 370 people dead and caused widespread destruction.
In Neliyamapathy in Palakkad district, helicopters ferried pregnant women and others seeking medical help from a marooned spot, while dumping food for more than 1,000 people still cut off after roads were severely damaged.
In Chengannur, the last of those trapped had been rescued, said local legislator Saji Cherian.
Likewise, rescue operations were declared over in Paravur in Ernakulam district, one of the worst affected places since torrential rains and the opening of sluice gates of many dams caused a deluge.
In Wayanad, people began returning to their homes, now filled with mud and filth. But 800 tribal families were distraught as their homes had been washed away.
"We have nothing left. And we have nowhere to go," cried a tribal woman.
In Malappuram and Kozhikode districts, too, many were seen leaving the camps.
"We have given a departure kit to everyone and it includes all the basic things for people to restart life," said a government official.
The Kerala Police Aug. 21 took charge of all the 3,000 relief camps.
Police chief Loknath Behra warned that appropriate action would be taken against all traders who jack up prices of essential commodities.
"There will be no leniency shown to such people and those who engage in spreading fake messages and news. Already a few are behind the bars."
Murali, a carpenter, lamented that there was nothing in his house that could be salvaged. "I have lost Rs. 50,000 worth of equipment. I have to start from the scratch."
A freelance photographer in Chengannur broke down when he found his most precious camera destroyed.
Said a woman in Pandanadu: "We are left just with the clothes we are wearing."
Meanwhile, a Coast Guard ship arrived at the Cochin Port with 48 tons of relief materials.
Several groups have launched an initiative to clean people's houses.
Aravind Sasi, a journalist here, said he had already completed the cleaning of a house in Thiruvalla.
"We have all the cleaning materials and we have an electrician also... Tomorrow we will reach Ranni where we will clean up around three houses," he said.
Vijayan said they would ask the Center to allow Kerala to increase the market borrowings from 3 percent of the state's total revenue to 4.5 percent. As a result, an additional Rs. 10,000 crore can be raised.
The chief minister said he would demand a special package for Kerala from the Modi government.
On Aug. 21, the Center released Rs. 600 crore to the Kerala government for relief work in the flood-ravaged state and decided to waive Customs Duty and Goods and Services Tax on relief materials imported from abroad.
The money released included Rs. 500 crore announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rs. 100 crore by Home Minister Rajnath Singh during their visits to the state, said a Union Home Ministry statement.
The money was released after the sixth consecutive meeting of the National Crisis Management Committee chaired by Cabinet Secretary P.K. Sinha here.
The NCMC has been meeting since Aug. 16 to review the rescue and relief operations in Kerala.
Kerala Chief Secretary Tom Jose attended the meeting via video conference and reported that "the situation is now improving by and large though there are some isolated pockets still under water. But the "water levels are receding fast."
The Finance Ministry informed the NCMC that it had decided to "waive the Customs Duty and GST on the relief materials being imported to aid the people in the flood-affected areas in Kerala."
Public Sector Oil Marketing Companies have contributed Rs. 25 crore to the Chief Minister's Relief Fund in Kerala, the NCMC said.
The Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas has opened special points in the flood affected areas for liquefied petroleum gas distribution and in coordination with the state government permission had been granted for non-certified vehicles to carry LPG cylinders.
The ministry said it had also made available 3.2 lakh LPG cylinders and 2.2 lakh regulators.
Indian Railways said it had so far supplied 24 lakh liters of drinking water in addition to 2.7 lakh water bottles. Another 14 lakh liters water was available at Ernakulam district.
The Railway Ministry said it had also arranged to supply bed sheets and blankets, and that trains on all sections had resumed.
"Railways is also transporting relief materials from various states to Kerala free of cost," the NCMC was told.
The NCMC was apprised that an action plan had been prepared for restoration of power supply in all the affected areas. "About 94 percent of telecom towers have been made functional. Power supply to telephone exchanges is being restored on priority."
The Health Ministry said it would supply three crore chlorine tablets in addition to one crore tablets supplied earlier and that 30 tons of bleaching powder and 1.76 lakh sanitary pads had also been sent.
"Additional quantities will be sent in the next few days."
The ministry declared that no major outbreak of disease had been reported so far.
The Ministry of Food Processing Industries said essential spices, salt, tea and coffee were being supplied as per the state government's requirement.
The Department of Food and Public Distribution said it had made an additional allocation of 89,540 tons of rice as per the state government's request, while the Consumer Affairs Department said it was sending additional quantities of green gram and tur dal, in addition to 100 tons of pulses supplied earlier, Union Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said Aug. 21
Under the National Food Security Act scheme, Kerala gets 118,000 tons of food grains per month but it does not cover the entire population.
"We want food grains to reach every person in the state. So, we are sending additional 89,540 tons. In addition, we have sent 100 tons of pulses, with 80 tons to be supplied daily henceforth," Paswan told reporters here.
Under the NFSA, 75 percent of the rural population and up to 50 percent of the urban population receive subsidized food grains – five kg per person per month at Rs. 3, Rs. 2, Rs. 1 per kg of rice, wheat, and coarse grains, respectively.
Paswan said that the ministry had not decided who would incur the expenses of the additional food grain supplies.
"It is in the initial stage. The issue of who pays the bill is not a matter of concern now. The food grain supply can be done for three months," Paswan said.
The central government will provide as much help as possible to Kerala, he added.