Looking is a beginning! A little further south we have set up our base camp in Allepey, destination is Kuttanand. The tourist season starts tough this year, we are the only ones in the hotel, even though everything was restored in a hurry.
On a small wooden boat we go on the backwaters land- or river inwards. The houseboats that normally take visitors through the canals are tied to the riverbank and are ready for those who don't come. Our boatman steers into a small estuary. With every meter we move on, the houses seem simpler, more run-down and the busy residents more friendly. They wave and smile while washing, fishing or bathing. We continue on foot, barely ten steps further we meet houses, or what is left of them, where the water level marks reach beyond the windows. An elderly woman stands hidden in the dark in one of the windows and calls us to her. Although I do not understand the language, the desperation is clearly audible.
Residents take us to the houses that were hit the hardest. Suddenly we are standing on the forecourt of a run-down barrack. The land here is at least two meters below sea level. A grape of people gather around us, it gets loud and the emotions in the words are clearly noticeable.
“It smells like sewer”
An elderly man sits in the entrance of the shabby dump, pulling a cigarette. His wife explains that no help arrives here, only seldom people from the state, NGO's or reporters come by. But nothing is done. They cannot work here, their livelihood, the agricultural fields are devastated, the water is only slowly draining away. Apart from the state rice rations, they have nothing to eat. She points to a tarp that forms a channel to a small barrel. This is where they get their drinking water when it rains. This month it will still rain, but from December until late March it will not rain anymore.
One of the men points to a house, which is surrounded by water. This is where he lives, with his mother and two children, he explains. For months they have had to climb through the sewers to get to their home. Demonstratively he climbs into the swamp and fights his way to his hut. There remains a loud confusion, everyone is talking and shouting at the same time. A couple of statisticians were here, and some reporters, but no one would go to their house, he shouts. I want to take a closer look, put my rucksack by the fence and follow him to the water. The residents waved their arms wildly and shouted at me, my companions translated: "Don't go there, the water is full of rubbish, it's dangerous! But when our photographer Bijil has already made it half way through the mud, I still climb a bit awkwardly over the tree trunks into the brown broth. Suddenly it becomes quiet. Not long and standing knee-deep in a slimy sauce whose smell surpasses everything I have experienced so far in India. I can hardly move forward, my feet dig deep into the mud. The man smelling of alcohol, who had initially shrunk the loudest, suddenly stands still next to me and helps me to move forward in an obliging way.
“No job, no money, no food, no future.”
In the door of the three by six metre barracks there is an emaciated woman well over 80 years old. She is missing teeth. She does not stop talking. Her two grandchildren live here with her, and her son. They would get sick. Every day they have to go to school through this swamp, after crossing the water they can put on their school uniforms. I wonder how they do that without washing around in the water. Over the shining wet hang a few rags that are hung up to dry. It wouldn't go on like this, she says in tears. No work, no money, no food, no future. Nobody wants to marry and move here anymore. But they can't leave with what? I listen to her benevolently, even though I can't understand a word she's saying. Her son takes a bundle of paper from the hut and points his finger at it. He had written to the state, asking NGOs for help. Nobody cares. There are almost 40 families in the area, they all have similar problems. All of them would be helped, except this quarter.
After an equally difficult climbing tour I stand back on the forecourt, more neighbours gather around us. As soon as I have climbed out of the swamp, one of the men fetches a jug of water from the hut and washes my legs. It is their little drinking water. A feeling of shame fills me. While my crew continues to talk to the local people, we are offered fresh coconuts, cut open and served.
“The picture hardly changes, only the water depth through which we climb.”
A woman appears and asks us to look at her house. Of course we follow, together with the already existing entourage of local residents. We take a large detour to her house, which would actually be right next to the barracks we just visited, but the paths connecting the two houses are practically impassable due to the standing water. From there we only stand in the water to look at one house after the other. The picture hardly changes, only the water depth through which we climb.
An older man comes along, a little girl on his arm. He is now raising the little girl, her father died from poisoning caused by the flood water. The debates went on for a long time. The only thing that would really help would be a move. Life here has no future. Or only if a 300 meter long wall were built, like the one around all the other areas here, to stop the flooding. But that wouldn't work, because even if it could be financed, which is not the case, there would be political and religious forces to prevent it from happening again. But one thing is clear, they cannot go on living like this. There is not only a lack of jobs, food and water, but above all a lack of unity.