KERALA is known for its majestic backwaters – a network of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast. A world heritage site, the serene stretch of lakes, canals and lagoons is a major attraction for tourists. Unfortunately, and ironically, the woes the state has been grappling with over the past few years also relate to water – in the form of devastating, and lately recurring, floods.
With scores dead and thousands displaced in floods this year, it’s been a repeat of last year’s miseries for people in Kerala. The south Indian state had faced the century’s worst floods in 2018. But then, adversities and tragic circumstances often throw up their heroes. In the case of Kerala, it were its fishermen who turned out to be the bravehearts – risking their lives to rescue thousands of marooned humans.
Rejimon Kuttappan’s recently-released book, ‘Rowing Between the Rooftops: The Heroic Fishermen of the Kerala Floods’, is both a chronicle of heroism and a tribute to the enduring courage of a community that battled onerous circumstances to save people from flooded areas in August 2018.
‘Reji’, as the former Gulf journalist is mostly known among his peers (past and present), elucidates how these brave fishermen “spent days and nights soaked to the skin, steering on empty stomachs,” to rescue the stranded people in the Central Kerala which was under water for a full week.
“They [the fishermen] had to navigate the wild flood’s treacherous undercurrents and dive into dirty waters, risking disease and injury. Sometimes, they had to carry people or act as footstools to help them climb into the boats. They even had to swim alongside the boats, so that more people could fit in,” says Reji, in an e-mail interaction with this writer.
2018 floods: A painful chapter
During the first two weeks in August 2018, Kerala witnessed its worst floods claiming some 600 lives and displacing nearly a million people.
“These fishermen ignored the heavy downpours during the rescue operations with their boats repeatedly catching on the rooftops of submerged houses,” says Reji, adding: “Many had to dock their boats on the second floor of the marooned houses and climb into the buildings to find the stranded people.”
What made him write this book? “In the fast-moving world, which is flooded with news anyway, people would’ve forgotten the brave acts of these fishermen very soon,” he replies. “And I didn’t want that to happen. If they had not jumped into the rescue work, the death toll would have been higher. Some newspapers did carry stories of their bravery but other than that nothing happened.”
Citing the Kerala government’s statistics, Reji points out that these heroic fishermen were able to rescue some 6,50,000 people from flood-hit areas, mainly in Chengannur and other parts of Central Travancore.
Published by Speaking Tiger, the book, written in a simple and moving narrative, is based on interviews with fishermen, government officials and flood victims, while also drawing on extensive research. It brings to life the events of those terrible days, the daring heroism and the heart-wrenching sorrow. Reji also shines light on the precarious lives of the fisherfolk communities – threatened as they are by climate crisis, increasing coastal erosion, and a rapidly changing way of life.
The author also delves into the history of these fishermen – for example, how their forefathers played a vital role in helping the Kerala kings in thwarting the Dutch Navy in the 18th century.
Prepared for future exigencies?
When asked if Kerala – after battling these harrowing floods – is now better prepared to meet such exigencies in the coming years, Reji says, “No! Kerala had been struggling financially due to the 2018 floods. The loss was to the tune of Rs40,000 crore. The state has failed to raise enough money. To make it worse, this year  too the floods have caused huge losses. Kerala is a small state, densely populated. This time the landslides claimed lives.
“Experts say the exploitation of land and building resorts in ecologically fragile land in Western Ghats, led to the landslides this time. Even though the disaster was scary, the government has not come up with any plan to curb the land exploitation. So, for sure, if there are floods next year, landslides will repeat, and the toll could be high as well.”
He adds, “Unfortunately, even though a disaster management authority is there in the state, other than issuing alerts, they don’t have any proper effective plans on the ground as yet.”
(This article first appeared in the Qatar Tribune newspaper on 30th August 2019)