Dressed in a white shirt and dhoti, MA Chacko, a member of the Panamara panchayat in Wayanad district walks unassumingly into a government high school that has been converted into a relief camp for those forced to flee their water logged homes in the area.
As he passes by, people taking refuge at this centre for the last 10 days rush to greet the 52-year-old and immediately make place for him to sit. One of them is an elderly woman who gets up from the bench, only to be pulled back by Chacko.
He puts his arm around her and smiles kindly.
“Why are you getting up? You can also sit here," he tells her.
I shoot a quizzical look at 33-year-old Vasantha who has been in the camp from August 9 and ask if Chacko was the Panchayat President.
"He is just a ward member," she smiles. "But if we are alive today, it is only because of him," she adds.
The Great Escape
It was close to 2 am on 9 August when residents of Panamaram panchayat were fast asleep. Several had returned to their homes only over the last two weeks after they left in July due to heavy bouts of rain, which did not enter their homes, but made it impossible for them to travel on roads.
So when they returned, they did not think that there was any immediate reason to worry, despite the heavy downpour in the last two weeks.
However, Chacko, who was staying at a place two kilometres away, hadn’t slept in four days. "It was raining continuously and I felt the need to stay alert in case something untoward happened," he explains.
Panamara is surrounded by the Kabini river and Chacko expected the water body to overflow if the rains did not stop. But reality turned out to be far worse.
In the early hours of 9 August, Kerala's largest earthen dam – Banasura Sagar was opened by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) without warning as it threatened to reach maximum capacity. The water from the dam rushed into the Kabini, threatening to flood Panamara panchayat at an alarming speed.
"In a matter of minutes, I realised that water had come up to my shins," narrates Chacko who then sprung into action. "I went door to door in my ward and woke up the residents, urging them to leave. I knocked on at least 120 doors that morning and told them to alert neighbours too," he says.
Residents who woke up were shocked to find their feet hit water first instead of the floor.
Chacko then arranged for jeeps and large vehicles to transport people to the nearest camp which is the Panamara High School. "I also had boats on standby to take goats and cows from this area," he explains.
The water, meanwhile, was steadily rising even as people attempted to leave their homes.
"In a matter of half an hour, water had come up to people's necks. Nobody expected this because we thought the water was due to the rain. Had we known they were opening the dam, we would have acted even sooner," he explains.
Vehicles couldn’t enter the area and the people had to walk two kilometres in the deep water to get to the jeeps.MA Chacko
Not even the district Collector or panchayat had been informed that the dam was likely to be opened. The Banasura Sagar dam has a maximum storage capacity of 775.6 metres.
As per rules, KSEB has to alert the district disaster management authority about opening dams and also ensure that residents in the area are informed and evacuated.
But neither the Collector – who is the chairperson of the district disaster management board – nor the people here, were informed about the possibility of the dam being opened.
Most of us here belong to the Scheduled Tribe category. Is that why our lives don’t matter? If not for Chacko coming to alert us, you would have seen our bodies floating in the water.Vasantha, Resident
After managing to send most of his ward residents away by 3 am, Chacko had to swim through the water that had risen above his head.
"There were snakes in the water and I wasn't sure I would make it out alive," he admits. "But this ward is my home and its people my family. It was my duty to ensure their safety," he maintains.
Even now, Chacko refuses to rest.
He has already visited the flood hit areas and made a meticulous list of which houses have been damaged and how many people have been injured.
"After the rain stops, first we have to move them out of the school and into temporary shelters. It will take a few months to restore their houses. Rehabilitation will be a challenge now," he says. "Only after that will I be able to sleep peacefully."
(This was originally published in The News Minute and has been republished with permission.)