The residents say they have had enough of the annual ritual of moving into relief camps and then back home

Meena tries every trick in her bag, from a small toy which produces a jingle to pointing at crows, to make her one-year-old child stop crying. Sitting on the steps of a dilapidated classroom at Government Fisheries School, Valiathura, which as a relief camp becomes second home to her for many months every year, she says that this time she is not going to leave after the waves recede, like in the previous years. Inside the classroom, a group of women nods in agreement.

It was two weeks ago that 248 people belonging to 46 families shifted here, after tidal waves broke through the depleted barriers at midnight for the first time this season.

No one was keeping vigil as such an early attack of the waves was unexpected. Sleeping toddlers floated about before being rescued and shifted to the safety of the fisheries school. The waves have receded now, but the families do not trust the deceptive calm of the sea.

Come May, the annual round of sea erosion will be set off, sending more families scrambling to the safety of the relief camps. These frequent spells of destruction and running away have been one constant in the lives of thousands of families who live along the capital city’s vast coastline. The cycle goes on as permanent solutions promised by successive governments gather dust.

Regular affair

“These annual shifts have been a part of my earliest memories. For the past 22 years at least, I have been coming to this school annually with my family and neighbours. It happens twice every year, but the sea erosion around the time of the monsoon is particularly severe. We come here in May and leave only by August. During that time, our daily survival depends on the mercy of government officials, who are sometimes reluctant to even supply us food,” says Ms. Meena.

The few classrooms that have been allotted to these families as part of the relief camp are another picture of neglect. In the blazing summer, the rooms without any ceiling fans are a veritable frying pan.

“We do not get even enough drinking water here. At night, all the women and children sleep in the rooms. The men sleep outside, near the Valiathura pier or on the school verandah. We are constantly taunted by the officials for staying here. They expect us to leave as soon as the waves recede without looking at the state of our houses. We need time to rebuild, to start from scratch. This time, some families have left already, but we have decided to stay put till a permanent solution to the problem is arrived at,” says 45-year-old Mable.

During the monsoon, the functioning of the school is also partly affected owing to the relief camps. So, there is a constant pressure on the families to leave.

“Every year, we go back thinking of these students’ futures. But last time, even some of the children told us to stay. They understood our condition better as their families also live close to the coast. But, sometimes the officials taunt us and treat us as freeloaders,” says Ms. Mable.

Camp closed

When The Hindu contacted an employee of the Valiathura village office, he said the families “tend to stay back raising various demands even after the waves have long receded.” The relief camp had now been officially declared closed and a report sent to the tahsildar, he said.

When they leave the camp, the families are usually given around Rs.3,000 as a token amount for thatching their huts. Last year, most of them got amounts ranging from Rs.20,000 to Rs.35,000 as a special grant.

“We have been told that land has been allotted to build houses for us near the Muttathara sewage plant and near the FCI godown. If you cannot build houses, at least give us that land so that we can shift our huts there. We do not need money anymore. All we are asking for is a piece of land away from the waves,” says 52-year-old Baby.

Valiathura ward councillor Tony Oliver says he had taken the initiative in handing over the Corporation-owned land near the FCI godown to the Kerala State Coastal Area Development Corporation (KSCADC).

“The Corporation handed over the 46 cents of land near the FCI godown to the KSCADC as soon as they asked for it. The foundation stone was laid way back in May 2012. But after that nothing happened even though Central funds were always available. They kept on increasing the estimate for the houses. First, it was Rs.2.5 lakh per house, which was increased to Rs.4.5 lakh, and later to Rs.6.5 lakh, which may make it unfeasible,” says Mr. Oliver.

Work at Muttathara

He says the funds for coastal development are sometimes spent in areas away from the coast and even in districts without any coastline. The work on the houses near Muttathara sewage plant is expected to start after the elections, he says.

The lack of a sea wall for long stretches along the coastline is one primary cause for the annual trail of destruction.

“A few years ago, the government made an attempt to rebuild the sea walls here. But they used small rocks which were washed away in a few years. Now, you cannot find even one of those stones. The way these stones were arranged was another reason for the sea taking it all away. You need large rocks packed closely to give some resistance to the waves. No such planning was done before building the sea wall,” says Joby, a resident here.   

The recurring costs of running relief camps and giving out compensation can be saved if at least the first few rows of houses along the coast can be shifted to the new locations, say the residents.

Even amid all the hopelessness, the residents of the relief camp say that they have all voted in the general elections.

“Yes, all of us went out to vote with the hope that at least the next government will help us. Only one of the candidates visited us this time around.  Even he repeated the promises that we have been hearing over the past many years,” says Ms. Mable. 

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