Published: 22nd August 2018
Relief in times of disbelief: Inside Kerala's colleges-turned-relief camps where humanity and belief run deep
When the rains come most colleges declare a holiday and students chill. During the Kerala floods, colleges were turned into effective relief camps and students were among the most spirited workers
I've heard stories where my great-grandmother would introduce people as survivors of the Kerala Floods of 1924. They say that survival attaches itself to your name as a separate identity tag. This time around, it was when the first Whatsapp statuses and Facebook posts began to flood in that we woke up with a sense of urgency that even several weeks of relentless rain couldn't bring. Yes, the Kerala Floods of 2018 found its heroes in the most ordinary people who were able to lend their very lives to aid victims of the disaster. Here, we would like to relate a few stories of bravery from Kerala's youth. And with this, we hope the tag of saviour sticks with them for eternity.
Mar Ivanios College, Trivandrum
Just a few weeks ago, Anand Yashodharan's top priority was the incoming Onam holidays. And so it was for most colleges in Kerala. "I myself was busy creating promo videos for us to send out to people on the days leading up to Onam. We were honestly caught up with that euphoria that takes hold of all Malayali students as the festival approaches when we heard the news of the floods. We really grew concious of the need of the hour when it started happening closer to home. A friend called me and said that his house was completely flooded. More than watching the news or WhatsApp forwards, it really hits you when someone you care about is affected. So we knew we had to act," says the student of Journalism and Mass Communication at Mar Ivanios College.
Bare necessities: A scene from a camp
Soon enough, the news of those affected by the floods was rushing in from across the state and students from across Trivandrum rushed to help. That very night, the girl's hostel in Mar Ivanios College was alerted to the news that people needed relief supplies and that camps were in urgent need of resources like bedsheets and sanitary napkins. "This was late at night after 10 pm and the hostellers walked out of their rooms to collect resources and bring it out to volunteers," remembers Anand. "The girls hostel which usually has a curfew at 6 was open until 3 am that night working for relief initiatives. Even the wardens helped out by arranging everything together. The most heartening thing was that people put aside petty concerns like discipline or order to support this larger cause."
The student volunteers walked in and out of three hostels in the college to find as many supplies as possible. Most students contributed without the hint of a reservation. Later, when larger NGOs like Anbodu Trivandrum started establishing their centres and collection centres, they donated all they had collected to them. "Our funds for the Onam celebration was collected from across departments and donated to the relief process. Many students were buying supplies out of their own pockets and donating towards the CM's fund. Later, we would go from house to house to collect," says Anand.
Acting responsible: The student volunteers walked in and out of three hostels in the college to find as many supplies as possible
Later, students who came from flood-affected areas reported that resources were not being sent to the people who lived in their areas. Truckloads of supplies were being sent but they were only reaching the mainstream and easily accessible camps area, overlooking places where they really needed help. "We didn't want to be heroes," says Anand, "But we began donating personally to camps that had been opened freshly. This was the only way to ensure that it really reached people. This is what most students who do volunteer work have been trying to do." More than 4 loads of supplies have been sent by the college's volunteers and a fifth truck was en route. "We try to do most of the work by ourselves. We work late into the night. Students have set aside all their personal needs to make sure that this happns in the right way," concludes Anand.
St Teresa's College, Ernakulam
At the relief camp at St Teresa's College, the student coordinators complain that they have too many volunteers. Their timely requests that rocked Instagram had brought in a heavy load of supplies and with it, so many people who were earnest to help that they had to send them to other camps nearby. Volunteers work at the camp in three different shifts covering morning, afternoon and night. Within the groups, there are various leaders who are stationed around the camps full time to handle areas like food, health and other support. The volunteers trickled in from everywhere.
Under a roof: The camps had people of all age groups
Malavika John, a third-year student of Communicative English also heard about the camp starting in the college through social media. "The first volunteers at the college were the hostellers," says Malavika. "Students who had not gone home for Onam holidays rushed to help as soon as they heard that help was needed even before many of us even began to understand the gravity of the situation. Later, the message began spreading like wildfire through social media and people began showing up from every corner of the city to lend a helping hand."
"On the first couple of days, there were only a few close-knit people who were helping out. Later as people started showing up, we had to figure out how to spread ourselves in the best way possible. It's been amazing over the past few days to understand that all you have to do is put across a small story on social media for people to flock to aid those who need help. It truly restores our faith in humanity," says Malavika.
With love: Anbodu Kochi collection centre
The coordinators have been running non-stop to ensure that residents of the camp receive the best support they could possibly get. "We get so many calls that we have to switch our phones off at night!" Malavika explains. "Because the college is in the heart of the city, it's relatively okay for us. If the people need anything, we are able to provide it without much of a worry and because people are donating resources without any limit, it really helps out. But it is the people on the outskirts who really need help and that is where we need to slowly shift our focus. We are beginning the cleaning up process now. When people leave, we pack essential items in kits and send it with them because they go home empty-handed. That process will also need a lot of our help because many people are still in the recovery stage."
CUSAT relief camp
As I entered the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) campus, the smell of dinner cooking and muffled instructions filled the air. Night had fallen but most students were up and about the campus performing odd jobs for the new addition to their campus. As I neared the college canteen where the banter was significantly louder, student coordinators Jayashree Kuniyath and Rahul Krishnan joined me to share the wonderful story of how they managed to serve more than 4000 people in the past week.
Rebuilding lives: Volunteers at a relief camp in Kochi
"We were still reeling off of the shock of the floods when the college announced that they were going to start a camp in the college," explains Jayashree. "Some of us came over just to help with cleaning and setting up the place. When we arrived, they told us that they needed volunteers and many students including myself signed up for it. We were calling people we knew to help out and storing supplies." For one and a half days, even the kitchens were handled by the students. The flood victims had come to the camp at night before the arrival of the navy.
Director of Student Welfare, Baby PK called a meeting and assigned responsibilities to various students. "We were expecting 500 people but more than 1000 showed up," says Rahul. "We somehow managed to arranged everything and support the people who had come." The navy and government officials showed up the next day with food for 500 people and the provision for providing food to 5000 people for the next five days. The camp has also partnered with CMC medical college and has 15 doctors present at the camp, in addition to a resident ambulance.
Long wait: People waiting in the queue
"The people who are here have moved from camp to camp at least 5 times before getting here so they really appreciate our effort," says Jayashree. "They were not even expecting food but they told us that they have received so much more. They had this thought that they had lost everything but having come here, it has all changed. We also arrange various activities. The previous day, we arranged a projector to show people the news and we also provide them with entertainment. We have been observing that their mindset is changing and they are going back to normal life."
Stepping it up for Kerala
When a relief camp in Varappuzha started getting flooded and people were panicking about where to go, Anumon PM, a BTech Student and his friends knew exactly what to do — convert Holy Cross Convent School, Kangarappady, which was near his house into a relief camp. Kangarappady was among the few areas in Kochi that wasn't flooded. "I've been active in relief work, coordinating and sending food for a few days. I'm a part of a youth club nearby and when it was decided that the camp could be set up at Holy Cross, we thought of taking it up," says Anumon.
Water water everywhere: Volunteers opening packs of mineral water
"Things are going on pretty well here, compared to other camps. Thankfully, there are enough resources too. In the other camps, there are not enough people to manage things. But here, we selected a group of people from our club who are committed to staying till everything falls back in place," he says. They also had separate storerooms and made sure that things are distributed properly. In fact, most of these young men are still here at the camp 24x7. "I'm sure, none of us are this committed to our families even. Let's just say that the floods united everyone," he signs off.
Their Desi Cuppa overflowed with relief
When Ansijin Rajan, a CA student and Tomcy Joseph, a dentist began a cafe in Pattimattom near Perumbavoor, they never imagined how their little Desi Cuppa would transform in a few months. During the floods in Kerala, their cafe was a major collection point for relief materials from Perumbavur and places nearby. For more than a week, Ansijin and Tomcy, along with a few other volunteers have collected materials and distributed them to relief camps throughout Ernakulam and neighbouring districts.
Looking ahead: A scene from another relief camp
While he spoke to us, he was on the way to organise cleaning activities in flood-affected houses. He also tells us about how, in some camps, he and his friends also had to make sure that the women were safe as a few miscreants had started creating trouble. "The situation was different from camp to camp. All of them had different requirements. We haven't been sleeping for days and were literally transporting relief materials the entire time," says Ansijin. "In some camps, people were being picky about the kind of clothes we were distributing. While in places like Varapuzha and Chengannur, people were happy with whatever they got. They had lost everything," he adds.
Tomcy, on the other hand, was able to help in a different way. Since most of the camps were filled with people who had medical needs, they badly needed somebody with some medical knowledge. "Even though I'm a dentist, I know what the basic medicines are. I have prescribed them to these people. This was the maximum I could do, apart from supplying relief materials," he says.
(With inputs from Parvathi Benu)