Fishermen from Azheekal Araya Samajam during their rescue mission Image Credit: Screengrab/Supplied

Kollam, Kerala: Much has been said and written about the glittering role the fishermen of Kerala played in the flood rescue operation.

The real heroes of this drive, dubbed as "Kerala's own army" from Karunagappally, Alappad, shared their experience about the "Mission Impossible" made possible. 

More to it: They shared with Gulf News their story of neglect and government apathy once the arduous task of helping save lives over a five-day period ended.

The monsoon was especially severe in Kerala. From the beginning of August itself, there were reports of minor flooding in various areas and threats of dams being opened.

High alert

The entire state was on high alert and, by the middle of August, things got out of hand. 

The fisherfolk from Azheekal Araya Samajam decided to join the rescue operation on August 15, when they came to know the plight of thousands in flood-hit areas.

The situation was challenging, but they knew they can help save the lives, hence their concern was only about how quickly they can reach and get deployed around the affected places and start the rescue operation.

Azheekal Araya Samajam is formed of two main groups — Pookottu Karayogam and Vyasavilasam Karayogam. 

Once they conveyed their intention to take part in the rescue operations to Alappuzha District Collector, they promptly received a warm green signal to start work on an immediate basis.

The initial plan was to deploy small boats as quickly as possible.

Accordingly, 12 small boats with a capacity of 10 to 15 people were transported through trucks and the rescue which would later be lauded world over was kicked off, said Seamon, Secretary of the Azheekal Araya Samajam.  

However, the moment they started the operation, they realized that that these small boats were inadequate for the job. 

Strong currents

The currents of the floodwater were too strong for these small boats and its engine too beat and keep it steady. The other, bigger issue: the sheer number of people waiting to be rescued. 

Short missions were just not possible, because there were no secure bases at short distances.

The flood had turned central Kerala into one big lake, with no shore on sight.

The people who needed help ran into thousands, not something these tiny boats with capacity of 10-15 could handle even in weeks. 

Additional support was needed — and immediately. 

The only way to speed up an effective operation and save lives was to bring in bigger vessels.

Bigger vessels needed

The bigger vessels they had had three powerful motors to hold it steady even in the most powerful of currents. And more importantly, these could accommodate up to 85 people at a time.

But how could these big boats be taken to Kuttanad where the most needy and desperate of the flood victims are awaiting help?

There were logistical issues, too, that no one had ever encountered before.

The roads were in tatters and it was impossible to transport these big vessels by road during the early days of the deluge. 

Operating by instinct

Needless to say, there was no command-and-control capable of charting a plan and issuing instructions to these fishermen volunteers who were operating only on their instincts.  

At last, their instincts proved to be stronger than any military planning or GPS route map. 

Aided with first-hand knowledge of the choppy Kerala shores and its myriad waterways, they zeroed in on their own water route to flooded Kuttanad. 

They entered the inland waterways from Azheekkal and traversed through the Kayamkulam Kayal, crossed Thrikkunnappzha and passed through Pallana and entered the backwater mouth at Thottappally. 

The route taken by the fishermen to Kuttanad

Infographic by: Muhammed Nahas/Gulf News

They took 57 of their their mighty vessels from Alapadu to Thottappally through raging floodwaters.

From there, they travelled upstream to reach areas such as  Champakkulam, Payippad, Mannar, Kainakary, Veeyapuram, Changanaseri, Edathua, Thakazhi, Chenganadu, Pandanad, Budhanoor, Puliyoor and Venmani — where thousands of people marooned by floodwaters were awaiting help.

It is a story of selfless dedication unparalleled in Kerala history.

The community pooled its resources to ensure that all these big boats taken to the affected areas had enough provision — for its fuel food and drinking water for the survivors.  

57 boats, 384 men — 60,000 people saved

The fishermen community of Azheekal Araya Samajam and their volunteers operated 57 boats during the rescue mission, and about 384 men from the community actively participated in the five-day rescue drive.

This group, alone, saved more than 60,000 people on the first days as their individual teams were able to perform 15-plus trips in a day, said Seamon. 

They have used the Channel 10 of wireless communication to coordinate between them in the rescue field, which in turn helped them not only for effective coordination but also to locate and save all lives from the disaster field.

The rescued people from Kuttanad and Upper Kuttanad were safely dropped at Karumadi, from where they were all reallocated to various relief camps in Alappuzha and Kollam districts.

There wasn’t any Government mechanism to manage this rescue operation in Karumadi other than one Mr Manoj — who is a Ward Member from Karumadi, they say.

Group help 250,000 people 

The Azheekal Araya Samajam group completed the mission in five days’ time and their timely intervention saved more than 250,000 people.

Almost all boats used in this rescue operation were damaged due to the wear and tear. However they don’t have any complaints about as they believe that saving the lives of 254,000 people is much higher than any cost. 

All the arrangements for fuel, oil, food and water were made without external support, hence their overall expense for this rescue mission could run into more than 1 million rupees (around Dh52,000).

This group of fishermen know the value of lives as they have gone through two major natural calamities, including tsunami of 2004 and Ockhi cyclone in recent past.

They don't expect any monetary compensation for the selfless act.

Grievance: A clash of narratives

They have one big grievance, though: They feel neglected by the authorities.

They say they have been deliberately sidelined from the function conducted by government of Kerala that honoured only the fishermen from Thiruvananthapuram for flood rescue work.

KC Sreekumar, Environmental activist and President of Coastal Protection Society, said that this discrimination is aimed at dividing the fishermen community along communal lines.

Some people at the top are afraid of the unity among fishermen, he said. 

The government wants only its own narrative of the flood rescue operations to be in the limelight, hence this treatment towards Araya Samajam workers, he said.