The echoes of a tragedy from another age: Kerala's great flood of 1924

Rescue officials assist villagers out of a flooded area following heavy monsoon rainfall, near Kochi | Photo: PTI
The torrential rainfall in 1924 washed away villages, hills and caused devastation so extreme that the events of the monsoons etched itself in the region's psyche for generations to come.

Its imprint is seen in literature, producing works such as Thakazhi’s Vellappokkathil (In the Flood). 

The story spoke of the flood waters rising to upper levels of the temple tower crammed with “sixty-seven children…three hundred and fifty-six adults and domestic animals like dogs, cats, goats, fowl…,” imageries of 1924 etched in public memory and imagination. The losses were huge.

Manu S. Pillai in his historical account of Travancore ‘Ivory Throne’ quotes from a Munnar Flood Relief Deputation report, he notes that ‘500 houses, 200 coconut gardens, 1000 acres of land and 6,40,000 kilograms of grain had been lost in the vicinity of that one central Travancore hamlet alone.’  These are accounts from just one of several hundreds of such committees formed during the event, called the 'flood of '99' (it was the year 1099 by the Malayalam Calendar).

The events didn’t occur at the best time for its people.  Mulam Tirunal, the reformist Maharajah of Travancore, had passed away the same year, after an ailment. It was up to Dewan T Raghavaiah to lead the efforts, aided by Sethu Lakshmi Bayi - the newly crowned Regent, who would hold the throne until the next heir was of age. He was only eleven years old at the time.

The situation that faced Kerala and its people was dire.

“In fact, in all places affected by the floods, the elements were seen to be in war with man. He has no dry earth to stand on, no good water to drink and no fire to cook,” said a government report of the time quoted in a paper entitled ‘A Travancore Model in Disaster Management: Ducebat Viam for the Current Times’ (by Sebastian Joseph, Assistant Professor, U C College Aluva,  and Lekha Pillai, Assistant Professor, NSS College, Pandalam)
  
The government formed partnerships with the local population to better deal with the deluge, minimising casualties despite being crippled by the technology of the time. There were limited means of communication in 1924; a lot depended on different institutions came together – be it public, private or religious, which they managed to do admirably said Lekha Pillai.  

Evacuations and relief-work continued in coordinated manner as the floodwaters rose but their efforts didn’t stop there. The devastation the waters left in their wake was just as monumental a challenge.

The Travancore throne responded with financial support and immediate works towards reconstruction.

Agricultural loans were announced to the tune of over Rs.550,000. The interest rates were 6.25 per cent. This was further cut to six per cent and lower under the Rani’s orders. Each person was given a loan of up to Rs 500. This works out to around five times or more of the annual income of the average Indian at the time

Similar amounts were allocated to the Public Works Department to repair roads and infrastructure, much of which was laid to waste. Some of it though never recovered. 

The rail system in Kundala Valley was a pioneering example of rail transport in the country. It had a monorail system which had already progressed to a light railway by as early 1908. The great flood of 1924 utterly ruined it. It was never rebuilt and whatever remained eventually disappeared around the time of the Second World War. (https://bit.ly/2MmSSyR)

In an oddly prescient speech, Kerala Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac remembered the great flood of 1924 in his budget address delivered on February 2nd, 2018.

“Climate change opens up challenges of even unheard of disasters…We must take all precautions for meeting these.  The largest natural calamity recorded in the history of modern  Kerala was  ‘the flood of 99’. The  Travancore Government had taken immediate measures and formulated long-term policies in this regard,” he said

He spoke about how the government had similarly dealt with the recent Ochki cyclone, and the need for long term disaster management plans. He could not have highlighted a more pressing matter.

What happened in August came after Kerala received 42% excess rainfall as of 19th August 2018. It was 72% above the long-term mean in 1924

The need for better governance and planned land use policies to mitigate the effects of such disasters seem necessary. There has previously been considerable resistance to preserving the biodiversity of the Western Ghats from the government itself.

“The embargo on new hydro-electric projects and the conditions imposed on them are unacceptable to the States of Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu,” noted the report of the High-Level Working Group on the Western Ghats chaired by Planning Commission Member K Kasturirangan.

News reports indicate that the previous (and stricter) Gadgil committee report was even more unacceptable. 

Perhaps, as a result, the caution advised in the reports seem to have had little impact on economic activity on the ground. Mining, quarrying and illegal constructions are among the things which have contributed to the severity of the crises, according to A. S. K. Nair, Emeritus Scientist & Program Director at the Thiruvananthapuram-based research body Centre for Environment and Development (CED).

“All these constructions have come up in the mid-to-low-land region because of which the water doesn’t have (a) way to go down…the water doesn’t know that you have constructed houses and multi-story buildings in all these places. It will always move through the places where it would earlier,” he said. 

The destruction of natural biodiversity played a role in the destruction of 1924 too.

Lekha Pillai, Assistant Professor at NSS College Pandalam noted that tea plantations had begun to make their presence felt for decades by then. A lot of the land was also cleared for teak plantations, which were to supply wood for ship-building and to meet military needs. Monoculture areas such as these are less able to handle flowing water during periods such as the heavy rains seen in August. The water carried down large portions of land.  “In Munnar, the hills came down to the valleys,” she said.  

Not so different from 2018.


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