The turn of events following heavy rains has exposed the state govt’s indifference.
New Delhi: For the third consecutive year, August has come to haunt Kerala. Other than the fury of the rain gods, this time a plane crash has added to the woes. It was in the second week of August 2018 that Kerala witnessed the wrath of nature in the form of a deluge, perhaps after a hundred years, leaving behind a trail of destruction and sorrow from which the state is yet to recover. Then again on 8 August 2019, the state was struck by one of the worst landslides till that date in a place named Kavalappara in the northern Malappuram district which claimed over 50 lives. Almost to the date, another landslide has now struck. At least 18 persons were killed and 53 trapped under debris after heavy rain triggered a landslide on Thursday night at Rajamala near Munnar in Idukki district, the other end of Kerala. A row of workers’ quarters, layams in Malayalam, of the Kannan Devan tea gardens was buried in the landslide. A minimum of 80 people were sleeping in those layams when the tragedy struck. With a vital bridge and roads leading to Rajamala from Munnar and communication networks washed away in the downpour, the outside world came to know of it only Friday morning.
Though state Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan claimed that “the landslide at Rajamala was unexpected as that area had not been identified as prone to landslide” the ensuing hours proved that the state was least prepared for another fearsome rainy season despite two consecutive years of experience. Lack of equipment, inadequate preparedness and incessant rains hampered rescue operations even as rivers started overflowing, submerging towns in Kottayam, Ernakulam and Pathanamthitta in central Kerala. Red alert has been declared in Idukki, Malappuram and Wayanad districts. Elsewhere, the situation remains grim as the skies continue to open up.
As the day petered out and dusk set in on Friday, tragedy struck at Karippur in Malappuram district which houses the Calicut International Airport. As we go to the press, at least 19 people have died, including the pilot and his second in-command, when an Air India Express flight from Dubai skidded off the table-top runway in the heavy downpour at around 7.45 in the evening. The plane had apparently gone off the hilltop runway, referred to as table-top ones as they are levelled out of hills, and nosedived 35 feet down into the valley. The runway is surrounded by deep gorges on both sides. The plane broke into three; one the fuselage up to the front door, the next 10 rows of seats and the rest of the plane. It is a miracle that the plane did not go up in flames. Perhaps the rain was both the killer and the saviour. A minimum of hundred people, many of them said to be in serious condition, are admitted to various hospitals in and around Kozhikode city. The flight was part of the Vande Bharat mission bringing expatriates from UAE as part of the Covid-19 evacuation programme. Most of the passengers, all Keralites, belonged to the ordinary middle class of which 54 were stranded in Dubai for various reasons. The rest included those who lost jobs, those with expired visas and children and pregnant women. An air traffic control official at Calicut airport has been quoted as saying “It had been raining incessantly for several hours. The flight went around the airport twice and then tried to land,” which turned out to be disastrous. The deceased Commanding officer Deepak Sathe was a former IAF test pilot and had joined AI 10 years ago. Many say that his alertness helped reduce the quantum of the tragedy.
Both the landslide and the plane crash point fingers to human error. It has now been pointed out that Calicut Airport had been served a show-cause notice by the Director General of Civil Aviation in June 2019 over “significant safety concerns”.
The aviation regulator’s inspection at the airport had revealed “excessive rubber deposits” apart from cracks on the runway. Moreover, experts had apparently warned both the aviation ministry and the regulator about the dangers of permitting passenger aircraft to land on this particular runway during rains. It looks like nothing has been learnt from the crash, once again involving Air India Express from Dubai, in May 2010 in Mangalore airport in nearby Karnataka.
Mangalore, too, has a table-top runway and 158 of the total 160 passengers perished in the crash. Though the pilot was largely blamed for the crash, it also exposed the vulnerability of hill top runways, especially in inclement weather conditions. In case of Calicut, too, there was a long standing demand for extending the runway, work on which was stalled due to protests from locals who refused to part with their land. It is an irony that the same people from nearby Kondotti were the heroes in Friday’s rescue operation. They helped transport all the injured from the spot to hospitals in record one-and-a-half hours.
It will only be a matter of hours before the Centre and state government to cross swords over the responsibility for the accident. Even the Governor of Kerala, a former member of the BJP and a critic of the present Left Front government in the state, has rushed to the spot, something unheard of in the past.
Likewise, in the case of the floods ravaging the state, it is clear that the much hyped Rebuild Kerala, a programme meant to salvage the state from the 2018 deluge, is just another gimmick by the ruling clique to fool the public. Crores have been collected in the name of the programme, but the government has steadfastly refused to give any information regarding the implementation of the project.
Instead money has been spent hiring helicopters at exorbitant rates and holding propaganda shows such as the Loka Kerala Sabha to help expatriate Malayalis. Another opportunity is lying in wait for the ruling CPM to launch yet another fund-raising drive in the name of the landslide victims. And life goes on till the rain gods strike again.