Kerala floods give way to stench and uncertainty

Bhuvan BAGGA
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More than 400 people have died since the monsoon deluge hit Kerala

The overpowering stench that fills the air in the Kerala town of Aluva is an inescapable reminder that while the filthy floodwaters may subside, the full toll of the devastating monsoon deluge will take time to emerge.

The rain had barely stopped falling in the town on the outskirts of the southern Indian state's main city, Kochi, and abandoned cars, sodden furniture and mattresses filled the streets while dirty black water still flowed above knee-level.

A foul smell greeted people arriving at the Union Christian College, where classrooms and halls became a relief camp for up to 4,000 at the peak of the floods.

Some have started to leave. Residents who remain speculated that the stench was from rubbish and dead cats, dogs and rats –- or worse.

"Maybe it's human," said one survivor.

More than 400 people have died since heavy rain hit Kerala in recent weeks, triggering deadly landslides and submerging entire villages as rivers burst their banks.

"This smell is of five days without a bath," said Savita Saha, one of the migrants in the big hall. There are long queues at the school's few toilets and no bathroom to wash in.

"Everyone here is wearing the clothes they had when they escaped," she said, squeezed onto a jute mat with her husband, who works at a cashew factory in Kochi.

In one classroom Rasitha Sojith, from the nearby neighbourhood of Kaprassery, sobbed as she told how she escaped through chest-high waters carrying her two-month-old son.

Sojith said water burst into her home without warning last Wednesday while her father and sister, with her three children, were visiting to see the new baby.

"With water rising fast, we only grabbed a few clothes for the baby and went to the first-floor terrace of the neighbour's house," she said.

Torrential rain fell for hours and they grew increasingly fearful of becoming trapped, until local fishermen rowed the family to safety the next day.

"Everything is lost. Everything! We don't even have money to go back to our neighbourhood," said Sojith.

"I don't think we will be leaving this camp any time soon."

- Muddy rubble -

An estimated 725,000 people are crammed into similar makeshift camps across Kerala.

Authorities have given a provisional damage toll of $3 billion but the extent of the destruction is likely to prove much greater, some officials and legislators say.

In the Malikampeedika area of Kochi, Mumthaz, who goes by one name, found the smell waiting for her when she returned home.

"This muddy rubble and stench is all that is left of our memories," Mumthaz told AFP, as she dragged out mud-caked mattresses and a sofa set, damaged utensils and even her daughters' school awards.

As word spread of flood warnings, Mumthaz had taken her two daughters on Thursday to the home of her parents-in-law in another neighbourhood.

But floodwater soon surged through their house as well and the whole family had to be rescued.

"It was surreal. The water was close to the knees at one point and within a few minutes it was touching five feet, with a current so strong that we saw big cars floating like tin cans," she said.

With her husband searching for work in Dubai, Mumthaz knows she will struggle to look after her daughters, with the family facing an uncertain future after the nightmare of the floods.

"There is no kitchen, electricity and water here. I don't know how long it will take before I will be back... (in) my home," she said.