I would like to begin this post with a disclaimer. I was in Kerala (precisely on my way to Munnar) last week when the floods broke out. Luckily, unlike many tourists I know of, I was safe, and sound, and protected. Indeed, looking at the situation around me, I was living in luxury. However, this one week of living right in the midst of the chaos showed me a lot of sides to the situation and the locals. And unfortunately for me, the one thing that caught my attention was the seeming apathy by Kerala Tourism. The second biggest grouse I continue to hold is against the airlines and also the authorities. As I set out to write this and voice my opinions, I know I will draw a lot of flak. But I would like to mention right at the beginning that this is my personal opinion derived after being present on ground zero and you are free to contradict or disagree with what I have to say.
Dear Kerala Tourism,
You’re f*cked, I know. Your mater, God’s Own Land, is now at the mercy of God’s Hands.
I know this first hand because I was a tourist. Caught right in the middle of the fury. Yes, I was in Kerala during the floods, at the worst of the moments. And I have nothing to say to you except this.
When I set out to plan my trip, my aim was simple – a short visit to Munnar for rolling hills and the beauty. When the Neelakurinji blooming news filtered in, it added another layer of excitement to the plans. Checking the different weather apps showed me “Sunny Skies” or “Light Showers”. Nothing to faze a Mumbai-raised girl. And so, the show was on. The ticket was booked and so was an AirBnb home right in the heart of a tea-estate in Chinnakal, overlooking a lake. It was pure, unadulterated excitement. August 14 was the D-Day and the weeks couldn’t pass by quicker.
Precisely one week before I was to set out on the trip, rains unleashed their fury on the state. Most of the districts in Kerala were on Red Alert. On Thursday, August 09, Kochi airport (where I was to land some 6-odd days later), was shut for 2 hours owing to overflowing of the Periyar river the airport is situated next to. But naturally I panicked. I was in a double mind about the trip. Then commenced the long, agonising wait of ‘to go or not to go’. Cancelling meant being heart-broken as well as losing out on a lot of money as all my bookings – flights, stay, cultural shows, safaris, tours, transport were already made and some non-refundable.
— Kerala Tourism (@KeralaTourism) August 9, 2018
^ This tweet came the day Kochi airport shut for 2 hours owing to flood water!
Right from Friday, August 10, I was in touch with representatives of all the above mentioned places. I constantly checked Kerala Tourism pages on social media channels. I connected with the Punarjani Traditional Village team (Munnar) over call. I was constantly chatting with my host over WhatsApp regarding the situation. Everyone told me to give it a couple of days and things would be back to normal. The buses were plying to and from Kochi to Munnar and around. Tourists were visiting places. The Eravikulam Park safaris were on. All in all, a couple of days and the situation would be back to normal they said and it seemed sensible to me. Why?
I’m from Mumbai. Mumbai sinks each year – and that’s putting it mildly. But within 2 days we’re back on our feet, the incident forgotten. Also, if a part is affected, does not mean the entire city is. It was the same logic my brain applied to the situation in Kerala.
And soon, by Sunday, August 11, the situation began to improve. The rains had subsided and the water was clearing up. The roadways were opened and state-run buses were plying at normal times. Everyone then called/messaged/emailed me and asked me to not cancel my trip as everything seemed normal.
Mind you, I WAS still constantly in touch with the representatives from all the above mentioned places and everyone constantly assured me all was fine.
“Everything is now fine. Little little rain is there. But bus is running. You can come.” This was the standard response. And so, a little heartened (and also checking the weather app which showed me “Occassional Heavy Shower”) I made my way here.
In all this, there was NOT ONE advisory by Kerala Tourism requesting tourists to stay away. US Tourism Dept issued a warning asking citizens to stay away from Kerala. But Kerala Tourism? Their Twitter timeline was, and still is, filled with tweets welcoming people to Wayanad, Kovalam, and house-boats. There still hasn’t been any advisory from them. The posts talking of “solidarity” began much after August 18 – when the roads had begun to clear and the rains had decided to wreck havoc somewhere else.
My flight on August 14 was on time – indeed it landed early and there was no turbulence I faced. The moment I landed, my first stop was Kerala Tourism kiosk at the airport. I asked the guy at the airport how to get to Munnar and more importantly, whether it was safe to get to Munnar. And he replied in the affirmative. He charted multiple options for me – buses I could take and which would get me there quickest. I called my host once again to check the situation and all was fine he assured me.
— Kerala Tourism (@KeralaTourism) August 13, 2018
^ This tweet right when the situation supposedly improved.
I went outside and again checked with the authorities at the bus-stop as to the situation. Once again, I was told it’s all fine and buses are playing on time and I could go. I reached the KSRTC stand at Aluva and checked up with the folks there too. Same response. At about 13.30, I boarded the bus and everything was smooth. There were some odd drizzles but nothing too drastic. I happily dozed off.
I woke up right on the outskirts of Munnar with multiple missed calls from my host. And then, the nightmare began. He informed me that the gates to Mattupetty Dam in Munnar were opened without any warning or any notice and Munnar was entirely flooded. There was no way I could get there. He asked me to pass the phone to the conductor – who was also clueless about the dam opening business and simply passed the phone back to me.
I was in a flurry and looking at me – a girl tourist trying to communicate with someone/anyone – all jumped in. Except for 1 person, all were clueless about the situation as it was so sudden and unexpected. My host meanwhile called me and asked me to get down at a small town Adimali, some 20-kms before Munnar as Munnar was completely inaccessible. The bus locals still refused to believe me as their family members in Munnar did not inform them of anything (later we realised it was so sudden for the locals, except for a few in the know that there was no time to send notices) and there was nothing on the news. Trying to reach the different helpline numbers mentioned all over yielded no results. No one seemed to know Munnar was sinking till late in the afternoon by when it was too late.
Tons of tourists like me, lured there by lack of accurate communication and information were trapped. I was lucky to be in a completely safe zone with access to all amenities – which at that point of time were luxuries. But not everyone was lucky. And in all this, again, no word from Kerala Tourism or any of the officials. Except the local Kerala MET website warning people of the rains, there was not one single message informing people of the Mattupetty dam opening and the resultant nightmare.
Wishing everyone lots of sunshine and happiness on Chingam 1, the Malayalam New Year. pic.twitter.com/JzLKw0FRhQ
— Kerala Tourism (@KeralaTourism) August 17, 2018
^ Right in the middle of the time the state was gripped by the worst floods.
Opening of more dams soon led to more flooding and Kochi getting submerged. With my little town Adimali cut off on the right from Munnar and on the left from Kochi, there was nothing to do but stay put. Holed up with the other tourists, we kept checking alternatives. Soon, news filtered in that Kochi would be shut till August 26!
Then began the second nightmare. Checking with my airline as to the status was even more frustrating. They offered me a flight reschedule – for the same date! They could not extend it any further. Even though the airport was shut, Indigo did not offer me any reschedule from another airport close by. They did say that they would give me a flight but from Kochi only and after August 29! I was still in discussion with them when soon, without my consent, I received a flight cancellation message – with charges (Rs 400) deducted. In all this, still no advisory or assistance by Kerala Tourism!
The flight rates out of 4 major airports nearby Kochi – Coimbatore, Kozhikode, Madurai, Trivandrum have been soaring despite an advisory from DCGA. When I tried booking my flight out for August 21, morning rates showed me approx. Rs 4,000 one-way. But by evening, the rates went up to Rs 9,000 for the same flight! Sure, it is the festive season. Sure, the demand is high owing to the disaster and closing of Kochi. But isn’t there some authority clamping down on this exploitation by airliners? Yes, it is us ‘privileged’ folks who can afford flights who book them. But no, I refuse to pay Rs 9,000 for one-way when the normal rates are Rs 3,000! And if it is entirely in the airline’s hands, why do we even have authorities like DCGA and Ministry of Civil Aviation? Why can’t the authorities stop making the most of a situation and try and help?
Yes, I admit the priority is those stuck in floods. And those who have lost their livelihoods. But perhaps if there were more services and additional flights/cheaper rates, even those who normally would not think of flights will be able to get away from the situation easier and quicker. With so many tourists stuck there – oh, and let me repeat – through NO FAULT of theirs as they were welcomed till the last minute except being asked to stay away – having an efficient and cheap airline at such times will reduce the burden on the state too.
Sure there are people blaming our sensibility but hey, wasn’t it the responsibility of Tourism Kerala and all associated channels to issue an advisory and ask tourists to stay away as they planned on opening dams without rains? Or if not an open advisory, informing them to cancel when the tourists called to check up instead of welcoming them? NOT posting about sunny beaches in Kovalam? Not looting trapped tourists under the guise of “festive season” and “last minute charges”? Can have some sensitivity and responsibility from you, the authorities please?