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After Kerala floods, Indian nuns worked to prevent farmers’ suicide

02 Jan 2019 – By Saji Thomas, Catholic News Service

COCHIN, India (CNS) — Ouseph Pappachan, a physically challenged farmer in flood-ravaged Kerala, said he and his wife are alive now because of Sister Regin Mathew.

Pappachan was among more than 1 million people who took refuge in relief camps as unprecedented floods battered 12 of Kerala state’s 14 districts during July and August, overwhelming the region’s dams.

“I did not feel like living after floods destroyed all I had. But the sister convinced me there is life beyond such personal tragedies,” Pappachan, a Catholic, told Global Sisters Report.

Sister Mathew, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate, recalled finding Pappachan suffering from severe anxiety after the floods washed away his coffee trees, vegetables and cash crops on his half acre of land.

“I told him that he can recover everything provided he did not give up. We also promised him our help to restart life,” she said.

Since 2000, hundreds of depressed farmers in Pappachan’s district of Kerala state committed suicide, said a priest in charge of Kerala relief efforts for the church. Recent suicides mostly are attributed to flooding woes, but earlier ones have been due to factors like crop failure and debt.

In late November, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the state legislative assembly that the state lost about $4.36 billion because of the floods.

Incessant rains, pushing water levels above the danger marks, forced Kerala to open 35 of its 58 dams in a frantic move that left no time to evacuate people before the onslaught. Authorities, who were waiting for the monsoons to subside, said the dams were close to bursting, and they were left with no other choice. Nearly 2,000 landslides in two hilly districts added to the state’s misery. The floodwaters damaged 75,000 houses and submerged more than 111,000 acres of farmland.

At least 474 people died in the floods, most of them when the deluge was worst from 15 to 20 August, said Father George Vettikattil, who heads the relief operations under the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The floods affected more than 5.41 million people, he estimated, based on data from various jurisdictions.

Kerala’s 32 Catholic dioceses deployed more than 200,000 volunteers for rescue, relief and rehabilitation work among those affected. They managed camps, distributed food and supplies, mobilized fishermen to rescue stranded people and cleaned houses.

“We worked together to restore people who were at a crossroads,” Father Vettikattil told Global Sisters Report, but he credited women religious for playing a crucial role of bringing hope to flood victims.

Sister Mathew said she was shocked when she heard that 15 farmers in one district died by suicide because of the recent floods. “There was an urgent need for the church to intervene to boost the farmers’ morale,” she said.

She visited farmers’ houses to console families affected by suicide and to identify those under stress. “We help them rebuild their shattered lives,” she explained.

Even local civic bodies sought the church volunteers’ help.

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