After the deluge, rebuilding the printing industry in Kerala

By 20 Feb 2019

Raju N Kutty, treasurer, Kerala Master Printers Association (KMPA), narrates in prescient details the first-hand account of the Kerala floods during July-August 2018, and how the printing community worked towards rebuilding the industry

By all means, the third week of August 2018 was unforgettable. It was a week of intense confusion, fear and then relief, and pretty much every emotion in between. At the end of it all, it was also a week of self-discovery and discovering what really matters. 

By the mid of July 2018, we had reshuffled roles after the KMPA annual general body meeting held on 14 July. Responsibilities moved around and suddenly I found myself in the role of the treasurer. My close friends and colleagues Gopan Chettan and Biju Chettan are now the president and secretary respectively. We were getting familiarised with our new roles and were in the process of reshuffling responsibilities when disaster struck.

By mid-July, we could see that the monsoon this year was unusually ferocious. Kochi was waterlogged and some of us suffered inventory losses as flood water entered our godowns. One of our members, Arun of Akhil Agencies, had a brand new Toyota Innova Crysta and it was completely destroyed when water entered his parking lot. The streets of Kochi that day reminded me of Chennai in 2015. Still, waterlogging was not an unusual sight for us in Kerala and we took it in our strides. But what happened next was more than we ever expected.

The fury of water

On 15 August, I had an annual staff meet at my company in Thrissur. By then, ominous reports of the impending opening of Idukki dam were doing the rounds. We did not know the impending impact and were joking about running away before the water reaches us. 

As the day ended, it was not just Idukki, but dams all over the country were being opened. We started hearing about dams like Bhoothathankettu Idamalayar, Upper Sholayar and what not. Chalakudy also became a point of fear like the areas around Periyar. 

As we drove into Thrissur, the Periyar at Aluva and the Chalakudy rivers looked menacingly close to the bridge I was driving on. You could almost stand on the bridge and touch the river below. I felt uneasy thinking about the drive back to Kochi. And all the while, it was raining.

On our drive back, we encountered sights which were positively frightening. At Chalakudy, Koratty we could see water all around. The national highway started to look like a bridge. We saw auto showrooms, supermarkets inundated all the way through from Chalakudy right up to Kochi city. By this time, Kochi airport was flooded and was shut down.

All these sights still did not prepare us for the news the next day. My wife Meenakshi woke me up with the anxious news that the whole of Aluva is flooded with the waters of the Periyar. I hurriedly put on the news on TV and what I saw was grim. In its mad flow from the dams, the Periyar just formed new branches whenever its flow was obstructed.

By the time, it had formed about eight new branches, forming new rivers. The existing tributaries brimmed over and formed new paths on its way, flooding roads, houses and whatever else was in the way. People were stuck in their houses, calling each other in panic. The affected areas covered pretty much the entire state. The scale of the devastation was staggering. Landslides in all the hilly areas were the major reason for fatalities.

My phone was ringing off the hook by now, with relatives, friends, cousins calling frantically. In between the various calls, I received a call from my friend and KMPA secretary Biju Chettan. “Raju,” he said, “Did you know, Unni Chettan is stuck in his house.” I was like, what! How is he stuck? He replied, “There is a river flowing right outside his house. The water has reached his first floor.”

I was shocked — water up to his first floor! Unni Chettan and his family were marooned. We started looking at the news channels where WhatsApp numbers of armed forces and rescue teams were being circulated. It, however, proved to be very difficult as all numbers were continuously engaged. By this time, there was a frenzy of phone calls, people missing, appeals, going all around. 

By now, water in the Perandoor canal in our neighbourhood was also inching up. The water was all muddied and there were helicopters hovering all around with the sound of impending doom. 

We were stuck the whole day with nothing to do, wondering when the power would go off, and what the building would look like if we were to be marooned the next day. The Perandoor canal, which usually flows peacefully, suddenly assumed a menacing look. In between, we heard the navy officers confidentially inform there will be torrential rains in the next three days and Kochi will soon be under water. Neighbours started to leave for safer locations.

The next day, we decided to venture out. By the time, news came that Unni Chettan was rescued, by a group of fisherman who used a motorised boat to get to his house. The fury of the water was such that the fishermen had to tie the boat in between two trees to steady it while the rescue was going on.  

The devastation that followed

Along with Biju Chettan, Venu Sir, Rajesh Sir and Haridas, we went to the Cochin University Metro station to receive Unni Chettan and his family, who were coming into the city from their place of rescue in Aluva. Rajesh Sir and Hari Chettan were already there and Unni Chettan had left for his cousin’s place. 

Then we received the sinking news. At least 13 printing companies were completely submerged, and there may be many more. Rajsree Printers at Edayar Industrial Area was completely cut off from human contact and Rajesh Sir, who owns Rajsree Printers, was a worried man. We decided to try to visit Rajsree Printers and ascertain the damage.

On the way, what we saw was surreal. There were rivers flowing right through the container road, and in all sorts of places in between. We saw trucks submerged all the way to the top, cars damaged; it looked like a war zone. There were ambulances going all round with sirens blazing, trucks carrying people who looked forlorn, ragged.  

We reached a dead-end as the nearby river had submerged the road and traffic was held up. We turned and tried to take another route and met with the same fate. The same river was flowing over there as well. It was a jarring sight to see a river flowing right through a national highway.

Water tends to attain equilibrium by flowing from high to lower. If this flow is obstructed, it just flows into the next low-lying area and attains equilibrium. This is the simple law of science we studied in primary school. Now, we were witnessing it happen to a devastating effect.  

Other than worrying about things, there was nothing much we could do. We started to plan things. We realised that our members were in deep trouble and we were going to have long days ahead. By this time, we had come to know the companies which were submerged and among them were our best friends, SN Printing Press in Aluva and Sterling Print House in Edappally. There were more to come — Cochin Printech in Edayar Industrial Area, Nirmala Printers and Publishers, Divine Printers and Publishers, National Printers, Perumbavoor and many more. We decided to immediately inform the major stakeholders in the industry, machine manufacturers, their agents, the IPAMA, the AIFMP, and other regional affiliate printing associations. 

In the time of crisis

In times of crisis, communication is the key. Everybody needs to know what is happening and what is being done to address the happenings. We were doing this through phone calls and most of us were on the phone pretty much all the time. We spent the days speaking to friends, business partners, key employees, relatives, neighbours. These were times of deep friendship and sharing with neighbours. My Neighbour and friend Jayakrishnan Chettan was always a man with a plan. He asked, “Raju, if we have to leave, which direction you think we should go?”

I was stumped to realise that I had not considered this scenario before. By the weekend, the road to the north was completely closed as Aluva, Angamali, Chalakudy were cut off. Trains were not running. So we could not leave through the north. To the east, Idukki region was cut off. You couldn’t go west to the Arabian Sea. That left the south. The only way to go was to Alleppey. This again looked risky as the Pampa was in a spate. Toughing it out in the building looked like the only way. Another day without rain could result in the water receding. Hopefully.

The nights were spent in anxiety as the Perandoor canal continued to rise. I could see it from my flat and by the weekend, I was finding it difficult to sleep, imagining the condition of the building the next day if the Perandoor canal engulfed the region.  

Thankfully, by Saturday morning, water started to recede and we were able to go around the Edayar Industrial Area. It was a stunning sight and we saw industrial units, factories completely submerged by one of the tributaries of Periyar.

By this time, the entire city was busy in relief operations. IAS officers, movie stars, prominent businessmen, political leaders all rose up to the occasion and started working in earnest to collect relief material and distribute them around.

Our members Manmohan Ji, Shaji Manjooran Sir, Yeldho Sir, and Nizar Ebrahim Sir were seen tirelessly working at relief camps across the city. My friend Biju Chettan made an interesting observation: “We were losing hope in the youngsters of today, the so called ‘freakans’ who are always into attention seeking and not able to think beyond themselves. But in this time of crisis, they were the ones to rise up to the occasion. This has rekindled our faith in the new generation.”

We personally went around some relief camps, distributing relief material like food items, medicines, clothes, and other essentials. Shopkeepers were providing discounts on their wares. Kochi Metro, the private buses were plying free of charge. The whole city of Kochi geared up to handle the crisis and this was the main reason that the state was able to handle the crisis situation the way it did. If Kochi city was also submerged, the story would have been different.

After the deluge

On the first weekday after 15 August, we still were not able to properly open our companies and resume operations. After a quick executive committee meeting, we decided to embark on a field trip to meet all the affected printing companies about whom we had information. 

We pushed off straight to Chalakudy with a pit-stop at SN Printers in Aluva. We had to wade through water to reach there. This printing press was the nearest to the Periyar and Sajeevan Chettan was one of the worst affected. Sajeevan Chettan is usually a man of supreme confidence, having built up his business from scratch over a period of three decades. Even after seeing his life’s work swept away by the marauding waters, he was still undefeated in spirit. Just a few hours before the water swept into his press, he had spoken to KMPA president Gopan Chettan, who advised him to quickly leave the place to safety. From his sister’s place in Thripunithura, Sajeevan Chettan returned to Aluva and was helping rescue friends and neighbours who were stuck in various places. He was doing this, knowing that his own company was submerged. And furthermore, he had a new Komori four-colour machine installed just a month back. 

Seeing Sajeevan Chettan’s company in such a state was simply shocking. We were struggling for words to comfort him. The water had receded but dirt and debris was all around. Seeing a printing shopfloor in such a condition can paralyse anybody. 

Our next stop was Nirmala Printers and Divine Printers at Chalakudy. Both had the same experience as SN Printers. The machine room of Divine Printers was inaccessible as people were sure there could even be snakes stuck inside. Cleaning up the place alone would take a couple of months. Rajan sir of Nirmala Printers had a Komori Lithrone 40, which is just two years old. He said, “I cannot bear seeing an operator accidentally spill a drop of ink on this machine…” Then he smiled, hiding the pain that welled up inside. I was at a loss for words. 

We also visited SD Graphics at Chalakudy, a material supplier, whose godown was flooded and stocks destroyed. At National Printers in Perumbavoor, they had a police warning that the Idukki dam shutters were opened and the waters were about to reach at midnight. All their neighbours and even school children helped them hurriedly move the raw material to a vehicle and then sped off to a safer location.

On the way back, we started planning on mobilising support for these affected printers. We drafted detailed emails to various trade bodies, machine manufacturers, dealers apprising them of the unfolding disaster and requesting support. Each communication was meticulously prepared, taking into account the support we request to the addressee.

It filled our heart to see support flow in generously. All the machine manufacturers responded swiftly, deputing their engineers on a war footing to inspect the affected print units, prepare repair estimates, and so on. Almost all of them decided to waive off service charges for these trips and offered spares at discounted prices to help the printers cope. Insurance surveys were also being done on a war footing. We personally helped some of our members during their surveys, helping them prepare letters, take photographs and similar errands. Personal phone calls were made to printers in Chennai who had prior experience handling a flood situation. 

Lesson learned

Here are the few things, we learned at the time.

1. Do not immediately clean your place. Take detailed photographs and videos first. Prepare a report of what you saw. 
2. Send the report with photographs to your insurance provider with read report. Meet them personally, apprise them of the situation and request immediate survey. Cleaning of premise should be done only after survey is completed and survey report is generated.
3. Do not attempt to switch on any machine without the presence and go ahead of the service engineer of that manufacturer. This is to be followed even if the machine looks unaffected because there could be short circuits damaging the electronic controls.

The technical part of our flood relief work was handled by my colleague and friend Rajesh Sir, who was also our past secretary. Rajesh sir is also a passionate engineer and enjoys working on machines. This engineering skill came in handy for KMPA during this assignment, as he was able to personally handhold suffering members in coordinating with service engineers and getting machines up and running.

We also put up a committee headed by our mentor and guide Pradeep Kulakkada sir. The committee would help printers outsource their jobs to other printers so that no affected printer would lose his customer. The identity of all parties would be kept confidential for obvious reasons.

We also embarked on a major fund raising drive to financially help our affected members and we were glad to see that all our fellow printers, associations, friends and relatives came forward with generous donations and KMPA was able to make a difference to the suffering members financially, in addition to the technical and emotional support that we could provide. 

Many of our printer members exhibited exemplary grit and determination in getting their companies back together. Sterling Print House is a case in point. When I visited my friend Venu Chettan at Sterling, it was on the day of Thiruvonam, a day when Kerala would otherwise be celebrating with Pookkalams, traditional Kerala attire and feasts. The team at Sterling was instead busy cleaning up the plant on the day. Huge number of machine motors had to be removed, dried and re-varnished. Drives had to be removed, dried with hot air and then tested for continuity. If damaged, they have to be replaced. A single machine breakdown can throw things haywire and I was imagining the magnitude of an exercise where close to 50 machines are down.

Venuji himself was sitting over his invoices, helping his team to prepare the necessary paperwork, signing purchase orders for spare parts, helping with insurance documentation and so on. When I asked him about his lunch, he said he is having lunch with his staff. For me that was an Onam lesson to remember. Be there for your team and they will be there for you. 

The experiences we had during the whole episode were worth its weight in gold. On many of those days, we were doing the association work in the morning and our company work in the afternoons. 

Most of us realised the value of our team and staff. Clichéd as it sounds, a committed team is pretty much the only asset you have. If you don’t have a team, all the machines you might have are worth nothing. This would be our biggest take away from the flood experience.

My friend Jayakrishnan Chettan jokingly mentioned, “If you want to buy land then now is probably the best time. The area which doesn’t get flooded now would be worth its price. Everything else is just a bubble.”  I couldn’t help wondering about all the builders who were charging a premium for waterfront villas and apartments. What this can do to their business is anybody’s guess. 

And last, but not the least, we learnt how little we actually knew about insurance. Without proper insurance, we are pretty much sitting on a volcano. Some of our takeaways:

1. If your asset is under-insured, your repair claims are going to be processed proportionately. For example, if you insure a machine worth Rs 1-crore for Rs 50-lakh, then you are underinsured to the tune of 50%. When you submit a repair bill, expect your claim to be reimbursed to the tune of 50%.

2. Your claim will only be to the tune of written down value of your asset. In case it is a machine, this can get tricky if you are to go for a complete replacement.

3. In the above scenario you have the option of insuring ‘Replacement Clause’, wherein you can take out a fresh proforma invoice for a new machine, convert into INR at prevailing rates and add duty to arrive at the replacement cost of your machine. You can insure for this. And every year, at the time of renewal, you can repeat the exercise.
The floods were a humbling experience for all of us, as Venu Chettan said to me, “My press for me has been like my child. Now, I realise all it takes is a few shutters of a dam to bring disaster to it.”

A sobering thought indeed. I remember at this time the legend of Naranathu Bhranthan (the madman of Naranathu) who had this habit of painfully pushing up a huge rock over the Rayiranallur hill (the place is today a tourist spot and has a statue of Naranathu Bhranthan, which you can see as you drive towards Tirur from Pattambi) only to let it go after reaching the top. He then used to clap and laugh as the rock rolled down and reached the bottom in a matter of minutes. Naranathu Branthan is probably still laughing at all of us as we toil everyday thinking that the rock is safe once we reach the top.

Raju N Kutty, treasurer, Kerala Master Printers Association (KMPA)



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