The toll in a landslide accident at Rajamala area in Kerala's Idukki district on Friday rose to 15 while 50 people were feared trapped in the debris. The landslide triggered by heavy rain flattened a row of houses of tea estate workers, reports said.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said 15 others who got trapped in the debris were rescued and a special officer has been appointed to coordinate the relief operations.
The incident reportedly occurred in the wee hours of Friday when a huge mound of earth fell on the "row houses". Two children and five women were among the deceased, most of whom were plantation workers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Hindustan Times quoted officials as saying that "many of the residents were in deep sleep when the landslide hit the area and they couldn't escape". At least 84 people lived in the settlement, the report added.
Efforts were underway amid continuing rains to locate the missing people in the first major rain-related mishap since the onset of South West monsoon last month that brought back memories of devastation caused by floods and landslides in the previous two years in the state.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kerala governor Arif Mohammed Khan, Home Minister Amit Shah, and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi expressed anguish at the loss of lives in the landslide.
Shah said that teams of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel had reached Pettimudi and joined the rescue operations.
Three injured have been admitted to a private Medical College Hospital in Kolenchery in Ernakulam district and one in Tata General Hospital at Munnar.
Cooking utensils buried in mud, asbestos and tin sheets strewn around were all there to be seen at the area, which was the habitation of around 80 odd workers at the picturesque area near a tea plantation, about 30 kms from the tourist town of Munnar.
Big boulders are also scattered around the site.
Addressing a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram, Vijayan said 15 people died in the mishap. The state government has also sought an Indian Air Force helicopter to assist in the mission, he added.
Crime Branch IG Gopesh Agarwal has been appointed as special officer for coordinating the rescue and rehabilitation operations in Pettimudi, Vijayan said.
Condoling the death of workers in the tragedy, Vijayan announced initial solatium of Rs 5 lakh each for the kin of the dead. Treatment expenses for the injured will be borne by the government.
In view of the Pettimudi incident, the district collectors have been directed to ensure safety and security of the workers staying in dwelling units in tea estates.
The Prime Minister's Office said in a tweet that an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each from the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF) would be given to the next of kin of those killed in the landslide. Rs 50,000 each will be given to those injured.
"Pained by the loss of lives due to a landslide in Rajamalai, Idukki. In this hour of grief, my thoughts are with the bereaved families," the prime minsiter tweeted.
Praying for the early recovery of the injured, he said NDRF and the administration were working on the ground, providing assistance to the affected.
Gandhi, who represents Wayanad in Lok Sabha, in a message said, "This is a terrible tragedy. I urge all our Congress party workers and leaders to lend a helping hand at this time and do whatever they can to mitigate the suffering of our brothers and sisters who are in need of help."
The toll in rain-related incidents since 1 June this year has risen to 51. One person died in a house collapse in Palakkad on Friday, PTI reported.
Idukki District Collector H Dinesh told PTI that "Most of the people (affected in the landslide) are plantation workers and from neighbouring Tamil Nadu".
Later in the day, an Air India Express plane bringing 190 Indians home, from Dubai skid off the runway and fell into a gorge killing at least 16 people and injuring several others. The total passengers onboard included the crew members and the pilots as well.
Meanwhile, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has sounded a red alert for Idukki on Friday, indicating extremely heavy rains of over 20 centimetres.
In the last 24 hours ended at 8.30 am, Peermade in the district recorded the maximum of 26.1 centimetres, it said. Several other districts also received rains in excess of 10 centimetres.
The tragedy came to light after a forest watchman informed authorities about the landslide. The communication lines have been down in the area since the past three days.
Police and fire force personnel and local people took up the rescue operations amid the rains.
Munnar MLA S Rajendran told the media earlier in the day that it was difficult to reach the spot as a bridge which provided access to the area was washed away in the rain.
The state health department has dispatched 15 ambulances and a special medical team to provide medical assistance to the victims of the landslide, PTI reported.
Defence sources were quoted by PTI as saying that a helicopter was ready at the Southern Air Command in Thiruvananthapuram, but was waiting for the weather to clear.
Besides in Idukki, the IMD also forecast extreme heavy rains in Wayanad and Kottayam districts in the next two days, raising fears of more landslides in the Western Ghats region.
The torrential rains also caused flooding in rivers originating from the Western Ghats.
Authorities in Ernakulam, Thrissur, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts have sounded alerts with excess water being released from dams built across the rivers.
The rains in hilly areas have caused a sudden rise in the water level in rivers Periyar and Muvattupuzha flowing through Ernakulam district, which was among the badly hit during the 2018 deluge that claimed over 400 lives and left lakhs of people homeless in the state.
Taking precautionary measures to deal with flood situation, the Ernakulam district administration has opened camps in Aluva and Muvattupuzha and several families were shifted there after flood waters entered residential areas in Muvattupuzha, Kothamangalam, Kochi and Parvur taluks.
In view of incidents of landslides, Ernakulam District Collector S Suhas issued an order banning all mining activities in the district.
Rise in water levels in the rivers flowing through Thrissur, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts have also been reported due to continuing rains.
With inputs from agencies