“The state of Kerala is still reeling from the shock of witnessing the massive floods that took place this past monsoon season. At this tragic time, words have no place. All we can do is rise to the occasion, think positively and take action. This is the most important thing now.”
Amma shared these words in her address to the audience the morning of her 65th birthday. The event took place in Amritapuri with this year’s focus on helping Kerala recover from the recent monsoon floods.
In a final count, the floods took nearly 500 lives. As well, the government estimated that damages include 100,000 buildings, 10,000 kilometers of highways and roads, hundreds of bridges, and tens of thousands of square kilometers of agricultural land.
“When the rain beat down incessantly, flooding the rivers and starting landslides, turning Kerala into an ocean of disaster, people here forgot all divisions. Separations of caste, creed and religion disappeared. Thoughts of rich and poor, high and low, all vanished. Party politics faded away. All thoughts and actions flowed in one direction, toward a single goal,” Amma said.
“Due to this, people had no difficulty in understanding and supporting one another. Moreover, they found the strength to overcome all obstacles. Hearts came together as one, and only compassion flowed. Actually, it overflowed, and we saw a second ocean rising from the flood – an ocean of compassion.”
At the birthday event, Amma acknowledged the selfless bravery, compassion and self-sacrifice of 10 people who died while helping others trapped by the Kerala floods. She gave Rs. 100,000 (US $1,200) to their families to honor them. Many of those killed were the breadwinners for their households and these people already face financial challenges.
In one case, the young man who lost his life was a member of AYUDH, our youth chapter. He had first made sure his mother was safe and then left home to try to save the lives of others. Another man succeeded in getting five women to a Navy boat for rescue, but in the task, himself drowned.
In addition, Amma presented certificates of commendation to the more than 400 volunteers who staffed Amrita Helpline – a 24-hour call-in center set up at the Amritapuri Campus of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham.
Within five days, the team fielded more than 25,000 calls and connected over 100,000 flood victims with appropriate relief services. This included government officials, the Navy, Air Force, National Disaster Response Force, Kerala State Police, local fishermen and other volunteer agencies.
“Several hundred students worked together for days on end to help rescue people trapped in life-threatening situations,” Amma said. “They were able to bring timely help to many people in many areas. What invoked their unified response was the love and compassion they felt towards those trapped by the floods. The selfless love they experienced made their actions extremely beautiful and successful, and an inspiration to everyone.”
But Amma was not the only one to acknowledge the selfless service given to flood victims. The AmritaSREE Self Help Group consists of 200,000-plus members who have formed 13,000 SHGs across India. Instead of travelling to Amma’s birthday in Amritapuri, they donated the money saved – US $14,000 – to Embracing the World’s flood rehabilitation work.
Of course, Amma also acknowledged other pressing issues of the day at her birthday event. As happens every year, she gave certificates for free surgeries at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Center (Amrita Hospital) in Kochi, Kerala.
The surgeries go to people who would otherwise not be able to access care, with some of the procedures for life-threatening conditions. One of the recipients could not help but cry in Amma’s arms as she received the certificate, and so Amma carefully took the time to dry the woman’s eyes.
Overall, the operations included a broad range of procedures: 60 neurological surgeries, 15 kidney transplants, 62 head-and-neck surgeries, 75 urological surgeries, 250 oncological treatments, 80 gastrointestinal surgeries, 50 orthopaedic surgeries and treatment for 150 dialysis patients.
Another project acknowledged was the progress made on building toilets in communities across Kerala. In India, especially in rural areas, open defecation is a serious health issue. Three years ago, $15 million US was given to the Government of India’s construction of toilets in the poorest villages surrounding the Ganges River.
Next, a second amount for $15 million US was pledged by Embracing the World to build toilets across Kerala. As of Amma’s 65th birthday, 12,000 toilets are now built for the poor in the state and construction continues. This year, we completed another 900 toilets in the Kollam District and at the birthday, Amma gave certificates of receipt to 200 representatives.
As Amma explains, ending open defecation is not only about sanitation but also bestowing health, safety, dignity and respect upon women. Without a toilet, many women can only relieve themselves at night, often having to tread off to isolated areas where they are at risk of sexual harassment or assault.
In her final humanitarian relief initiatives for the day’s events, Amma issued cheques of Rs. 100,000 (US $1,200)to widows of Kerala fisherman who died at sea in the past year. She also performed free weddings to 16 couples from poor families and gave free saris to 400,000 women in need.
Amma herself gave darshan to thousands upon thousands of people who travelled from states throughout India and from places across the world for her birthday. Having started the event Thursday morning, Amma didn’t leave until just after 8 am Friday and was on stage for almost 23 hours straight.
Overall, Amma’s message for the day focused on what it is that leads us as a community to overcome diversity.
“The love and compassion that overflows from our heart is the power that leads us to victory. How was Kerala saved from the great floods? What saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people? It was the love and compassion that filled the hearts of people all over. This strength destroys all barriers and joins all hearts on a single string. May this love and compassion ever illuminate our hearts.”Amma