Cyclone Ockhi

Waves of grief and anger

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Fisherwomen of Neerody in Kanyakumari district wailing over their dear ones who have gone missing following Cyclone Ockhi, on December 5. Photo: A. Shaikmohideen

Members of the fishing community staging a protest in Kanyakumari on December 8 alleging that the Tamil Nadu government was doing little to trace the fishermen who went missing. Photo: PTI

Right opposite St. Nicholas Church in Neerody village, fishermen have erected a hoarding with photos of 36 men, aged between 16 and 58, with a caption that reads: “Neerody people who died of Ockhi Cyclone.” Photo: A. Shaikmohideen

A. Helen Mary, who lost her husband S. Antoniar Pichchai. Photo: A. Shaikmohideen

On December 10, days after the cyclone hit, family members of fishermen staging a demonstration in Kanyakumari seeking the help of Central and State government agencies to intensify the search for the missing fishermen. Photo: PTI

In Kochi on December 3, Tamil Nadu fishermen, who were stranded at sea following the cyclone, being brought to the Chellanam harbour with the help of local fishermen after they were rescued by the Coast Guard. Photo: PTI

Cyclone Ockhi devastates the coast of south India and lays bare the administration’s indifference to the plight of fishing communities.

THE only sounds that originate these days from homes in the richest fishing villages in India, in the Thoothoor belt of Kanyakumari district on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, are the wails of women and children. Thoothoor—known to the rest of India for the footballers it has produced and for its residents’ penchant for hunting a particular variety of sharks—is still waiting for hundreds of fishermen who went to sea much before Cyclone Ockhi struck the southern-most tip of mainland India on November 29. Even three weeks after the disaster, the chances of retrieving them dead or alive appear remote.

According to data put out on December 13 by parish priests of the eight villages in the Thoothoor belt—Neerody, Marthanthura, Vallavila, EP Thura, Chinnathura, Thoothoor, Poothura, Eraimanthura—376 persons were missing and 104 were confirmed dead. As many as 17 boats had sunk and 28 were missing. Of the smaller boats, 29 had sunk and three were missing. Also missing were four kattumarams and about 60 plywood vallams. A Union Home Ministry statistic, put out on December 14, said that in all, 619 fishermen were missing. Of them, 433 were from Tamil Nadu.

“I have four girls,” said a woman in Thoothoor even as she fought hard to control her sobs. “I have only chettan [literally, brother, but the word is a colloquial Malayalam usage to refer to husband]. I have not heard from him,” she added. The eldest of her children, nearly 10, understands the implications of the words uttered, and joins the mother, crying. The youngest is distracted by the attention that many outsiders, officials and the media, are showering on her.

Some distance away, 16 families have lost at least one breadwinner. In some of these homes, the fishermen who went out to sea were the sole earning members. Village after village has the same story to narrate. By the time the media reached the village and officials began making rounds, rage and anger replaced grief and gloom in the bilingual fishermen community—the most neglected of communities in Tamil Nadu because they do not form a sizeable vote bank in any constituency.

Enormity of the tragedy

In most of these villages there is not a single family that is unaffected by the tragedy. In one case, a BTech graduate, who studied in an engineering college in Coimbatore and had just completed his course, decided to head out to sea because he was not doing much at home.

Fishermen in the Thoothoor belt, comprising eight almost fully-Christian villages, have a hundred such stories to tell: of a father and son who went out because there was a shortage of crew and never came back, of four members of a family who went on the same boat and were yet to return, of a survivor still crying because he cut loose a colleague’s dead body tied to him with a rope because he could not pull it any longer, of a boat crew unable to decide whom to help after two of its members were washed overboard, of passing ships refusing to help them even though they were holding on to capsized boats because the Indian Coast Guard—ironically the search and rescue coordinators for the Indian Ocean Region—did not put out an alert asking commercial liners to help, and of picking up bodies that had begun to decompose and were coming apart after floating for days at sea.

“One body with a life jacket on it was floating near Thengapattinam [harbour],” recounted a fisherman. “I grabbed the hand and tried to pull up the body. The hand came apart,” he said. It was the body of a local youth, a BTech graduate, who had taken to fishing. The team that went out in search of survivors knew the youngster. Speaking in a matter-of-fact manner, with no change in his tone, the fisherman continued: “He had six identity cards and mobile phones on a backpack he was carrying. We have handed it over to the District Collector’s office.”

In Neerody, the last village, one fisherman asked this correspondent if I had been out on a very windy and rainy day without an umbrella. I said I had. His response: “Imagine, for miles there are no trees or any obstacle. You are on a boat and the wind is bearing you down, the water is swirling around you and the rain is hitting you right in the face. Can you?” After a brief pause, so that this image sank into my head, he continued: “The rain drops are like needles. They poke your face. Your skin comes loose. When the wind is too heavy, we bleed from our face even as we try to keep the boat afloat. Because of the swirls, we cannot control the boat too,” he added.

No proper warning

In village after village, the fishermen had one complaint: They were not aware of the approaching cyclone. “I left with a group in Kochi [in Kerala] on November 6,” said a fishermen in Thoothoor. “Just as we were returning, heavy winds hit us. We didn’t know it was a cyclone. The winds took us within a few kilometres off Goa. We tried to reach out to the Navy and Coast Guard on our wireless [VHF set]. No help came,” he added. He said that never in his working life of three decades had he seen a cyclone of this intensity.

There are three kinds of fishermen in these villages: one, those who go out in country boats for a few nautical miles into the sea; two, those who go in mechanised fibre boats, which go up to 50-60 nautical miles into the sea; and three, those who go out in large boats, which go even 1,000 nautical miles and beyond. While the country boats return the same day or stay out for a couple of days, the large boats have routinely fished close to Diego Garcia, the Horn of Africa, and West Asian countries. The large boats stay out for as long as 40 to 50 days and carry up to 25,000 litres of diesel. The operation of larger boats increases input costs by a huge factor, but fishermen say that it is worth the effort. The catch is proportionately large, and most of the areas that Kanyakumari fishermen frequent are rich in fish resources, they claim.

Because of the lack of information, most fishermen were returning when they were caught in the storm. A few fishermen, who had gone out in smaller boats from Neerody, said they had sensed the changing weather and decided to make a dash for the shore. Many were caught well short of the shore.

The India Meteorological Department clarified that the organisation had issued a cyclone warning at 11:30 a.m. on November 29. Most of Kanyakumari’s multi-day fishing expeditions had begun much before the warning was issued. Parish priests in all the villages said that a huge number of fishermen were possibly caught in the storm as they were returning with their catch.

Right opposite St. Nicholas Church in Neerody village, fishermen have erected a hoarding with photos of 36 men, aged between 16 and 58, with a caption that reads: “Neerody people who died of Ockhi Cyclone.” The church’s parish assistant, Rajesh, agrees with the fishermen that these 36 will not return. The District Collector visited the church after the tragedy, and the St. Nicholas Church has given on its letterhead the names and details of the 36 fishermen.

But government regulations insist that if a body is not found, then compensation can only be given seven years later. In this case, the district administration has “promised steps”, the fishermen say, but they are not confident whether this will translate into any concrete action.

The reason for their lack of confidence is not far to seek. Neither Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami nor the local Member of Parliament, Pon Radhakrishnan, visited any of the affected villages for over 10 days after the tragedy. “The MP was inaugurating some textile showroom in Nagercoil. Why can’t he come here?” asked a fisherman.

Following incessant pressure on the Tamil Nadu government, the Chief Minister finally visited the district on December 12. “As a result of the energetic ongoing protests in all coastal places in our region since the Kuzhithurai railway station protest, Tamilnadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy visited the representatives of all 8 villages in Thoothoor region in a meeting organised at St Jude’s College Thoothoor on 12th Dec 2017 evening,” said a well-updated website of the fishermen, “For this, 20 representatives covering the survivors, relatives of the victims, committee members, and activists were identified by each villages…. On the ground, people’s current focus and urge is the search operation though it is already very late and let the government first put all its effort aggressively in that. There were also concerns raised by people that all people were not given opportunity to raise their concerns directly to the chief minister. It is time for us to unite, focus, work with forces, and attain good result. We can hear everywhere from emotional people that if there is any hope still left, every minute is crucial in the search operation,” it added. Any details on survivors and other details are immediately uploaded on the site.

The Chief Minister promised to double the compensation for those dead, a job for those who had lost a next of kin, and a doubling of livelihood compensation to Rs.5,000 for 31,000 fishermen. Soon after he came to Chennai, the Chief Minister ordered payment of compensation of Rs.1 crore to the next of kin of a Tamil Nadu police inspector who was shot dead in mysterious circumstances in Rajasthan.

Soon after the cyclone struck the coast, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam visited the affected areas. On December 3, the Defence Minister claimed that 357 fishermen, including 71 from Tamil Nadu, had been rescued. The parish priests of the eight villages handed over to the Minister a memorandum which listed as missing 234 boats with about 2,000 fishermen.

Nirmala Sitharaman addressed the distraught fishermen, but was constantly interrupted by loud protests from the fishermen about the Coast Guard and Navy not doing enough. “I have come to save your life. Don’t misunderstand,” she said over a loudspeaker, even as a distressed fisherman was shouting questions at her. She asked him to keep quiet.

Clueless governments

The anxiety of the fishermen, which both the Central and State governments refused even to attempt to comprehend, was about the direction of the rescue efforts. “Put us out on a boat. With the [ocean] currents, we can tell you where our people will be,” said a fisherman.

“Neither the Coast Guard nor the government was willing to listen to us. We could have saved many more lives if they had listened to us,” said Jose Bilbin, president of the Thoothoor fishermen’s cooperative society. The fishermen are angry in all the eight coastal villages and have not made their displeasure a secret.

The Coast Guard dutifully puts out releases each day on what it has done. For example, on December 14, a release said: “Indian Coast Guard continued its Search and rescue efforts off Tamil Nadu/ Kerala/ Karnataka/ Lakshadweep/ Minicoy coast upto 625 kms off coast by deploying 26 surface assets, 02 aircraft, 02 Helicopter for search of missing fishermen along West Coast of India including L & M [Lakshadweep and Minicoy] Islands & Kanyakumari coast. Extensive sea air coordinated search carried out by Coast Guard aircraft along with ICGS Samar and ICGS Sankalp.” It also gave a detailed account of its operations and how many fishermen the organisation had saved.

But the fact remains that both the Central and State governments had no clue as to the number of fishermen who were missing at sea: they gave astonishingly low numbers of those who were out at sea and those who were missing. The Times of India reported on November 30 that more than 1,500 Kanyakumari fishermen were still stranded at sea or missing. When this correspondent cross-checked the number with State government officials, they claimed that this number was a vast exaggeration.

A government press release issued on that day claimed that 18 fishermen were missing and five of them were rescued. The next day there was a dramatic rise in the number of fishermen missing in the government press release: it jumped to 106 missing and 76 rescued. Over the next few days, these numbers steadily rose in press releases.

Inquiries at all levels of the administration in Kanyakumari clearly pointed to the fact that the State government was clueless on the number of fishermen out at sea. This is despite the fact that fishermen have to register before they go out to sea. To make matters worse, the government refused to accept the version of the fishermen that over 2,000 of them were missing for nearly a week after the disaster.

Finally, it was a week later that the government accepted in a rather circuitous way that over 2,000 people were missing. A release claimed that more than 2,000 missing fishermen are now safe. On December 11, the government accepted that 433 fishermen were missing. Fishermen in Neerody village said that they had 661 names of missing fishermen.

Dead, but no numbers

While one set of officials who landed from Chennai are clear that the numbers of the dead should be collated and declared early, there seems to be no action on the ground. Since there is no clarity on the numbers of the dead, the quantum of compensation that each of the families has to be given is also stuck in limbo. Confusion prevails at all levels of the administration in the district. This is despite the fact that a young Indian Administrative Service officer, G.S. Sameeran, Additional Director, Fisheries, Ramanathapuram, has come in for praise from all quarters for his work among fishermen in the aftermath of the cyclone.

It is under these circumstances of mindless bungling and rank insensitivity on the part of the State government that the fishermen are articulating an old demand: allow us to be part of Kerala. Most of the fishermen in these eight villages speak a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil. Apart from the incompetence of the State administration, the villagers point to two reasons why they want to be part of Kerala: The almost all-Catholic villages are served by the Thiruvananthapuram diocese, and the Kerala capital is only an hour or so away from the farthest point of Kanyakumari. The diocese, too, has some influence over the government. Moreover, fishermen claim that Kerala treats its fishermen with respect and dignity, which, they say, is lacking in Tamil Nadu.

The State border is about a kilometre away from Neerody. While the handling of the crisis in Kerala came for adverse criticism from the media and opposition parties in the State, the fact is that its Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, and other Ministers acted with a sense of urgency. In contrast, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister was seen campaigning in the R.K. Nagar constituency where an Assembly byelection was to be held on December 21.

Fishermen’s protest

The fishermen organised a series of protests each day to attract the attention of the media and the government to their plight. Peace rallies and fasts, human chains and rail rokos were all part of their efforts to focus the attention of an apathetic government. None of these worked in the first week. Fishermen from across Tamil Nadu and opposition parties took up their cause and this finally led to some “action”. The police filed criminal complaints against over 10,000 persons who blocked trains at Kuzhithurai railway station for over 10 hours (getting on to the railway track without permission is a criminal offence). They shut off the Marina beach on December 8, fearing a gathering of fishermen on the famed jallikattu site.

Meanwhile, there has been a concerted effort to colour the agitation as one driven by the church. In all the conversations this correspondent had with parish priests in the villages, they were very clear on what they were doing: We are part of this community. If anything bad happens in the community, we have to be with the community. “It is ridiculous to say that we are instigating anything. See the number of fishermen who have died. Can any community keep its peace during extraordinary situations like this?” asked a priest.

The seething anger and the total incompetence of the State machinery finally dawned on the government and it deputed a senior Secretary-level officer, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, who is also a former Collector of Kanyakumari district, to handle the situation. Bedi, currently Agriculture Secretary, was open to suggestions that the death toll could be higher than the figures mentioned. But all these measures were too little, too late.

This high-powered government team came in considerable style—just as all government delegations arrive. A convoy of 17 vehicles reached Thoothoor just past 3 p.m. on December 10 and parked right in the middle of the road, which had barely enough width for two vehicles to pass each other. The government vehicles remained right in the middle of the road until the delegation left the village more than an hour later. A large posse of police personnel jumped from their mini buses and formed a protective cordon around the officials. A little distance away, in a makeshift shamiana, fishermen kept raising slogans demanding quick action and relief. Seeing the police personnel, Bedi directed the local officials to keep them away. “I am here to talk to the people. I do not need police protection,” he said, and asked for directions to the parish priest’s house. On the day that Bedi landed in Kanyakumari, he was gheraoed. “After that I went to Chinnathurai, from home to home. The fishermen are upset,” he said, when asked about the gherao.

The anxiety of the State government is a bit difficult to comprehend. “This is plain stupidity,” said an official who was made aware of the situation. “Obviously the government cannot be held responsible for those who died at sea because of the cyclone. So why is the government not putting out the correct numbers as and when it gets updated?” he asked. All that was required was to acknowledge the numbers, pacify the people with updates on the efforts being taken, and speed up the compensation mechanism, he added. Needless secrecy has been the hallmark of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government from Jayalalithaa’s time and it continues to this day.

Administrative inaction

It was not just the government that was absent from the scene. While two MLAs were working seriously on the field, there was no trace of the local MP, who is a Central Minister. Fishermen representatives this correspondent spoke to brought up this fact repeatedly.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MLA and local district secretary Mano Thangaraj said that people had some expectations of their representatives and when these were not met, they got agitated. “I have not seen many VAOs [village administrative officers] or electricity board staff around. There is so much work, and the people are demanding quick action. For action to be taken, you need to first know what the extent of the damage is. Even that has not been done properly,” he said.

Initially, the district administration claimed that only a few hundred electric poles had been damaged. This was later revised to 13,439. Of this, the government claimed that 13,264 had been replaced. Mano Thangaraj and representatives of fishermen from across the State say that the actual damage is much higher.

There are a few related issues that get little attention. One is that of fishermen from a village travelling distances to be part of a crew in another part of the country. For instance, three fishermen from Nadukuppam, near Puducherry, came to work for a boat owner, Wilson, in Kanyakumari about two months ago.

“They get paid better in Kanyakumari,” said Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi general secretary D. Ravikumar. “The three fishermen left home on November 8 and are yet to return. I am told that their boat didn’t return. I have no clue where to search for them,” he said.

Instances of fishermen travelling from Kanyakumari to Kerala, Karnataka and beyond for work are not rare. However far they travel for work, the fishermen, mostly Christians, almost always come back home for Christmas. Families ashore are waiting with bated breath for Christmas. They hope that by then their near and dear would return home.

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