If such a disaster had happened in Chennai, would it have been ignored the same way, ask fisher communities.

Let it sink in There is still no word from almost 900 fisherfolk after Cyclone Ockhi
news Cyclone Ockhi Monday, December 11, 2017 - 18:00

Consider these numbers. 11 days, over 120* dead and around 900* still missing.

Cyclone Ockhi hit India’s southern coast on November 30, its gale winds leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. Yet the cries of men, women and children from south Tamil Nadu and Kerala have not been loud enough to outrage us – the media, the government and the people.

In Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari, people have been protesting for the past four days demanding that the missing fishermen be rescued. On Monday, families carried out a symbolic protest, draping a black cloth around their eyes – suggesting that the state and central governments have been blind to their cries.

Just over 100 kilometres away, in Kerala’s capital, hundreds carried out a similar protest outside the Raj Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram, demanding that rescue efforts be stepped up to save nearly 250 fishermen who are still missing.

Out of sight, out of mind?

“We have been crying so far but no one has heard us. If this had happened in Chennai – will the Tamil Nadu government or the national media not care? We are at the edge of Tamil Nadu, that is why we have been neglected,” hits out Father Churchill, who belongs to the South Asian Fishermen’s Federation based in Kanyakumari.

This sense of betrayal is not limited to the fishing community in Tamil Nadu. Sindhu Maria Napolean, the daughter of a fisherman in Thiruvananthapuram, echoed Father Churchill’s thoughts in a recent Facebook post, which has gone viral. Lashing out at the media and the government, Sindhu wrote, “A friend told me yesterday, that if a tragedy like this had happened in Sabarimala, our central and state governments would have sprung into action! For you, the news was how Kadakampally boarded a helicopter, or how Pinarayi's car was blocked or how Nirmala Sitharaman went to Kanyakumari. Now I understand why people said someone from our community itself should be there to present what is news to us."

So why has the tragedy that has unfolded along India’s southern coast not received the attention that it deserves?

“There has been massive outrage. But this has been limited to the coastal areas. The media is not treating this calamity the way it should be. Kanyakumari is far away. It’s therefore, out of sight, out of mind,” notes retired bureaucrat MG Devasahayam, who is based in Kanyakumari.

But Father Churchill believes this “negligence” has two reasons. He observes, “In Kanyakumari, we have not elected anyone from the AIADMK. They are all from Congress and DMK. Secondly, unlike other districts, all fishermen in Kanyakumari are Christians.”

Missing numbers

What’s worse, the state government is unwilling to accept the missing count, he alleges. The vastly different numbers bear testimony to his allegations.

According to the Kanyakumari district administration, Cyclone Ockhi has killed 12 people, including two fishermen. Refusing to label them as “missing”, the district administration states that the number of fishermen who have “not returned to shore yet” is 462.

Speaking to TNM, Sajjansingh R Chavan, Kanyakumari Collector states, "In Kanyakumari district, about 13 small boats have not reported back, there were about 35 fishermen in them. 43 multipurpose fishing boats with 427 fishermen have also not reported back to the shore. We do not call them missing because they generally go for 30 to 45 days and they do not contact families. As we are getting the report of boats, the numbers are gradually going down."

However, Devasahayam, who was part of a team that visited the eight worst-affected coastal villages in Kanyakumari district, says that as per eyewitness accounts** the number of dead is pegged at 82, while those missing are 579. That’s a total of 661 men who are yet to return to shore.

There was a similar discrepancy in missing figures in Kerala as well. The official death toll owing to Cyclone Ockhi in Kerala is pegged at 42, while the number of missing is 96. Fishing associations in the state, however, had a vastly different estimate of those missing.

"Nearly 250 people are still missing from Thiruvananthapuram alone. This includes fishermen from Vizhinjam, Adimalathura and Poonthura," says T Peter, General Secretary of National Fish Workers Forum.

Preparation and response inadequate

And while fishermen in both states admit that a natural disaster like Cyclone Ockhi cannot be avoided, preparation for the storm and the response after has been inadequate.

Both Devasahayam and Father Churchill observe that the scale of the tragedy could have been reduced had the Indian Meteorological Department issued a warning in advance.

“Our fishermen do deep sea fishing and multi-day fishing. There were 3000 fishermen at sea before the government issued the warning. The Centre gave a warning on November 28, while the state government issued the cyclone warning on November 29 evening. We have been fighting, asking why they didn’t a warning in advance. We have no facilities to communicate with fishermen who are 200 to 500 nautical miles from shore once a warning is issued,” argues Father Churchill, adding that the Navy and Coast Guard could have used their communication devices to alert fishermen out at sea. “We may have avoided this,” he sighs.

The former bureaucrat, however, pins the blame for the disaster on the central government. Devasahayam says, “It is miserable failure of disaster prevention by the central government. The Met department is under the Government of India. There was no forecast warning for the cyclone. There was also no sense of urgency after the disaster. The Coast Guard, Navy and the Air Force were all slouching.”

Unlike their counterparts in Kerala, Father Churchill alleges that the response of the Coast Guard and Navy in Tamil Nadu were slow. Father Churchill says, “The Navy has a base in Tuticorin and in Kochi. Why is it that rescue operations were so efficient in Kerala? That’s because the Kerala Chief Minister has been camped out and monitoring rescue and relief operations there.”

Hitting out at the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Father Churchill says, “Our CM is busy with the RK Nagar election. If you can’t govern us, then let us join Kerala. Kanyakumari was part of Kerala before 1956, we share the same climate, food and culture and we also speak Malayalam. If you can’t protect us let us join Kerala.”

Among their main demands is to declare Cyclone Ockhi a national disaster; to be allowed to join the Navy’s rescue operations; and a relief package from the Tamil Nadu government equivalent to what the Kerala government is offering families of victims.

However, Devasahayam says that declaring Cyclone Ockhi a national disaster is an “empty exercise”, observing that the real failure is in not activating the disaster management system.

“Declaring it a national calamity is not important. I am extremely pained by the Prime Minister’s lack of response. As Chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, he has not uttered a single word,” he says, pointing out that disaster management is like a military operation carried out by pre-assigned officers, who are trained to handle rescue, relief and rehabilitation efforts.  

Despite the Tamil Nadu Opposition and fishermen’s associations accusing Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami of not visiting Kanyakumari, the former IAS officer observes that disaster management is outside the purview of the CM and his ministers.

“The CM and Governor coming is nothing but a distraction. A photo-opportunity is a waste of time. The CM should have, however, given a strong statement for the state disaster management authority to act,” he explains, adding that EPS and Pinarayi Vijayan can only provide relief to families, by way of issuing Government Orders.

There is, however, a small ray of hope for the hundreds of families in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, awaiting any news on their missing loved ones. With Christmas fast approaching, the families cling to hope that the fishermen, who practice deep sea fishing, will return to shore by December 20 or so.

Devasahayam emphasises, “There is hope that they will return before Christmas. But hope is fast waning. The point is that we call ourselves a superpower but even after 10 days we can’t find bodies. If we have all the technology and capability and we still can’t save human lives, what is the use?”

(With inputs from Saritha Balan and Pheba Mathew)

*Figures are based on fishermen association numbers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

** A number of fishermen, who had ventured out to sea to help in rescue operations, had reported seeing bloated bodies floating. They were, however, unable to bring several of these bodies back to shore.

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