TNM travelled to Neerodi, the worst-hit village in Kanyakumari district, where 37 fishermen have died and seven are still missing after Cyclone Ockhi.

Why this TN village declared 37 dead from Ockhi although not a single body was found
news Cyclone Ockhi Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - 17:25

Grief overwhelms you as you walk into Neerodi, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district. The village overlooking the Arabian Sea in India’s southern-most tip is dressed in mourning, shedding any hope that it may have clung to in the aftermath of Cyclone Ockhi.

A giant hoarding with the faces of 36 men stare down at residents – reminding them of all those they have lost to the cyclonic storm that ripped through southern Tamil Nadu on November 30. But Neerodi needs no reminders. It is the worst-hit village in Kanyakumari, with Cyclone Ockhi claiming the lives of 37 fishermen from Neerodi alone, while seven are still missing.

The village is sure that these men will not return, though not a single body has been recovered - the hoarding merely a public declaration.

Like many villages along the southern coast, fishing is the primary livelihood for a majority of Neerodi residents. “90% of our people are fishermen or those who make a living through fishing related activities. Some venture to the sea in deep vessels while others use small boats,” says Senthil Kumar, a resident.

Survivor testimonies and eye-witness accounts

John Bosco, a social activist based in neighbouring Thoothur, says that the death toll of 37 at Neerodi was arrived at based on survivor testimonies. “Fishermen, who managed to rescue themselves had seen the others drowning. Some were men from their own boats, who had drowned while many were from others boats. The situation was such that they could not help each other, they were mere spectators,” he notes grimly.

The activist also noted that a group of fishermen, who had ventured into the sea for rescue operations returned with news of more deaths.  John says, “They saw dead bodies floating in the sea. They were not able to bring the dead bodies to the shore as the bodies had already begun decaying. The bodies would fall apart when they tried to take them. In all the parishes, the fishing community and the church have exact figures based on the number of dead bodies seen and the number of fishermen missing.”

But the Tamil Nadu government has been extremely conservative in its death toll estimate. Cyclone Ockhi has killed 12 people including two fishermen, while the number of missing is pegged at 428, claims the Kanyakumari district administration.

Xavier, a resident of Neerodi, explains, “Our assumption that 37 people are dead is not without basis. We have reached this conclusion based on those who saw the dead bodies. What’s more, our village is devastated. Who will give us compensation for the boats? The boats cost anything between Rs 20 lakh and Rs 60 lakh. The government’s figure is a mere eyewash.”

With fishermen reporting sightings of dead bodies floating in the sea, the Navy has reportedly stepped up its search and rescue efforts. “Now, the union government is claiming that a ship has been sent to the deep sea for bringing back the dead bodies. The ship has a freezer. But the most miserable fact is that not a single dead body has been recovered so far,” exclaims John.

‘Trusting govt was our fault’

Much of the anger at Neerodi is directed at the government – both Union and State.

Stephy, an engineering student, voices out this anger, “Our fault was that we had trusted the government. When men in the village had gone in search of the missing persons, they have seen the bodies, and they even got the identity proofs of a few. This confirmed that they were dead. If the fishermen had ventured without waiting for the government’s rescue operations, the number of casualties could have been reduced.”

She points out that the Coast Guard had carried out search and rescue operations only up to 60 nautical miles, while the fishermen from the village, who practiced deep sea fishing, had ventured further out.   “The rescue team of fishermen, which had gone from here, had gone up to 120 nautical miles. They saw the capsized boat in which 13 men from the village had been on. They also saw dead bodies floating during the rescue attempt.”

On Monday, a mass prayer was conducted in each of the eight villages in Kanyakumari, in memory of those who are suspected to be dead and for the many hundreds, who are still missing. With hope no longer providing comfort, it is the horrifying stories from out at sea that are allowing villages like Neerodi to grieve and mourn their dead.   

Edited by Anna Isaac

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