Christmas, New Year or Pongal, there is no cheer for the Ockhi affected families

At Puliyookurichi village in Kanyakumari district, people have been protesting for the past 11 days against the continued negligence of the state government.
Christmas, New Year or Pongal, there is no cheer for the Ockhi affected families
Christmas, New Year or Pongal, there is no cheer for the Ockhi affected families
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Christmas came and went, and then it was New Year… On Sunday, even Pongal did nothing to bring joy to the families of fishermen who died (or are still ‘missing’ according to the Tamil Nadu government) in Cyclone Ockhi. Their demand that the cyclone be declared a national disaster has not been met. Nor has the state government done anything to match the compensation given by neighbouring Kerala.

At Puliyookurichi village in Kanyakumari district, people have been protesting for the past 11 days against the continued negligence of the state government

Largely spearheaded by DMK MLA Mano Thangaraj of Padmanabhapuram constituency, this protest was a desperate measure to bring the government’s attention to the affected area.

Speaking to TNM, MLA Mano Thangaraj says, “We staged this protest to increase awareness of the disaster. We believed our agitation would lead to more conversation about the disaster in the State Assembly meeting. But we are greatly disappointed by the government’s indifference.”

The MLA, while participating in the protest, slept on the road for six days to garner media attention for this cause.

Demands of the protest

The demands put forth during the protest mainly centred on Ockhi-related relief operations. The people demanded that Ockhi be announced as a National Disaster and proper compensation be given to the victim’s families. Their other demands include declaring the missing fishermen as dead, and increasing the death compensation to Rs 25 lakh from a stipulated Rs 20 lakh, taking Kerala’s death compensation as example.

Neithal Makkal Iyakkam District secretary, Kurumbani Berlin, says, “There is absolutely no hope that the fishermen will return after so many days. The government should declare them dead and pay the death compensation to the affected families.”

Berlin alleges that the government is playing deaf to this truth simply to avoid paying the compensation. The number of ‘missing’ fishermen stands at 167.

There were also other demands pertaining to the loss of biodiversity in the district. They demanded that proper assessment be done to gauge the extent of the loss and sanction a suitable compensation amount.

“The government has completely ignored the inland damage during Ockhi. All their reports are grossly underestimated with no real scientific assessment,” says the MLA, Mano. He alleges that a minimum of seven lakh trees have been lost to Ockhi. With no assistance from the state government, the MLA says he will continue to pursue his demands in the Centre.

Politics behind the Centre’s negligence

Mano Thangaraj also alleges that there is politics behind central government’s ignorance towards the disaster.

“The central minister from Kanyakumari district was out of country when the cyclone hit the district. He was subjected to a lot of criticism for his absence. Even after his return, he didn’t visit any of the affected areas. In order to assuage the criticism for his absence, he underplayed the effects of the disaster in the Centre,” says the MLA.

Since the cyclone hit the coastal areas on December 1, there has been a huge outcry to declare the cyclone as a National Disaster. But their outcry has fallen on deaf ears with complete inaction from the central government.

Berlin says, “It’s utterly shameful that the central government has been completely mindless about the situation. It shows how much they value Tamil Nadu and our politicians. Our politicians’ inefficiency is the reason for their ignorance.”

A helpful neighbour in times of distress

The fishing community is greatly taken with Kerala’s government’s efficiency in their relief operations. “In Kerala, the Chief Minister himself oversaw the relief operations. He was on the ground the very next day directing rescue missions. But our Chief Minister was hardly bothered about the situation,” says Berlin.

Berlin says that the Kerala government had saved 200 fishermen from Kanyakumari district during their relief operation. Tamil Nadu’s number stands at zero.

“Although it was the Kerala government which saved these fishermen, the TN state government took credit for it. When the Indian Coast Guard took over the rescue operations, they hardly ventured upto 50 nautical miles into the sea. It’s a meagre distance to cover when on a rescue mission,” he says. When Kerala can carry out such an efficient rescue operation, why is Tamil Nadu so behind, he asks.

“Ockhi has come and gone. At least now take proper measures”

The fishing community is increasingly frustrated with their pitiable plight when out at sea. With no proper forms of communication and safety measures, they feel alienated by the government and the common people.

“One of our most important demands to the government is to ensure there is a proper satellite communication system. Had our fishermen been warned of the impending cyclone through satellite communication, hundreds of lives would have been saved. Even if they couldn’t return to their home shore, they would have rushed to the nearest port,” says Berlin.

The Coast Guard had issued a cyclone warning in the evening of November 29. The warning was not conveyed to the fishermen who were already fishing in the sea. “It was too late for us to do anything. But the government should have done something. Hundreds of lives were at stake. How could the government have been so callous with the lives of so many fishermen? By not taking proper measures, they robbed us of our right to live,” says Berlin.

“Because we come from a marginalized society, our lives are of little worth to the government. They just want us as a source of revenue, but when our lives are endangered, they turn a blind eye,” says the fishing community leader.

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