Cyclone Ockhi: With 96 fishermen still missing, Kerala govt under fire for lax response to disaster

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan was in the state capital when family members of fishermen hit by Cyclone Ockhi spent day and night in the battered coast just 10-15 kilometres away, waiting and praying for the return of their kith and kin.

But he stepped out of his air-conditioned office only on the fourth day, that too after the Bharatiya Janata Party played their cards deftly and brought defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Minister of State for Tourism Alphons Kannanthanam to the state to take stock of the situation.

 Cyclone Ockhi: With 96 fishermen still missing, Kerala govt under fire for lax response to disaster

Fishermen families wait for those who are yet to return home at Vizhinjam harbour. PTI

The fisherfolk, who were waiting for him for three days to know the steps taken by the state government to save their kith and kin, battling high waves in the sea, gave vent to their anger and anguish at him when he finally visited Vizhinjam, one of the worst-hit areas, on Sunday.

Pinarayi beat a hasty retreat when the agitated residents mobbed his car and blocked him from moving ahead for nearly five minutes. He abandoned his official car and further visits to the other areas and left the place in the car of one of his ministerial colleagues.

State tourism and cooperation minister Kadakampally Surendran, who is in-charge of the capital district, and fisheries minister Mercykutty Amma were the only two ministers to visit the affected areas till then. Both of them also faced the fury of the fisherfolk.

While the tourism minister faced flak for his aerial surveillance of the havoc from a helicopter and then posting a selfie on his Facebook page, the fisheries minister invited the wrath of the fisherfolk for undermining their protests.

Revenue minister and state disaster management authority (SDMA) vice-chairman E Chandrashekharan, who is supposed to coordinate the rescue and relief efforts, was seen nowhere in the picture even when the storm battered the coast and displaced hundreds of fishing families and destroyed their houses.

Though he accompanied the chief minister on Sunday, the district collector and the members of the SDMA, who come under him, have remained elusive.

The chief minister and his colleagues have been claiming that the government was doing everything possible to save the fishermen stranded in the sea. But the hapless fisherfolk did not believe them. They have enough reasons not to trust the state government, which let down the fishermen by not acting on the weather alerts that they received from the meteorological department and other agencies.

"We are ready to forgive the government authorities for their initial lapse. But we cannot let them off the hook for their failure to make effective use of the official machinery in rescuing the fishermen who ventured into the sea without knowing what awaited them," said Poonthura St Thomas Church vicar Fr Justin Judin, who is coordinating the local relief efforts.

He told Firstpost that lives of many who perished in the sea could have been saved if the navy, air force and the coast guard were pressed into action immediately after the state government realised that the storm that lashed the coasts was, in fact, a cyclone. Though the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had issued three alerts from 29 November, the government took cognisance of only the third alert at 12 noon on 30 November.

Even after the confirmation, the authorities wasted considerable time in putting their acts together. While the state government was caught in a blame game with the IMD over the delay in cyclone warning, the central agencies groped in the dark in the absence of proper directions. The coast guard, a multi-mission organisation tasked with round-the-year real-life operations at sea, remained frightened by the turbulent sea.

They launched the rescue operation the next day when Ockhi started moving towards Lakshadweep islands. But precious time was lost by then. The fishermen who had gone to sea prior to the storm on 29 November and before that had exhausted fuel, food and water. Many of them could not be located by the time the ships and aircraft were deployed.

"The fishermen who returned from the sea knew the location and they came forward to help the agencies, the government refused to involve them in the operation. A decision to take the fishermen along with the government search teams was finally taken only in the afternoon on 3 December," said Fr Justin.

But before that, fishermen themselves ventured into the sea in search of their colleagues. Fifty-five boats equipped with fuel, food, GPS, life jackets and other gadgets have left the coast at Vizhinjam and Poonthura. The priest said that the government had not given any assistance to the fishermen, who dared to confront the turbulent sea.

"According to our information, 96 fishermen are still trapped at sea. We are not sure whether our search team will be able to bring them alive. It will be a big consolation even if they bring the dead bodies of the fishermen," he added.

Thrissur district Congress committee chief TN Prathapan, who was one of the first to visit the affected areas, said that he had informed the government about the gravity of the situation and pleaded before them to act immediately. However, the government woke up to the situation only the next day. He told Firstpost that even the response was half-hearted.

"When a tsunami hit Kerala in 2006, the then chief minister Oommen Chandy and many of his cabinet colleagues rushed to the affected areas and camped there till relief operations were completed. The cabinet had also held a special meeting there and took on-the-spot decisions to provide relief to the victims. In the present case, not even a minister was deployed to coordinate the search and rescue operations," he said.

"The government could at least post a senior officer for the coordination. Only two sub-collectors and a tehsildar were posted to deal with the situation. Many of the decisions they took in consultation with the local residents could not be implemented," Prathapan added.

He said there was absolutely no system to inform the families of the fishermen about the search and rescue operations. A control room was set up at Thiruvananthapuram only on the fourth day. But it had no reliable data about the missing fishermen and those who were rescued.

Though many fishermen from the state had landed in Maharashtra, Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu and Lakshadweep, none of them have been identified so far, let alone making arrangements for bringing them back to the state. A team to be sent to Maharashtra was constituted only on Sunday.

BJP Thiruvananthapuram district president advocate S Suresh said that the government had also failed in providing adequate food to hundreds of people shifted to relief camps. Though the SDMA is flush with funds, the government could provide only bread and plantain fruit to the people in the relief camp.

The government, which is pressing the Centre to declare Cyclone Ockhi as a national disaster, should first declare the SDMA as a disaster and disband it, the BJP leader said.

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Updated Date: Dec 04, 2017 16:49:20 IST