Protests mount in Kerala’s coastal villages as Cyclone Ockhi leave behind death, devastation; fisherfolk cry govt apathy
Anger towards the state and central govt is rising across coastal villages in Kerala as families of fishermen, who went missing after Cyclone Ockhi hit the Arabian Sea, fear an uncertain future
Shalini has been waiting for her husband with her breastfed baby for the past 13 days in the seaside Kerala's Poonthura village with her eyes fixed on the rising waves.
She sits in a tent, the villagers raised on the beach before a local church, along with scores of other women who do not know when their men who ventured into the sea on 29 November would return.
From the Poonthura village alone, 29 fishers who went in small boats mostly with portable outboard engines had left before Cyclone Ockhi swept through the Arabian Sea last month end.
Hundreds of people had gone into the sea in mechanised vessels and reached Lakshadweep islands and southwestern states of Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra.
They started coming back within a few days with the help of the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard which launched a joint search and rescue mission, Op Sahayam, the very next day Cyclone Ockhi hit the Arabian Sea.
The chances of survival for fishers who are still at sea with small boats, including catamarans, 95 officially, after retrieving 42 bodies, are too little.
"These people are really a cause for concern," said former chief minister Oommen Chandy, who has been regularly going to these villages consoling the grieving families.
"Those who had gone in large mechanised boats would have reached shores elsewhere, and they have started coming back, much to the relief of these families,” he added.
But Shalini, 25, wife of Paniyadima Moses, 37, and others have not lost their hopes. They continue their wait under the scorching sun for the second week, surviving on the food aid workers provide.
"She does not eat, and she looks numbed. She has to feed her baby who is just eight months old," a woman sitting adjacent to her tells Firstpost. "
Besides the toddler Prashant, who refuses to leave her lap, her four-year-old son Prathul is also with his mother in her unending wait for their breadwinner.
They cannot lose the fight. Moses left them after clasping the baby to his chest and planting a tender kiss on its cheek one last time on that fateful Wednesday afternoon.
They were a group of ten fishers in two boats, and they were to return early morning with the night’s catch before the auction begins on the beach.
The boats caught in the cyclone and capsized. Only two of the fishers could swim into safety. The fate of others remains unknown.
Shalini is a school dropout, and the family was living in a rented house. A bleak future stares at them.
Like most others in the impoverished coastal fishing hamlets, Moses has had no savings and insurance against accident or death. The family does not even have a ration card.
Similar is the case with almost all of them. Clinical psychologists who visit their homes and give them counselling say many face post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Some have even developed a fear of the sea. Heartrending cries receive every visitor, whether it is an aid worker, lawmaker or a journalist.
Thades Mary, 30, has three school going children all in primary classes. If her husband Paniyadima Francis fails to return by Thursday and pay up, she will have to vacate her rented house as the rent is due for two months.
"We have been sharing a house with another family. Now, I have no place to go and live with my husband being at sea," she tells Firstpost.
Selin, 32, has four girl children, the eldest being seven and the youngest just turned a year old. Her husband, Kumar, 38, also has a paralysed father and an acute diabetic mother, both requiring money to get properly treated.
The family had a hand-to-mouth existence. All of them have no land or house of their own, despite the fact that the state launched a zero-landless and housing for all schemes launched four years ago.
The victims belong to the Latin Catholic archdiocese in Kerala, which observed a day of prayers for the dead and the missing on Sunday. They say both the state and central governments have left them in the lurch.
On Monday, hundreds of people from the fishing community marched on the streets of the state capital to Raj Bhavan registering their protest against “inadequate response” to the devastation. They want Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit them and see their plight for himself and order a coordinated search operation to trace the missing men.
Congress president-elect Rahul Gandhi is visiting some of these villages on Thursday.
The government has announced an ex gratia of Rs 20 lakh for the dead and offered employment for the next of kin, but very few are qualified for a government job. The children have stopped going to school since the tragedy struck.
The state has also offered a sustenance allowance of Rs 60 a day for an adult and Rs 45 for a child. But no government official is seen around, and many have no idea what it was meant for. The government officials say they have set up camps, and those who need support are being shifted there. The government also bears the treatment expenses of the survivors.
The cabinet meeting on Wednesday will review the situation and decide further relief measures.
“I can understand the frustration and anger of the suffering people whose breadwinners are away at sea,” said E Chandrasekharan, the state’s minister for revenue and disaster management.
“We are doing everything humanly possible to alleviate their sufferings and reach the aid that the cabinet has cleared. We have also decided to compensate for their lost boats and nets and provide their children with free education,” he added.
The aid workers say, in private, that there’s little or no chance for the bodies to be recovered after so many days. They would end up on the list of the missing persons, making it difficult for the families to get the compensation.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had sought a Rs 1,843 crore financial package from the central government for the “rehabilitation and resettlement” of the affected.
“What we need is not such big promises but action on the ground at this hour of crisis,” says Maglin Philomena, who leads the women’s wing of the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF).
“We had heard such promises when tsunami took away more than 100 lives among us in 2004. Then they spent all the money on roads and bridges away from the coasts. It contained no substantial schemes for the suffering hundreds,” she informs.
The NFF on Sunday issued a statement saying the state government was exploiting the tragedy to elicit central funds.
“The cash-strapped state is seeking funds for tourism and related activities in our name. They included roads and bridges to promote beach tourism,” she says.
The villagers have not been allowing state ministers, who initially ignored warnings and their call for help, to visit them. They even booed them off.
“Vijayan went there on the fourth day when defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman landed here. Remember, Poonthura is less than nine kilometres from his office,” says political commentator Roy Mathew.
“He has been busy with other engagements like attending wedding receptions. He went to visit the agitated fishers late in the evening on 3 December after attending the marriage of a liquor baron in the city. The next day, he found time to travel 20 kilometres along with his wife to condole a financier whose 93-year-old father died.”
The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) says it had sent warnings to state governments against sending fishers into the sea four times on 29 November which Kerala ignored while the neighbouring Tamil Nadu state with a broader fishing community could reduce the casualties substantially.
Vijayan chairs the state’s seven-member disaster management authority filled with ministers and bureaucrats except for a lone scientist. Naturally, the entire early warning system collapsed and hundreds of men were left at high seas.
“His engagements on the day when the entire state was in shock and disbelief included a meeting of editors to announce a farce called Loka Kerala Sabha where the state Assembly floors will roll out a red carpet to rich NRIs for a meeting,” says Mathew.
“Other affluent Christian churches have also turned a blind eye on their sufferings, which is equally painful,” he added.
The archdiocese of Latin has even threatened to lay a siege to the State Secretariat, where the offices of the chief minister and his cabinet are located, with dead bodies, if the apathy continued and the government fails to step in with a comprehensive rehabilitation plan.
“What I can see here is the government’s contempt for these poor lives. They could not even bring back those who landed on shores elsewhere,” says Philomena.
“What we needed was not a package. What we needed was the return of our men. We are spending days and nights on the shores praying for their lives. We all believe all is not lost. We still have hope left.
“The fishing community is in a debt trap. But the government is busy writing off loans taken by fishing contractors. Why don’t you have a list of those who had reached other states and those missing and dead.
“The state boasts of being the first to become open-defecation free, but many households have no toilets. Only a year ago, stray dogs mauled a 65-year-old lady on Pulluvila beach early morning while answering the call of nature,” she says.
The fishers have been making fervent appeals to take them aboard the rescue vessels as they know the sea better and where they could have gone fishing. But there was none to take their call, until Sitharaman met them on 4 December. But by that time, many were gone forever.
Instead of consoling the mothers, wives, and daughters, anxiously waiting on shores, Kadakampally Surendran, the minister Vijayan assigned to oversee relief operations, took a ride on a rescue chopper hampering it.
“It would have been a different story had they come early, listened to us and taken fishers who know every corner of the sea and their favourite fishing spots well,” Philomena said.
“The chief minister was holding that he kept away not to disrupt the search and rescue attempts. But there was nothing that prevented him as they were offshore and were operated by defence forces under the Southern Naval Command,” she added.
The fishing community in Kerala has been on the streets since the tragedy hit the state's coastal areas urging the authorities to act swiftly. Rail and road traffic were stalled for many hours last week as they squatted on the tracks and the national highway on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border.
“When people get stranded in the oil-rich Gulf, you send charter flights to evacuate them. But they won’t do it for the poor fishers. We are sad at the attitude of the Union and state governments,” said Vicar General Fr Eugene Pereira.
“It’s 12th day today, and the politicians are engaged in a blame game instead of trying to allay fears of these women and children. They are not getting the respect a human being deserves," he told Firstpost on Sunday.
The villagers accuse The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard sailors engaged in the rescue operations are not picking up bodies of their loved ones floating in the sea off southern Kerala, which they have denied.
“I have seen bodies floating around, but they all have decayed beyond retrieval,” a fisher onboard a rescue aircraft was seen telling News 18 Kerala.
“Even the tsunami warning system that was installed a decade ago is not functional anymore, and none is bothered,” said another man. “There are 25 boats with the state’s coastal police, but 15 of them are under repair.”
The State Human Rights Commission has also come out against officials for the delayed response and shoddy search and rescue operations with nearly 100 fishers still missing in Kerala.
“I don’t want to blame any particular government, but there was criminal negligence on the part of officials when people were dying and their bodies floating around like the dead fish,” the commission chair P Mohan Das said at a public meeting on Sunday.
“It was a clear case of serious human rights violation, the denial of their right to live,” he added.
The commission, which visited the worst-hit coastal villages on Wednesday, had ordered the IMD and the state authorities to file sworn statements for not expediently communicating the severe cyclone warning.
“A timely storm alert would have saved hundreds,” he said. “The officialdom could not shrug off responsibility for the oversight that had plunged the families into the depth of despair and deprivation.”
Nine ships and all available aircraft with the southern naval command are engaged in search and rescue operations codenamed ‘OP Sahayam’.
Long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft P8I searched over entire Maldives after the fishing community estimated few vessels to be stranded on the islands. They got “expeditious clearance” through diplomatic channels to fly over the Maldives.
“Calls were given on very high frequency (VHF) radio,” it said in a statement on Sunday. The statement said that officials have also confirmed that the Maldivian locals undertook search and have not located any fishers on the islands.
INS Sujata equipped with mobile morgue boxes has taken four fishers and an official onboard for joining the deep sea search operations.
“The search is expected to continue up to the satisfaction of the fishers,” it said.
INS Subhadra, another naval vessel under routine deployment, identified twelve crew onboard two Tamil Nadu registered fishing vessels Milkyas and Felixia about 90 miles northwest of Bitra island of Lakshadweep. She also encountered two capsized fishing vessels — Annei and AVM EP Turai — but no survivors were found onboard.
The sailors have so far covered nearly half a million square miles.
Archbishop Soosai Pakiam, who heads the Latin Catholic Church of fishers, said they were not satisfied with the official response, and what is being witnessed is the spontaneous reaction of the aggrieved people.
“We had not called any agitation till Monday,” he said. “But if the apathy continues, we would be forced to go into direct action. People lose patience when their breadwinners fail to return even after so many days.”
Meanwhile, the Indian Coast Guard said they had retrieved four more unidentified bodies on Monday, from 100 and 150 nautical miles away from the shore. Another eight bodies are still lying in the morgue awaiting relatives for DNA matching.
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