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Unsung saviours of Kerala floods: From Trivandrum to Kozhikode, fishermen take inspiration from Ockhi tragedy

Editor's noteDescribed as one of the worst since 1924 by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the rains in Kerala have left over 350 dead and rendered thousands of people homeless. According to the latest tally, 80,000 have been rescued so far. Over 1,500 relief camps have been set up across the state that currently house at least 2,23,139 people. In a multi-part series, Firstpost will attempt to analyse the short-term and long-term impact of these unprecedented floods on the lives of the people, economy of the state, and the environment.​

If there was one defining moment that stood out among the endless efforts made to salvage the hapless victims of Kerala's worst-ever floods, it was that of a young man offering his back as a stepping board for the women of Vengara in Malappuram to board an NDRF rescue boat.

This man, 30-year-old KP Jaisal is not NDRF personnel. He is just a local resident of Tanur. But more significantly he is a fisherman who was under no obligation to go for a rescue operation.

But this week's unprecedented rescue and relief operations across the state had this one indelible presence — the fishermen stretching from coastal Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kozhikode in the north.

 Unsung saviours of Kerala floods: From Trivandrum to Kozhikode, fishermen take inspiration from Ockhi tragedy

KP Jaisal, who leaned into floodwaters for an old woman, is no NDRF personnel. He is a fisherman from Tanur. Firstpost/Naveen Nair

While this report was being filed, close to 1.25 lakh people stranded at various parts of the state have been saved by the fishermen with just their country boats and a never-say-die spirit for company. Close to 600 boats from every possible coastal area in the state dashed to the affected districts of Pathanamthitta, Alapuzha, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Malappuram and Kozhikode from 15 August.

More than 3000 fishermen also gave up their livelihood for close to a week to engage in what had been the biggest rescue and relief operation in the state's history.

Even when the Indian Army, Navy, air force and the NDRF could not break the shackles of nature's fury, it was the fishermen who sailed into the rapid waters of the rivers like the Pampa, the Periyar, the Chalakudy, the Achenkovil and elsewhere paying little heed to their own personal safety taking take food, water and medicines to stranded people and getting them back to dry land.

"What the fishermen did in the state in the last few days have no parallels. They are our real heroes. When they return home to their own districts, the administration there should ensure that they are given a heroes welcome,'' Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told media persons on Sunday.

Modus Operandi

From Kollam district alone, more than 157 boats had left the shores to travel inland to save people. The author met up with Basil Lal Hubert of Kollam who is not only a leader among the fishermen community but also a syndicate member at the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies.

He explained that it all started on the night of 15 August at 7 pm when a request was received from Kollam district collector to send two boats to Pathanamthitta district to help a few stranded people in the flooding waters. We were only happy to do that. But in half an hour, Hubert says the picture started changing.

"From two boats, the request went on to ten to which we could only respond with six over night as many were at sea. But by dawn the realization struck everyone that they were looking at a big humanitarian crisis. By the evening of 16 August, it was a complete SOS situation because the news that reached us was that thousands may perish if we don't act on time," Hubert said. The call to make was to simply pool in whatever resources you had and rush to affected areas, he added.

"This is where we were all a bit worried. We are moving all our boats but then it was not like going into the sea. That is something which comes natural to us. But here it was uncertainty that stared at us. But even I was surprised at the way the mobilisation happened and how the entire fishing community in Kollam responded to the crisis,'' Hubert said.

The fishermen of Kollam did not sleep that night. They went from home to home to convince the families for the need to get into rescue mode. By 4 am on 17 August, a huge number of them were ready with their boats atop trucks, many of them seized by the police on the highway to enable this quick movement.

By 10.30 am on 17 August, close to 54 boats had reached the rescue destination. Though they were told to leave for Chengannur in the beginning, the more precise locality of Pandanad was told to them later when they reached.

After deboarding from the trucks, the men got into action which would then go on to save thousands by the end of August 19 th, a no mean task given the sheer obstacles they had to put up on the ground.

Pandanad which had been the epicenter of the floods in Pathanamthitta district was sinking fast without the knowledge of most of the people in the district administration, one of the primary reasons why the Navy or the NDRF which was engaged in other areas could not be mobilized for rescue in Pandanad on time.

"What happened in Pandanad explains the entire situation in Kerala at the onset of the flooding. Nobody really understood the extent of the calamity that was developing. By the time they did it was too late and there was chaos in coordinating between the armed forces and the district administration. That was where the best came out of ordinary citizens like the fishermen who taught us a lesson or two in crisis management ,'' Joseph C Mathew former IT advisor to State government and a resident of Chengannur.

From Ockhi to Kerala Floods

By the time the fishermen and their boats gathered in numbers, the flooded Pampa river was often changing its course at more than one place and flowing at an unimaginable speed eating up most of Pandanad and adjoining areas marooning thousands on the terraces of their homes.

People wait for aid next to makeshift raft at a flooded area. Reuters

People wait for aid next to makeshift raft at a flooded area. Reuters

The men battled through the waters to save as many as they could but soon found it tough to battle the very strong current which was not allowing them to maneuver their boats among the man made barriers of cement and metal that were standing up as obstacles to reaching the stranded people.

Ignacious from Thiruvananthapuram recollects how hard he and the team on his boat had to fight to reach some of the houses in Pandanad. Even in the midst of such fury there was something that kept him going. "I was stranded for more than 24 hours in the sea during the Ockhi cyclone, holding on to a broken boat before I was airlifted. So I know very well the agony of being stranded and thinking of death. There it's the wide open sea. But here when we are so close to some of them, then why don't we just go and get them out. That's what kept us crossing the waters,'' said Ignacious.

The Ockhi cyclone that struck the shores of south India in November last year had claimed 218 lives. The fisherfolk say that they took inspiration from that tragedy when they plunged in to save people in the last few days.

"Ockhi was a very big tragedy for us. We had lost so many of our people and the pain of it is still fresh in our minds. We did not want yet another tragedy of that dimension to hit Kerala. Our community may not have been on the receiving end but certainly we wanted to do our bit to prevent such a big tragedy. This was a spontaneous reaction from the fishermen community. Nobody told us we had to do this. We just wanted to,'' Jackson , a prominent fishermen leader from Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram told First Post.

Jackson goes on to say that anyone in the fishing industry would agree that it was the time of the year the catch was at the biggest. Leaving that for a week was unthinkable. But that is exactly what the fishermen did.

"It was not just the fishermen who went for rescue that kept away from the sea all these days. But those back in their villages also refused to go to sea in solidarity with those engaged in rescue operations. Also they were acting as back up for those in the operations,'' added Anto, another fishermen from Neendakara in Kollam.

And their sacrifice indeed prevented a bigger tragedy from unfolding in Kerala. Thousands were brought out from Pandanad alone. Most of them who could have perished had these men not reached them on time.

"We were stranded for two days without food and water. None came to rescue us. Finally when we saw a boat we were actually surprised that it was a fishing boat. These fishermen from Neendakara saved us, they are the real heroes," says a survivor.

While this report was being filed most of rescue had finished and the fishermen and their boats were returning to villages a satisfied lot.

Even in the midst of that satisfaction of having saved so many lives, they still have an apprehension because if reports from the ground are true atleast 80 percentage of their boats have suffered one kind of repair or the other having had to put up with so many man made obstacles while doing the rescue. Some have broken propellers and motors and some are broken altogether.

The state may have declared a price amount of Rs 3,000 per day per fishermen apart from reimbursing full diesel. However, the state needs to step in to repair their boats at the earliest.

For a community that has always been at the receiving end when it comes to braving the sea or putting up with red tapism that follows every natural calamity that strikes their shores, there is a renewed hope at the moment - that they have indeed proved their worth and more in the society and its time that we pay back what they deserve.

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Updated Date: Aug 21, 2018 15:38:16 IST

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