Months after Cyclone Ockhi, Tamil Nadu fisherfolks' families allege government apathy in recovering bodies
Father Lucian Thomas' office in Neerody witnesses a steady stream of the faithful seeking his counsel, and these days it invariably revolves around the aftermath of Ockhi. The cyclone left 203 people dead in Tamil Nadu, 162 in Kerala and tore through the lives of fishing communities in coastal villages between Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari. A village of nearly 6,000 people, Neerody lost 34 men, one of the highest casualties among fishing villages on this coast.
Editor's note: Cyclone Ockhi, the first severe storm in almost 40 years to have travelled about 2,400 kilometres from the Bay of Bengal to as far as the Gujarat coast, cut a path of devastation and left in its wake shattered livelihoods and broken families. This, part one of a three-part series, examines the efforts of a Tamil Nadu clergyman to pressure the state government to recover the bodies of fishermen lost at sea.
Neerody, Tamil Nadu: Father Lucian Thomas' office in Neerody witnesses a steady stream of the faithful seeking his counsel, and these days it invariably revolves around the aftermath of Ockhi. The cyclone left 203 people dead in Tamil Nadu, 162 in Kerala and tore through the lives of fishing communities in coastal villages between Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari. A village of nearly 6,000 people, Neerody lost 34 men, one of the highest casualties among fishing villages on this coast.
Thomas alleges gaps in the search and rescue operations and says the apathy shown by authorities towards his people is unconscionable. "Neerody would have been spared so many young widows and fatherless children if the rescue work had been efficient," he says. He knows because he has been in the thick of it all since 29 November, when he first got a call about the impending cyclone.
When it was realised that hundreds of their men were at sea and possibly shipwrecked, Thomas attempted to contact the office of the district collector, but was rudely rebuffed. He was finally able to meet Collector Sajjan Singh R Chavan on 3 December, when he accompanied Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during her visit to the village. Till date, she remains the only elected official to have been to Neerody.
The minister met some families of the missing fisherfolk at a local school. At this point, locals were already frustrated that rescue operations were being conducted too close to the coast to be of help to any deep-sea fishing vessels. Thomas explained this to Sitharaman and handed over a list of coordinates obtained from the vessels that had returned: Among them, the last known GPS location of 13 men from the village.
“She assured us they won’t let a single fisherman die at the sea, and if even they are dead, they won’t allow the bodies to just float. 'We will bring them all ashore', she said. And we believed her”, Thomas says. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Tamil Nadu government now considers all 161 missing persons to be dead. “We believed her and we even put on hold our own rescue boats”.
Though not on this scale, community-led rescue missions were used to dealing with missing fisherfolk. They have seen success sailing on their catamarans when even helicopters have failed, Thomas says. And the men are often known to survive for days on a piece of driftwood. But in this case, the sea continued to be choppy until 7 December and there were reports of another cyclonic depression. Local rescue boats in Kerala met with limited success and Thomas was weary of losing more men.
However, when the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) at Thootukodi sent word for a list of men from the hamlet willing to accompany the coast guard during rescue operations, hope was rekindled. “An inspector from Karungal came by to pick up a list of the 20 people chosen. We never heard from MRCC after that”.
On 5 December, about 6 kilometres away in the fishing hamlet of Chinnathurai, five men were taken aboard ICGS Abhiraj to help with the rescue. This was one of the three occasions in which fisherfolk were embarked on coast guard ships to carry out joint search and rescue operations. John Britto, who was part of this group, calls the whole exercise a waste of diesel.
“After the five of us reached Thootukodi”, he remembers, “they told us out of the blue that there wasn’t space for all of us in the boat and asked some of us to stay behind. We convinced them to take all of us. Once on board, we realised that the search was being conducted too close to the coast. We told the captain that we had to go at least up to 100 nautical miles and then the radar could be used to scope out another 40 nautical miles. He said they didn’t have permission to go beyond 60 nautical miles. Had they said this in the beginning, we wouldn’t have bothered going along”, Britto says.
“The boat just sailed in a straight line up to Poovar and then returned along the same path. They wouldn’t even let us see the position of the boat,” he says. Thomas watched from his church as one of the rescue boats sailed past Neerody. “It was just a formality”, he says.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard extends from the baseline to the limits of the Exclusive Economic Zone, that is from zero to 200 nautical miles in the sea. The area beyond that falls within the jurisdiction of Indian Navy. When contacted, MRCC Chennai said extensive sea-air coordinated searches were carried out by Coast Guard ships along with Coast Guard aircraft for missing fishermen up to 3,400 nautical miles off the coast of Kerala, Karnataka, Lakshadweep and Minicoy, and information regarding the same was regularly shared with the government of Tamil Nadu.
"The allegations of restricting search up to 60 nautical miles are unfounded", MRCC Chennai said in a response to 101Reporters. "We had taken all possible efforts to save them. Sri Lankan and Maldives governments were also approached by Coast Guard to confirm about the missing fishermen in Sri Lanka and Maldives waters respectively. On 1 December, International Safety Network (ISN) was activated by MRCC for alerting all merchant ships operating in the area to render assistance to the missing fishermen and same was relayed by NAVTEX (navigational telex) also".
Desperate, the fishing community rallied together on 7 December and marched to Kuzhithurai railway station to conduct a rail roko. Around 4,000 people from Neerody accompanied Thomas on the 23-kilometre march. “Not a single leaf along the path was destroyed. It was a peaceful protest from the start. Most of us were tired by the time we reached the station, so we just sat there, drinking water and porridge that some people donated”, says Thomas.
The rail roko led to cancellation and partial termination of seven trains between Nagarcoil and Trivandrum. The protest was withdrawn after the district collector assured the protesters that search operations would be intensified in the deep sea.
But then close to 15,000 protesters were booked in the following days for unlawful assembly, blocking rail traffic and disobedience to public servant’s order. “I am the first accused”, Thomas says, amused. “I knew they would file a case, because when we were leaving a sub-inspector politely noted down my name with the right spelling. In fact, they even arranged for buses to take our people home. And the next day we heard that cases were registered across four neighbouring police stations”.
"We haven’t taken these criminal cases seriously. We’ll face this when the time comes. I will go when I am summoned, but I don’t intend to beg for mercy for protesting peacefully," Thomas says. "We didn’t have any demands from the government except to bring back our men who are abandoned at sea".
21 November – Cyclone Ockhi originates in the Gulf of Thailand
29 November– Ockhi makes landfall on the southern-most tip of mainland India
30 November – Numbers/locations of missing fishermen communicated to authorities; rescue efforts begin
3 December – Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visits Kanyakumari, promises to intensify rescue
7 December – Massive rail roko protests by over 15,000 fisherfolk alleging apathy shown in rescuing stranded men
13 December – Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy makes his first visit to affected districts
19 December – Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Kanyakumari; Pon Radhakrishnan, Union Minister of State for Finance and Shipping, arrives a day earlier at hometown Nagercoil to make arrangements for prime minister's visit
The author is a Chennai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. She tweets @Luvnbeer
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