A wave of sorrow seizes the huddle of fisherwomen under a red pavilion in the St Thomas churchyard in Poonthura, a fishing village in Thiruvananthapuram. Their lamentations swell as, rosaries in hand, they grieve in solidarity with those who have lost their loved ones to Cyclone Ockhi which grazed Kerala on November 30. Of the 130 fishermen still missing, 69 are from the three fishing villages of Poonthura, Vizhinjam and Adimalathura—and they have already buried seven. Their grief is compounded by the fact that the Kerala state government failed to issue a warning on the afternoon of November 29, the day it was notified by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) that a deep depression was strengthening and moving towards the coast. Even as fax messages and emails were received by the lethargic, sterile government offices, 304 traditional fishermen from Thiruvananthapuram (according to Latin Catholic church figures), and scores of others along Kerala’s coast had set out that very evening in their small country craft made of plywood, to fish through the night. (Those in bigger boats had better chances of survival). Unbeknownst to them, a furious cyclone was churning everything in its path off the coast of Kanyakumari. Their plans to return by next morning were tossed up as hundreds of small boats splintered into matchwood. Even a week later, nearly 130 are still missing, 29 dead and over 100 hospitalised. As if the communication lapse was not bad enough, the government machinery dragged its feet on rescue operations, losing time and lives.
A desperate shriek escapes 55-year -old Christumary’s throat as she sits on the steps of the church. Christumary, who sells fish at the Palayam market, awaits with dread any news of her nephew, Vincent, 17, who had gone out to sea and has yet to return. Her woes were never small, but Cyclone Ockhi has cruelly exacerbated her raw pain: her sister died of cancer a few months ago, her sick brother-in-law has been unable to find work, while another autistic nephew needs constant attention. And now the sea had taken “the good boy Vincent”, who was the family’s sole breadwinner. “We are dirt poor,” she says, “and ours is a hand-to-mouth existence and this poor boy is now gone.” There are others similarly engulfed by sorrow. Aiythamma, 84, deranged with grief, cries hoarsely for the return of her youngest son Denson, 43. Aiythamma, who has already lost one son to the sea, prays feverishly for Denson. “I understand the inevitability of death but what I cannot bear is the pain my son is undergoing. Is he suffering without food and water, how numb and cold is my son? When I think of him struggling to survive I become half-crazed,” a torrent of words addled by sorrow pours forth.
Stranded fisherman brought to Kochi by Navy personnel on the 2nd
The horrifying tragedy is that perhaps both Vincent and Denson would have been fine had it not been for the systemic failure of both the central and state government agencies. It began with the failure of the India Meteorological Department to alert the government a week in advance of the path of Cyclone Ockhi. The cyclone, which developed near the Andaman and Nicobar islands and crossed the southern coast of Sri Lanka in its north-westward trajectory, with its centre lying 75 kilometres off Kanyakumari, only grazed Kerala. The Joint Typhoon Warning Centre and the US Climate Prediction Centre had clearly marked out the path for the depression as early as November 20; this suggests a cyclone formation, and it was reported by Business Line. But IMD Delhi ignored the warning and only sent the first e-mails about the depression on November 30 at 12 noon. The e-mail’s subject line and content are innocuous and do not signal any alarm; they indicate another dull day. But tucked away in the jargon-filled attachment was the warning for the fishermen. This was followed by e-mails and faxes from the regional IMD bureau in Thiruvananthapuram to the chief secretary, who is the chief executive of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), but even these had a similar format.
Kerala chief secretary K.M. Abraham and his secretary (an IAS officer) also failed to understand the jargon of deep depression and its import. Sekhar L. Kuriakose, head scientist of the State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC) and member secretary of the SDMA, is rumoured to have been out of the country so perhaps he conveniently did not read his e-mails, while others on his team may have left the office at 5 pm. P.H. Kurien, relief commissioner and convenor of the SEOC and convenor of the SDMA, refused to answer Outlook’s questions, saying that the CM would reply. The IMD too, which waxes eloquent about the onset of the monsoons, has failed to issue any press release on this grave matter.
On the evening of November 30, when Thiruvananthapuram grappled with unprecedented rains and squally winds as the cyclone whisked past, the Latin Catholic Church’s vicar-general, Fr Eugene Pereira, got a call from Thaddeus, a fisherman. “He was floating in his boat somewhere near Vizhinjam and he called me from his mobile asking me to rescue him. I immediately called the police, the coast guard and the minister and informed them, but no one came to the rescue of this poor man. He managed to survive on his own. That was not all. I was aghast to find that even after two days, no camp office had been set up and there was no collection of the details of who was missing. Finally, the Church set up its own office to collect the details of the missing persons. Only on December 2 was the camp office opened,” says Pereira.
Aiythamma, 84, prays for her missing son Denson
The horror stories continued through November 30 as those fishermen managing to return in one piece saw others floating on splintered boat pieces. Says Albert Jelestine, 42, a fisherman,“We saw three people on an overturned boat waving to us but we could not turn back because the wind was too strong. We also saw another person desperately hanging on to a piece of wood. We informed the Coast Guard about the position but they refused to do anything.” The naval ships, which were deployed for the rescue mission, arrived only the next morning, having encountered fierce resistance from the winds. And a piece of fake news claiming that a Japanese ship had rescued over 60 people was announced by district collector K Vasuki herself. Neither Vasuki nor sub-collector Divya Iyer had any understanding of crisis management, and failed to impress with their ‘business as usual’ attitude. The poor fishermen, who took taxis to the shore to meet their loved ones, were dismayed that not a single person came ashore from any Japanese ship. They were then assured that the ship was moving towards Kozhikode by no less than the state’s fisheries minister, J. Mercykutty Amma. The false news and the government’s uncertainty about the rescue operations added fuel to the community’s anger. The ire against Mercykutty Amma grew for not understanding their plight. “She is from the fisher community and we made her a minister, but she has been lying to us that people have been rescued and ships are being sent to rescue our loved ones, when nothing seems to be happening,” says Manju John, daughter of a fisherman.
The apathy at the highest level was even more shocking. CM Pinarayi Vijayan, in his press conference on December 1, said the government had been informed only on November 30, and this was the cause of the inaction. But things were still moving very slowly even on December 1. Agitated fishermen soon blocked the national highway, demanding speedy rescue operations. Angry with the lackadaisical approach, they grouped together to venture out into the sea and find their dear ones, whether alive or dead. “We found that the coast guards and the navy were not venturing too far into the sea. And though we told them the exact location of where the fishermen could be, they just ignored us. We even volunteered to accompany them, but we were not allowed on their ships, so we decide to go out on our own,” says Gilbert Issac, one of the fishermen rescue team members. On December 2, ignoring all warnings, over 70 boats from different parts of south Kerala, armed with diesel, water, food and wireless handsets, set out to find other fishermen lost at sea. Says Issac, “We went up to 90 nautical miles, saw hundreds of broken boats floating like driftwood and found four bodies. We also rescued three people.”
District collector K. Vasuki addresses protestors
Also startling was the government’s inability to read the situation. Says Congress leader T.N. Prathapan, in charge of the coastal area, “What kind of governance is it that the chief minister failed to come to the villages and be with the people? Total failure of the government was evident.” By the time CM Pinarayi Vijayan decided to meet the fisher community, they were in no mood to listen to him. A group of them expressed their anger and he had to be escorted out by the police. PM Narendra Modi, who dialled the chief minister of Tamil Nadu personally and offered all help, reportedly did not call up the CM of Kerala. The defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, in charge of Tamil Nadu, landed in Thiruvananthapuram and rushed to Kanyakumari first, but made a brief visit to two affected villages on her way back to Delhi. Her assurance that fishermen would be included in the search and rescue operations did not help matters. The fishermen accompanying the coast guards in their ships shortly afterwards found that these did not go beyond 12 nautical miles, while they themselves had gone up to 90 nautical miles in their flimsy boats. The community had lost faith in the government and were irked by the condescending platitudes mouthed by both central and state ministers. They were not ready to believe the government’s figures and wanted to see the rescued in person.
The political leaders, bureaucracy and government agencies have failed the community. “They know it and feel worthless, and from that stems their anger and agitation,” says Pereira. K.G. Thara, former head of DMC and member of the SDMA, points out that the bureaucracy had totally failed to understand the situation. “There’s failure on the part of SDMA to advise the government about the significance of the IMD messages and respond to the situation. Furthermore, there’s been a steady decline in the importance of SDMA and the district disaster management authorities. SDMA, formed in 2007 after the National Disaster Management Act 2005 came into place, has been reduced to a paper organisation without any teeth. It should have a full-time chief executive with experts from different domains equipped to deal with various disasters like chemical, geological, nuclear, man-made and biological ones. The SDMA not only advices the government as to what to do during a disaster but also helps with the antidote for it. In this case they clearly did not understand the jargon.” States like Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal have strengthened their SDMAs, and in particular, Orissa’s efforts during Cyclone Phailin were appreciated by the UN Secretary-General. Will the bureaucrats take responsibility for the deaths caused by their indifference, or will we see more and more such incidents in the coming days? The Disaster Management Act, 2005, says that an officer can be prosecuted for failing to do his duty under the Act. Will anyone ever be held accountable?
A Telling Comparison
- Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) is a paper organisation. State Emergency Operation Centre (SEOC) does not have scientists from all domains on its team. There is only one scientist in the SEOC whose speciality is hazard and risk analysis in physical geology. The other qualified people are geology experts on contract.
- The Disaster Management Centre, responsible for capacity building and training, closed in 2016.
- DMC received funds of Rs 2 crore from 2011 to 2015 and trained over 10,000 people per year. Training was imparted to people from village level to deputy collector. 14th Finance Commission says 5 per cent of SDMA funds should go to capacity building and training, but DMC was dismantled. Training and community-based awareness have been silently dropped.
- Since the 2004 tsunami, coastal alarm systems like wireless, public addressing system, microphones, beacons have been in disrepair.
- Unlike Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa there is no model system. The models and maps created by the National Centre for Earth Science and Studies in 2010 have not been updated.
- Kerala does not use social media or SMSes to disseminate information, unlike AP, Orissa, Gujarat, Bihar.
- SDMA funds are being diverted for an SEOC building which indicates that instead of empowering district level disaster management it has centralised authority, contrary to the National Disaster Management Act 2005
- The Coastal Police have only 3 boats, of which 2 are in disrepair. The functional one cannot be used in stormy weather.
- P.K. Mohapatra, head of SDMA, says information disseminated within 17 minutes. A button pressed in his office can send out an alarm across the state’s coast. “After the 1999 super cyclone disrupted all the traditional communication links...precious response time was lost... Now fully dedicated civil VHF wireless network having 414 base stations covering all district and block headquarters are in place.”
- There are Emergency Operation Centres (EOC) at the state capital and district HQs.
- Early warning Dissemination System (EWDS): The state-of-the-art Early warning Dissemination System (EWDS)
- 470 cyclone & food shelters have been constructed along the coast
- To create a sense of ownership, members of the community manage the shelter.
- 20 different types of emergency equipment
- 20 Units of Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) were created to provide search and rescue assistance after a disaster. ODRAF is the first of its kind in the country.
- Mock drills are organised in all cyclone shelters and involve all stakeholders.
- Preparedness through Coordination among Stakeholders
- Capacity Building at 23,234 villages and 3,005 gram panchayats of 145 disaster prone blocks spread over the 16 district covered.
- School safety programmes, teachers’ and students’ training programmes have been conducted. 8000 school buildings have been constructed.
- The 1999 super cyclone saw 9000 people dead. During cyclone Phailin only 21 causalities.
By Minu Ittyipe in Thiruvananthapuram