A Dark New Year for Coastal Tamilnadu

Hundreds of Fisher people still missing since Cyclone Ockhi

For over a month, fishing villages in southern Tamil Nadu have been in suspended mourning. Ockhi, the cyclone that ravaged the Indian coast, had left loved ones scattered across the high seas. The Indian government, which prides itself for being a formidable naval power, has failed miserably to warn, protect and rescue the lost fish workers. Even after gallant efforts by the fishing community in launching their own rescue efforts, hundreds remain missing, leaving families in agonizing wait.

Vinavu, an independent Tamil News portal, organized a documentary screening and discussion between journalists and representatives of the fishing community in Chennai on Christmas. ‘KanneerKadhal’ (Sea of Tears), a documentary on the plight of the fishing families post cyclone Ockhi was screened. This hour and half documentary, interposes interviews of fisher people, along with footage from mainstream media on this issue to bring out the failures of state agencies in dealing with this natural calamity.

CLICK HERE For the Documentary  

The discussion that followed was moderated by Mr.BarathiThambi, a senior journalist who had reported from the villages after Ockhi. Mr. Dixon and Mr Albert, fishermen from Vallavilai fishing village participated in the discussion. Mr. Dixon, had been on board a Coast Guard vessel to help in the search and rescue efforts. The full discussion can be viewed on Vinavu.com

How the State Failed its People

‘KanneerKadhal’ documents the different levels in which the state machinery failed. The poor state of warning by meteorological department and the local administration came for sharp criticism. Cyclone Ockhi had rapidly intensified close to Kanyakumari coast meant that the coast guard and other authorities had only two days to issue warnings. However, the IMD warning had come much later, when the fishermen were already caughtin deep sea. But the problem goes much deeper than early warning.

The fish stock near the coast has seen a steady decline due to multiple reasons such as pollution, port construction and intensive fishing. So a large section of the fisher people depend on deep sea fishing forcing them to venture into international waters. Their trips into the sea last between 5 – 15 days and sometimes even a month. The Government of India has barred the use of satellite phones on these boats for national security reasons. The state has also not facilitated alternative forms of communications, though systems such as Navtext (that allows ground to boat text information) and microwave radio transmissions have been proposed. The boats are equipped with a distress alert system that is monitored and coordinated by the Fisheries Department. Albert alleged that even though 120 boats had switched on the DAS system, the fisheries department claimed that it received distress messages only on 15th Dec, two weeks after the cyclone. The lack of communication meant that even if the warnings from IMD had come a few hours earlier, it would have been near to impossible to alert the fish workers in high seas through existing mechanisms.

The only other option would have been to use the fleet of Coast Guard and Naval assets spread across Indian ocean, to patrol, broadcast and rescue the boats. But the fisher people allege that the coast guard and navy did not move into action immediately and even when they did, they concentrated their resources upto a mere 30 nautical miles (about 50Kms) along the shoreline. This was the range of the traditional boats that could be easily warned by Mobile phones from the coast. Dixon, said that even though he had given them the probable locations (GPS coordinates) of the trawl boats, the coast guard refused to venture into deep sea citing operational reasons and lack of order. “Even when minister Nirmala Seetharaman claimed that the coast guard was in action, we were denied any real help. My time on the rescue vessel was a spent idling as they refused to take my coordinates and search the area” said Dixon.

Albert also demanded that the coast guard reveal the areas in which they conducted the search operations as they had failed to recover fishermen in significant numbers. He said,“they rescued one group and kept showing them on T.V, most others were rescued by the efforts of fisher people. Some had even returned by themselves after swimming through difficult seas for days. The administration claimed to have rescued them. But the truth is the ships never ventured deep enough.” Albert also pointed to instances where the employment of aerial assets could have helped save many lives. “Every minute lost in delays meant that a fisherman was to lost to the sea. Yet our government, that has the responsibility to save us, which had received huge revenue from our taxes, delayed the process and never employed its full capacity” he said.

Why the State Failed
While the lack of early warning can be understood because of the nature of meteorological science, the procrastination in the rescue, relief response is unpardonable. The misplaced priorities of the Indian state played a significant role in creating this social disaster. The poor coordination between the different agencies like IMD, fisheries department and local administration, is glaring in the conflicting claims about early warning. But effort was clearly missing even when it became clear that Ockhi was fast turning into a very powerful cyclone. The reluctance to employ all available naval resource before and after the cyclone is perplexing. We will never know how many lives could have been saved had the government and the defense forces responded with agility and commitment.

But this was a disaster waiting to happen. For decades now, fisher people have been moving into deep sea fishing and yet the government had not proactively created any means to communicate with these boats. Even measures studied by national institutes like satellite based distress alert mechanisms, have not been brought in line. Albert pointed out that the fishing community contributes heavily to government revenue through indirect taxation. “Between our area and Cochin, over 1000 trawl boats operate, each takes in about 10 lakh of diesel and other consumables every trip. At a meager rate, we contribute about Rs 5 crore every month in GST and other taxes to the central and state government. Yet we are a neglected community” says Albert. This neglect of the small and medium fishing industry has left the fish workers in peril.

The coastal regions are also becoming the destination for capital intensive investments. The government is proposing innumerous infrastructure projects such as ports, nuclear and thermal power plants as well as polluting chemical industries along the coast. In just the few hundred kilometers between Kanyakumari and Cochin, there are plants to set up two new ports at Vizhinjam and Iyniyam. Plans are also afoot to further expand the Nuclear Power plant at Koodankulam. The fishing community is often the victim of such ‘development’ as their living spaces and livelihood is gravely threatened. The speakers pointed out the possibility that such neglect and systematic attempts to dismantle systems to support fishing could be a way to drive the community out of fishing. This would allow the state and the corporate bodies to further exploit the land and its resources to improve their profitability. The fisher people ponder whether the ‘neglect’ is part of a sinister design.

The Tamil Nadu state government has reluctantly increased compensation to the fishing community, matching the Kerala government. But as the community maintains, no amount of compensation can bring back the lives lost to the sea, nor restore the trust in the government. Proactive measures to relax unnecessary regulations, improving communication systems and support infrastructure is crucial. The government has also to come clean on the efforts it took and failed to take so that we can learn from this disaster of our own making. It is important that the coast guard release the data about the persons it rescued and the locations of such rescue effort. During the discussion, Mr. Dixon referred to the Voyage Data Recorder on board the naval ships. The information from this system would enable to us to ascertain the response.

As the effects of climate change become acute, such intense cyclones are going to become a common occurrence. Instead of pursuing projects that destabilize fishing communities while adding greater stress on coastal environments and seas, the government will have to pursue policies that protect and promote safe, secure and sustainable fishing.

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