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Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu
Why Are Some Lives More Important, Ask Ockhi-Hit Fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu

Inadequate government response exacerbated Cyclone Ockhi's impact in Tamil Nadu.

On November 29, 2017, more than 100 boats left for sea from Tamil Nadu’s Vallavilai fishing village before the state started issuing warnings to the fishermen community. Cyclone Ockhi hit coastal Tamil Nadu the next day, after having gestated for eight days at sea.

When the Kanyakumari administration did start rolling out the warnings, it relied on individual phone connections rather than alerting people through public communication channels such as social media websites and news. Most fishermen already at sea did not have the kind of equipment through which they could receive these warnings or call for help. Sajjansingh R. Chavan, Kanyakumari’s district collector, told the People’s Watch public inquest team – representing several platforms and organisations – that the reason an early warning system failed was the lack of an uninterrupted power supply.

Over 90 calls were made using a distress alert transmitter (DAT) to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC); they either went unanswered or were addressed several days later. None of the fishermen who used DAT were rescued, according to the People’s Watch’s report,  ‘The Cyclonic Apartheid’. The document also alleges that the government’s disaster risk reduction efforts “neglected” the fishing community.

Kanyakumari district has 47 fishing villages with over 80,000 people directly or indirectly involved in fishing activities. Most of them engage in deep-sea fishing, going beyond 200 nautical miles (nm) from the shore. Under the three-level coastal security scheme, the Indian Navy is responsible for patrolling beyond 200 nm. However, the testimonies of the fishermen accompanying the Coast Guard in search ops revealed that the rescue teams refused to go beyond 60 nm because they did not have the jurisdiction to go further. Satyagopal, IAS and the agricultural production commissioner of Tamil Nadu, said (as quoted in the report) that the fishermen who went beyond the legal limits were not of concern in terms of their rescue since they had ventured outside the legal limits in the sea. 

At Eraviputhenthurai village, the inquest team was informed about the post-mortem of one of the fishermen, which revealed that although the body was afloat for seven to eight days, he was alive for almost six days. This points towards negligence on part of the Tamil Nadu state and district authorities to provide timely and adequate information to the fishermen at sea and their families, who were unaware of their whereabouts. 

In Vallavilai, a young woman questioned the inquest team about what the actual meaning of the ‘right to life’ was for the fishing communities in Tamil Nadu. Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch says that the woman, while analysing the response mechanism, asked them how some lives are considered more important than others.

Frustrated fishermen took over the rescue operations themselves due to the lack of urgency and desperation on the part of the state and central government. In two such pursuits, residents of Vallavilai spent Rs 32 lakh on rescue operations and rescued 35 fishermen. Additionally, the official rescue teams failed to take action on the information provided to them by the surviving fishermen, who were aware of the locations of other boats around them. Fisherfolk from several coastal villages have testified to the inquest team about the relief and rescue team’s hesitation and lack of willingness to search the waters, despite having the GPS coordinates of the regular fishing spots.

In addition, the fishing community has also questioned the Ministry of Defence’s claim about the beginning of the rescue operations on November 30, 2017. Testimonies given to the inquest team have revealed that there was a delay of at least 48 hours in starting the rescue operations in full swing – a delay “which appears to be the single-largest reason for the loss of several fishermen lives,” according to the report. While the speeches of leaders such as defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K. Palanisamy were full of assurances, it stopped at that.

Commenting on the extent and scope of the search and rescue operations, K. Vareethiah, an expert in coastal disaster management, told the inquest team, “The search and rescue operations were not adequate and should have been done at the same place and same time in a coordinated manner. After the cyclone, the boats would have been scattered as it got drifted away. People who went to the sea keep coming, which proves that the search operations were incomplete or inadequate.”

The state of the rescue mechanism is surprising since in March 2017 India became the first country to introduce a plan for mitigating the losses caused by natural calamities. Funded by the World Bank, the Coastal Disaster Risk Reduction Project of the Tamil Nadu government was handed over to the State Institute of Rural Development (SIRD) in October 2017. Following this handover, 87 trained personnel who were spread across 12 coastal districts of Tamil Nadu were removed from SIRD, a move that left the state with no trained personnel for rescue and relief work. 

In an article in the Hindu, M.G. Devasahayam, a former IAS officer, wrote, “There are three basic failings in the government’s response: the cyclone warning was delayed; the warning, when it came, was ineffective because it could not be conveyed to thousands of fisherfolk who were already out at sea; and once the cyclone struck, there was no war-like mobilisation and action, which are the hallmarks of good disaster management.”

The resulting death toll from the cyclone ranges from 173 to 220, depending on the source. The number of missing people is over 170. According to a report published in the Hindu, the number of damaged houses is 5,032, while the number of villages with water shortage stands at 1,155. A farmers association told the inquest team that over 80 lakh banana plantations, 25 lakh coconut trees, 20 lakh rubber trees, 1200 hectares of paddy cultivation and over 1000 hectares of vegetable plantations have been damaged and destroyed.

Although the Tamil Nadu government has promised a compensation of Rs 20 lakh to the kin of dead fishermen, the figures pointing out the impact of the cyclone on life, property, infrastructure and agriculture are ever prodigious.

This report was released on January 8, 2018 to the media, and is drafted by Rajavelu K, Henri Tiphagne and Mathew Jacob from People’s Watch; Jones Spartegus Thomas who is a PhD Scholar at TISS; D.J. Ravindran who is a human rights expert and Dr K.M. Parivelan who is a professor at TISS.


The public inquest team:

  1. Justice B.G. Kholse Patil (former judge, Maharashtra High Court)
  2. Dr Ramathal (former chairperson, Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women)
  3. Shiv Vishvanathan (professor, Jindal Law School, O.P. Jindal University)
  4. Saba Naqvi (senior journalist, New Delhi)
  5. Dr Parivelan (Associate Professor, School of Law, Rights and Constitutional Governance, TISS Mumbai)
  6. D.J. Ravindran (formerly with OHCHR & Director of Human Rights Division in UN Peace Keeping
    Missions in East Timor, Secretary of the UN International Inquiry Commission on East
    Timor, Libya, Sudan & Cambodia)
  7. Paul Newman (department of political science, University of Bangalore)
  8. Dr L.S. Ghandi Doss (Professor Emeritus, Central University, Gulbarga)
  9. Dr K Sekhar (Registrar, NIMHANS Bangalore)
  10. Dr Ramu Manivannan (department of political science, University of Madras)
  11. Nanchil Kumaran (retired IPS Officer, Tamil Nadu Police)
  12. Suresh Mariaselvam (former UNDP Official)
  13. Dr Fatima Babu (St. Mary’s College, Tuticorin)
  14. John Samuel (former head of Global Program on Democratic Governance Assessment, UN Development Program & Former International Director, ActionAid)

Mehr Gill is a graduate of the Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi, and an intern at The Wire.

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