It is twilight, and you walk along the shore lined with hundreds of fishing boats. The silence is not eerie but it is thick with grief, anxiety and anger. Grief for those who have died, anxiety for those still missing in the sea, and anger at the authorities who could have done more.
The coastal villages of Vizhinjam and Poonthura on the outskirts of Kerala’s capital city Thiruvananthapuram wear a cloak of gloom in the aftermath of Cyclone Ockhi, which has whiplashed and crushed the lives of thousands from the poor fishermen community. Most of them live a hand-to-mouth existence with the ‘daily catch’ being the sole source of revenue and livelihood.
Life, as always, will go on but Ockhi has cast a pall of gloom and uncertainty over these men and women who cannot live away from the sea for it is these waters that keep them alive, and now it has swallowed many of them.
For Selvi, her husband Kumar “has to come back”. She can’t foresee a life without him. She fights her tears as her four daughters — aged seven to one — look perplexed because of the sudden attention on their otherwise marginalised lives. Kumar has been missing along with five others. For Selvi, a miracle is not just a faint hope but the last straw to see her life back on track.
As night falls, low-watt streetlights begin to throw some sombre yellow light around the shore. A few fishermen gather around the fishing boats and chat. Above them, at the church on the street, stands a huge state of Christ the Redeemer, awash in white light. Not sure, many of these men sneak a look at the Saviour. In the unforeseen sweep of tragedy, we realise how fragile we are and how fleeting human life is. Rarely does anyone realise the proximity of the divine to the mundane.
Cyclone Ockhi has let up and gone, but the tears haven’t dried nor have the hearts healed. Ockhi, the first cyclonic storm to lash the southern districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has moved away to the northwest and fizzled out but it has wreaked such destruction that people in these fishing hamlets are still reeling under the tragedy as hundreds of fishermen are missing even now in the sea. The official numbers are, as they always are, moderate but it is feared that the death toll could go well beyond it. The number of fishermen still missing is reportedly over 200.
Youjin Pereira, spokesperson of the Latin Catholic Church to which the fishermen belonged, said: “Bodies are still floating in mid-sea. Government forces are searching only up to 30 nautical miles in the sea, while fishermen have gone beyond that… We have a feeling that the fishermen didn’t get (cyclone) warning at the right time.”
Resentment is growing in the villages over government forces allegedly not venturing out far enough into the sea to rescue missing fishermen and retrieve bodies. The Kerala government had on December 9 urged the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard to continue their search operations for the next 10 days.
At Vizhinjam, which bore the brunt of the Ockhi’s severity, women give a blank look to the sea and sighs of anxiety and uncertainty escape their lungs. There are children, like Selvi’s small daughters, who still wait for their fathers to come back.
Not that storms or high winds are strange to these fishing folks. In fact, their lives are smoothly interwoven with the tragedies of a turbulent sea but none of them have seen anything of the scale of a cyclonic storm. “Not in our lifetime,” says Mohammed Naseer, who was born and raised near Vizhinjam.
“It was pitch dark out there in the sea, and before we could realise what was happening, our boat was toppled and we were thrown around,” says Clement, who made a miraculous escape after he tied himself to his boat and plastic water cans to remain afloat. He had, somehow, managed to float for six to seven hours before a rescue boat spotted him. “I just wanted my family to get at least my dead body,” says Clement, who is recovering from the trauma.
• • •
In the couple of days following November 30 when Ockhi struck the southernmost coasts of the country, the atmosphere in the coastal area weighed with palpable tension as heavy sighs, prayers, and wails and whispers rose from close to a thousand people who had waited on the shores for several days. They had been waiting for their sons, husbands, brothers and friends. As the rescue boats appeared, bobbing on the rough sea, there was silence, a sudden pall of gloom, as they were not sure what to expect. Most boats brought dead bodies to the Vizhinjam Harbour, around 15 kms south of Thiruvananthapuram.
As the rescue workers took out the bodies, wails rose from the hundreds of women, some swarming around a church and some from a mosque, both dotting the shoreline. A large number of women cried their hearts out; still hundreds of fishermen were reportedly missing in the sea.
“They all are our sons,” one elderly woman cried as a rescue boat appeared on the choppy waters. “Holy Mother…” she cried out under the makeshift shed in front of the church as the ambulance and its staff got ready to receive the approaching rescue boat.
There was growing tension among the fishermen on the shore as they believed the authorities could have done a better job with the rescue operations. Some of them shouted at the reporters and photographers, threatening to smash the cameras. “We are not sure of how many people are missing,” said a police officer, one of the hundreds on duty on the shore, adding that “hundreds of them” were missing.
The fishermen who had been rescued were yet to come out of the shock of encountering death face-to-face. “These fishermen know the sea like the palm of their hand, and are used to strong winds and high waves but certainly not a cyclone,” said Naseer. “We have never seen anything like this,” he added.
“It was the first time we were experiencing such huge waves and a rough sea,” Stephan, one of the rescued fishermen, said.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan visited the cyclone-hit villages in the southern region but an angry crowd of fishermen took out a protest march and blocked his vehicle. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited Vizhinjam and neighbouring regions, and tried to comfort the victims’ families.
Making a landfall in the southern districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Ockhi has caused considerable destruction, and has battered the Lakshadweep islands of Minicoy, Kalpeni and Kavaratti before letting up and beginning to move northwest.
The surging sea and high waves have eaten up many houses and buildings on the shoreline, rendering many homeless. Across Kerala, there are close to 1500 families in relief camps after Ockhi made a sever landfall on the coastal areas.
According to Sajjan Singh R Chavan, District Collector, Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, the whereabouts of over 600 fishermen from the district, who got caught in Ockhi, were yet to be traced. Fishermen in the coastal district continued to protest, demanding that the government expedite its efforts to locate and bring the missing fishermen to safety.
Ockhi may have fizzled out from the sea and the coastal villages but it has left the government of Kerala and Central agencies in a precarious situation.
The Indian Meteorological Department and the Central Ocean Research Institute say that they had informed the State Disaster Management Authority about the intensity of the cyclone but the government did not take any step to coordinate relief work till very late. But Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan dismissed it, terming it as a misunderstanding about the issue. He said the state received the cyclone warning rather late. Opposition leaders have grabbed the opportunity to blame the state machinery for the tragedy.
The Navy in Kochi said their ships and aircraft have searched 3.25 lakh square miles since the cyclone hit. The Navy said 23 ships and eight aircraft are engaged in the rescue operations.
Meanwhile, the Kerala government has sought central assistance of Rs 1,843 crore. Pinarayi Vijayan met Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in Delhi and apprised them of the situation. After ravaging the islands of Lakshadweep, Ockhi moved towards Gujarat but went into a “deep depression”. As political rallies and protest marches are being taken out in many parts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and the government and church official trade blames, the silence grows thicker in these coastal villages. Ockhi may have fizzled out but there is a storm brewing within these men and women.