Whither disaster management after Ockhi?

More lives of fisherfolk would have been saved if disaster management action plans were implemented properly

A disaster is an event causing extreme disruption in a society’s functioning. It results in widespread human, material, and environmental losses which are beyond the ability of the affected people to cope with on their own. Most disasters — floods, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides — are due to nature’s fury. When a disaster causes death and destruction, it becomes a calamity beyond human endurance. This is what happened when cyclone Ockhi struck Kanniyakumari district in Tamil Nadu and parts of Kerala on November 29th night and 30th morning.

As per the information given by fishermen associations in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, over 120 fishermen are dead and about 900 are still missing. Fishermen who ventured out into the sea to help in rescue operations reportedly saw bloated bodies floating. They were, however, unable to bring several of these bodies back to the shore. The Tamil Nadu government continues to be in denial mode as far as the number of deaths is concerned, although there is some consensus on the number of people missing.

Cyclone Ockhi has left a massive trail of destruction in Kanniyakumari district. It is here that the government’s rapid response by way of disaster management should have stepped in.

Failure in damage control

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.

Cyclone Ockhi’s devastation started within 12 hours of the first “rough seas” warning that was put out on November 29. Such conditions may have deterred fisherfolk in other parts of Tamil Nadu, but not those in Kanniyakumari, which has among the highest density of fisherfolk in India. Given the limited quantity of fish in nearshore waters, many fisherfolk have diversified into deep-sea and long-distance fishing. Considering that their fishing voyages sometimes last from ten days to more than a month, the Indian Meteorological Department’s timing of the cyclone forecast was futile.

The government’s own estimates suggest that 3,677 fishermen from Kanniyakumari and Kerala were lost in sea. On November 30 morning, action plans should have kicked in and the Indian Coast Guard, with its seaborne vessels and helicopters, should have launched emergency search and rescue operations. Coast Guard ships should have taken along a few fishermen from the villages as navigation assistants (because they knew where to look for missingpeople) and should have intensely combed the area. Had this been done, hundreds of fishing boats and fishermen would have been found and rescued within the shortest possible time.

Nothing of this sort happened, say fisherfolk in the worst-affected villages that I visited: Neerodi, Marthandamthurai, Vallavillai, Eraviputhenthurai , Chinnathurai, Thoothoor, Poothurai, Enayamputhanthurai. The Coast Guard, they said, turned a deaf ear to their pleas. Even when the Coast Guard reluctantly moved with some fishermen on board, all it did was to go up to about 60 nautical miles and then stop saying that it cannot go beyond its jurisdiction.

Even so, the Indian Navy with its vast array of ships, aircraft and state-of-the-art technology should have stepped in immediately. This too did not happen. The resultant outcry forced Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to come to Kanniyakumari, conduct a review, and make some promises. A few days later, the government announced the rescue/recovery of several hundred mechanised/motorised fishing boats and over 3,000 fishermen who had landed on the coasts of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala. While the Coast Guard and the Indian Navy staked claim to this “rescue” mission, the fishing community leaders say that all these boats and the fishermen drifted to the coast on their own.

What has happened to the National Disaster Management Act (2005), the National Policy on Disaster Management (2009), the National Disaster Management Plan (2016) and the National Disaster Response Force and infrastructure created thereof? Did the disaster management control room in Delhi function at all? Villagers have printed the photos of the dead based on eye-witness accounts and the number is not less than 100. The government continues to dismiss this as being untrue.

The need for compensation

The cyclone has also resulted in massive losses to the livelihoods of people living in the coasts due to the destruction of crops, banana, rubber, coconut and forest trees. Relief and rehabilitation is going to be a monumental task and the State government alone cannot take the huge burden of providing a decent compensation to the victims of the cyclone.

This calls for the combined efforts of the Central and State government (departments of agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and fisheries) and various departments (rubber board, coconut board, spices board, etc.) To get things moving, the Central Relief Commissioner should immediately visit the district, make realistic assessments, and award reasonable compensation immediately.

M.G. Devasahayam is a retired bureaucrat

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 1:32:36 PM |

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