“Our search team has just recovered a dead body with a red dhoti and blue shirt. Those who want to try to identify the body should contact the parish council members.”
The wails of women filled the air once again. Men looked at each other in disbelief and sank to their knees.
It was the sixth such announcement on Monday over the temporary public address system that had been rigged up at Our Lady of Good Voyage church in Thiruvananthapuram’s Vizhinjam village. Later that day, the body of 40-year-old Victor Marydasan was buried in the church cemetery.
At first glance, residents of the Vizhinjam fishing village seem to have suffered the highest number casualties as Cyclone Ockhi swept through the region last week, wreaking havoc in the Lakshwadeep islands, before heading towards Kerala and Tamil Nadu and eventually turning north towards Gujarat.
On Monday, the Kerala government announced that 31 people from the state had died in the storm. It added that a search was underway for 91 fishermen from various parts of the state who are still missing.
But members of the Good Voyage church claimed that the government was underestimating the number of deaths. Church members said that 128 fishermen from Vizhinjam alone are still unaccounted for. Thirty nine of them had set out from the village and 89 had set out from other harbours, since men from Vizhinjam travel to other places in the area to find work during the winter months, said parish council secretary Issac Johny.
Johny insisted that his numbers were accurate: members of the church council had visited all the homes under its jurisdiction to collect the data. Taking into account the 50 fishermen missing from Poonthura, a village that adjoins Vizhinjam, the list grows to 178. Said parish council member Benjamin Bernard: “We visited all the 3,500 houses that come under the jurisdiction of St Thomas Church in Poonthura to collect the data.”
All the members of the fishing community in these two villages are Christian.
The dispute about the number of missing people is only one of several bones of contention between the fisherpeople and the government about how the authorities responded to the threat of the cyclone and reacted to the destruction it left in its wake. Of special concern is the perceived delay in retrieving the bodies of fishermen who have drowned at sea.
Many believe that the Coast Guard and the government did not act swiftly to search for missing people even six days after the cyclone had hit the state. This prompted fishermen in Vizhinjam and Poonthura to launch their own rescue operations, with the support of their parish heads.
Since Sunday, they have deployed 73 boats and recovered 10 bodies.
“The government hasn’t acted quickly to recover the dead bodies,” said Father Suresh Pius, the assistant parish priest at the Vizhinjam church. “It forced our parishioners risk their lives to go for the search mission.” His parish sent out 33 boats on the search mission.
Sudheesh Das, assistant priest at St Thomas Church in Poonthura, said that parish council deployed 40 boats on both Sunday and Monday. “We find it as our duty to recover the mortal remains of villagers.”
The confrontations with the government began with fishermen alleging that the government had failed to issue an alert when the cyclone began to gather on November 29. Their anger spilled on to the streets on Sunday when they blocked Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s vehicle when he attempted to visit Vizhinjam. A day earlier, an irate crowd had similarly demonstrated against district-in-charge minister Kadakampally Surendran and fisheries minister Mercykutty Amma.
Chief Minister Vijayan insisted that there was no laxity on the part of the government as it had received the cyclone threat only at noon on November 30.
But the India Meteorological Department claimed that it had issued an alert on Wednesday, detailing the path the storm was likely to take towards southern Kerala. “We used the technical term ‘deep depression’ in our alert,” said met department director S Sudevan. “It is a term used instead of cyclone. We have handed over the alert to district collectors too.”
The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority on its part claimed that the met department had issued only fishing advisory, warning fishermen not to venture out to sea, and not cyclone alert.
“Till 12 pm on Thursday, the storm was only a deep depression,” said Sekhar Kuriakose, member secretary of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority, in a press statement released on Friday. “It was declared a cyclone only hence. How can the IMD claim to have warned the state in advance? They are only making an ad-hoc statement.”
Kuriakose did not respond to Scroll.in’s request for an interview.
But from the accounts by cyclone survivors, they had received neither a fishing advisory nor a cyclone warning on November 29.
“I wouldn’t have gone to fishing on Wednesday had the government issued an alert,” Alban Alphones from Poonthura fumed while narrating the story of his seemingly miraculous escape from his sinking boat.
Alphones and three colleagues had set out from Poonthura on a kerosene-engine fitted traditional plywood boat on the afternoon of November 29. The sky was clear and there were no sign of heavy winds. But they began to feel the gusts when they got 15 nautical miles off the coast.
Ten miles further, waves began to rise high above them and rammed the boat, causing it to capsize. Alphones and the others hung onto the anchor, and stayed afloat for two days and three nights in windy conditions. But his friend Xavier was washed away when a giant wave hit the boat.
On Saturday, Alphones was rescued from the deep sea by the Indian Air Force team. The 37-year-old fisherman is currently being treated at the Government General Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram.
“I wouldn’t have lost my friend Xavier if there was a warning,” he said. “We wouldn’t have lost hundreds of lives from our villages.”
Alphonse was one among the 100 fishermen who are undergoing treatment in three government hospitals in Thiruvananthpuram: Government Medical College Hospital, Government General Hospital and Government Fort Hospital.
All of them are recovering well, but the fate of their 178 companions still believed to be missing has them worried.
In another bed, 60-year-old Clement said he was lucky to escape after holding on to the anchor of the capsized boat for more than six hours in cold water. “If we had been given cyclone alert, we wouldn’t have faced this ordeal,” he said.
Cletus and his colleague Selvaraj, who went out together from Poonthura on Wednesday, said they came face to face with death after huge waves sank their boat.
“God gave me the courage to stay afloat,” said Selvaraj.
Said Cletus: “I never expected that I would return home.”
AJ Vijayan, founder-member of the National Fish Workers’ Forum, a union for small and traditional fishermen, said the disaster management system has failed in the state. “The large number of missing fishermen showed the inefficiency of the system,” he said.
He said confusion reigned during the rescue operations. As evidence of this, he pointed to a statement by the Chief Minister’s office that a Japanese ship had rescued 60 fishermen stranded in the sea. “It was announced that the Japanese ship would come to Vizhinjam harbour,,” he said. “We all knew that such a big ship could not anchor in this small harbour.”
The district administration had ambulances ready to take the rescued to the hospital, Vijayan said. “The ship didn’t come,” he said. “Instead, a coast guard vessel arrived at the harbour a while later without any survivors. It angered the people. The collector even thanked the Japanese government for its humanitarian act.”
Robert Panipilla, founder of Friends of Marine Life, a Valiyathura-based civil society initiative that works among fisherpeople, also blamed the disaster management authority.
“Had they issued the alert, most of the fishermen would have stayed away from the sea,” he said. He is awiating the return of his elder brother Gerald’s, who went out for fishing on Wednesday, return.