“You do not know the value of our boats. You do not know the value of our traditional crafts. But don’t you at least know the value of our lives? Shame on you, the government.”

This is a common refrain heard in the fishing belt of Thoothoor in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, where residents of eight coastal villages are protesting against claimed government inaction in the wake of Cyclone Ockhi. Since December 7, members of the fishing community have put aside work and gathered in tents to demand that the government intensify its rescue and relief efforts. Since the members of the fishing community in this belt are predominantly Christian, they have turned several churches into protest hubs.

The cyclone, which originated in the Bay of Bengal near Sri Lanka, hit Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Kerala on November 29 before heading towards Gujarat. The death toll touched 42 on Monday, with more bodies found off the coast of Kerala. More than 500 fishermen from Tamil Nadu alone are still missing, a government official said on Sunday.

Fisherfolk protest in front of St Jude's Church in Chinnathurain in Thoothoor.

In Thoothoor, church officials said four fishermen had died at sea, citing eyewitness accounts of fishermen who had been rescued. Forty-two fishermen are still missing, they added. Thirty of them had set sail on three big boats while the rest had gone to sea in three smaller country vessels.

However, the Tamil Nadu government, which began an enumeration exercise in the affected villages on Sunday, said two only bodies had been retrieved so far.

Rail blockade

On Sunday night, villagers from eight parishes took out a candle light march. This was the latest in a series of protests that began with a rail blockade on December 7. Villagers trudged 20 km on foot to Kuzhithur and blocked the tracks from 11.30 am till midnight. The police have registered cases against 15,000 people, including several Catholic priests, for their involvement in the blockade.

The villagers claim they had no option but to to undertake these protests. “The government did not do anything for us [for] nine days after the cyclone took the lives of many of our villagers,” said Father Bebinson, a priest at the St Thomas Forane Church. “We are hit by a major natural calamity. But neither Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami nor our Parliament member Pon Radhakrishnan [has] visited us so far. It showed the attitude of our representatives towards fisher people.”

He added, “We had requested the government to intensify deep sea search operations from December 1. Had they heeded our request, we could have saved many lives.”

Government officials visit Thoothoor on Sunday.

On December 3, the villagers had submitted a memorandum to the district administration demanding that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister EK Palanaswami visit Thoothoor, declare the cyclone a national disaster, give directions for search operations to be carried out on a war footing, and increase the ex-gratia amount for families of the dead from Rs 10 lakhs to Rs 20 lakhs. “The government did not consider our plea seriously, so we decided to block rail [tracks] to bring our concerns to national attention,” Bebinson said.

Padmanabhapuram MLA Mano Thangaraj, a member of the Opposition party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, participated in the blockade and said the people had acted to open the eyes of a government that has failed to address their concerns. “It was their last resort,” he said.

When disaster struck

Three days before the cylcone struck, Thoothoor was in a festive mood. November 26 was the annual festival of St Thomas Forane Church and the fishermen had taken the day off work. But they were back at sea the following day.

The majority of fishermen here are engaged in deep sea fishing in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. They are known for their expertise in catching sharks. They sail to faraway Maharashtra and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Most of them set off from Kochi in Kerala while a few begin their journey from the Thengapattanam harbour in Tamil Nadu. Their voyages usually last between 15 days and 45 days. Each boat – carrying communication systems and to equipment to preserve catch – sails with at least 15 crew members.

As many as 275 boats and 30 country vessels from Thoothoor were out at sea when the cyclone hit on November 29. “We failed to understand the cyclone’s intensity on the first day,” said Bebinson. “We got a hint of things to come when the wind moved to the deep sea. Our worst fears came true when we got information about the death of Alvari and Gilbert.”

The bodies of the two men have not yet been recovered. Hence, their names do not figure among the dead in the official record.

The number of missing people started to come down over the next few days as boats from the region started anchoring in harbours in Gujarat, Maharashtra, the Lakshadweep islands and Kerala. On December 1, the number of missing boats stood at 55 while three country craft were still not accounted for. On December 10, that number came down further to three boats and three country vessels.

Kanyakumari district collector Sajjan Singh R Chavan, who is coordinating the relief and rescue activities, is hopeful of locating all the boats. “We are getting good support from the local fishermen,” he said.

GS Sameeran, additional director of fisheries, said the government had sent five officers to harbours in other states to facilitate the return of the fishermen. “We have provided 160,000 litres of diesel for the boats to come back home,” he said.

Sameeran also said the government had distributed Rs 28 lakhs in compensation till Sunday.

Villagers pay homage to Alvari and Gilbert, who drowned after their boat capsized in the storm.

‘I saw them drown’

However, the optimism of government officials such as Chavan and Sameeran is not shared by the fishing community in Thoothoor.

“I saw Alvari and Gilbert drowning,” recounted fisherman Josabeth, wiping away tears. He had set sail with the two men and another colleague, Salom, in a country craft on November 29. He said they decided to retreat after they were caught in the storm but their boat capsized and Alvari and Gilbert could not swim against the tide. Josabeth and Salom were eventually rescued by an Indian Air Force helicopter.

Alvari’s death has left his wife Vijaya Mary and 16-year-old daughter Anfia A Arok in despair. “Who will take care of my daughter and me now?” Mary asked, looking at a photograph of her husband.

In her home a few metres away, Stella sobbed inconsolably as she waited for news of her missing husband, 51-year-old Raby, and twin sons Dany and Daryl, both 27. The three had sailed from Kochi on November 29. A 29-year-old relative, Libin, and their neighbour, 19-year-old Maria Susan, were also part of the crew.

“How can I live now?” Stella cried.

Alvari's wife Vijaya Mary and daughter Anfia A Arok in their home in Thoothoor.

Alert came too late

Additional district collector AR Rahul Nath said the district administration had warned fishermen not to venture out on November 29. “We received alerts from the state disaster management authority and state emergency operations centre in Chennai,” he said. “We went to the villages in the morning and with the help of parish priests alerted them [the fishermen] not to go out to sea,” he said.

But many of the boats had already set sail by the time the alert was issued, he added.

Nuns console Stella, whose husband and twin sons are still missing.

All photographs by TA Ameerudheen