One afternoon earlier this month, R Thennarasu, 50, and his wife, T Rani, 46, sat on the Arucottuthurai beach, 47 km from Nagapattinam in southern Tamil Nadu, picking out fish from a net he had cast the previous night. They were shaded from the scorching sun by the canopy of palm fronds they had erected a month before, in place of a shelter destroyed five months ago by cyclone Gaja.

Thennarasu has paid little attention to the election campaign that is progressing in full swing in the area. Only a few days before, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami had visited the nearby town of Vedaranyam to campaign for Thazai M Saravanan, the parliamentary candidate of his All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazham party. But Thennarasu, who works for daily wages on fishing boats, had not been bothered to inquire about what the chief minister had said in his speech.

He did wonder, though, why it had taken Palanisami so long to visit the area, which was devastated by Gaja last November. The cyclone killed at least 65 people across Tamil Nadu, destroyed 1.17 lakh homes, damaged over 1.34 lakh electricity poles, uprooted over a crore coconut trees, and forced some 3.78 lakh people into relief camps.

In Arucottuthurai, nearly 500 fibre boats were damanged, while 10 boats were washed away by the cyclone. Approximately 700 huts were completely destroyed. The roofs of nearly 1,900 homes were damaged. Sea water flooded into all the houses.

Thennarasu wasn’t the only one asking that question about the chief minister. Many other villagers hit by the cyclone complained to about the lack of state assistance.

In his speech in Vedaranyam, Chief Minister Palanisami claimed that his government had responded quickly after Gaja to provide food, health services and relief material. But Thennarasu wasn’t satisfied. When the region was wrecked by a tsunami on December 26, 2004, J Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK chief who was chief minister at the time, had flown down in helicopter to Nagapattinam the very next day, the fisherman said.

“If she was alive, she would have ensured we received compensation on time,” Thennarasu declared.

The delay in the arrival of relief to the region so angered villagers, they attacked the state’s minister of Handloom and Textiles OS Manian in Kannithoppu village when he finally visited on November 19 to assess the situation.

It took more than four months for Thennarasu and many others in the region to be able to return to work. Many fishermen did not have the funds to repair their boats after the storm. Said Sakthivelan K, who owns a fibre boat, “An amount of Rs 1.5 lakh credited to my account only in February. We had to protest for more than two months to get this money.”

The region’s fishermen have voted for the AIADMK ever since the former chief minister MG Ramachandran formed the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1972. (Four years later, it came to be called the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.) But because of their disappointment with the manner in which the state government handled the relief and rehabilitation process after Cyclone Gaja, many are reconsidering their loyalty to the party.

Sakthivelan K, who owns a fibre boat, inspects his damaged boat after finishing minor repair works at Arucottuthurai village in Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu. Photo Credit: M Palanikumar|Pepcollective

When Cyclone Gaja Hit

On the evening of November 15, as the winds of Cyclone Gaja began to lash his three-room concrete home in Arucottuthurai village, Thennarasu thought they would quickly subside, just like the previous storms he’d experience. They didn’t. The winds picked up speed to close to 120 km per hour. At 10.30 that night, Thennarasu, his wife and their son decided to seek shelter in the hamlet’s government school building. Gaja made landfall during the early hours of November 16.

When he returned home after the cyclone had abated, Thennarasu found that his asbestos roof had collapsed, killing the four goats he had left behind. The foundation of the house had been weakened by the storm and the water that crashed in from the sea, 200 metres away. The hamlet was awash with seawater and muck.

The damage lingered for months. Thennarasu usually earns between Rs 100 to Rs 500 a day, depending on the quantity and variety of fish he manages to catch. But since nearly 130 boats in the village had been damaged, there was little work to be had.

“There was no electricity for almost two months,” added Rani. “Well-wishers gave us rice and vegetables. We survived drinking gruel as we waited for help for more than two months.”

When the 1,000 odd fishermen in this village saw no relief coming from the government for over a week, they started to protest. They blocked the roads to press for aid. They also submitted a petition to the Nagapattinam District Collector and to the state’s textile minister Manian, who is from this region.

A coconut tree damaged during cyclone Gaja remains to be cleared in Arucottuthurai village in Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu. Photo Credit: M Palanikumar|Pepcollective

A week after the cyclone, government officials came to assess the damage, recalled Rani. “They asked us for the photographs of our goats as evidence to claim compensation,” she said. “There was no electricity for two months to even charge our cell phones. We could not get a photographer to take the pictures since the roads were blocked for more than a week. They asked us how could they trust us if we don’t have the pictures.”

After the protest, Thennarasu got Rs 10,000 credited to his account in two installments. Rani said that the money was only sufficient to manage their daily expenses for food and other essentials. “There was no work and all the money they gave us went in meeting our daily needs,” said Rani.

At the same time, boat owners also received compensation. While those with small fibre boats received Rs 1.5 lakh, the ones with bigger boats got Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. But the cost of new boats, motors and fishing nets is so high that the fishermen who received Rs 5 lakh managed to buy secondhand boats, while the ones who received Rs 1.5 lakh were only able to repair their damaged boats. Fishermen even had to dip into their savings to repair their boats, said Sakthivelan, a fisherman in Arucottuthurai.

A fisherman sews fishing net in a shed that was damaged during cyclone Gaja. Photo Credit: M Palanikumar|Pepcollective

Eroding base

In the aftermath of the disaster, the Tamil Nadu government released Rs 1,000 crore for immediate relief and rehabilitation efforts. The state government asked the Centre for Rs 15,000 crore for relief and rehabilitation activities. But according The Hindu, the state government received only Rs 1,146.12 crore from the Central government, in addition to Rs 550 crore from the State Disaster Response Fund.

However, as is so often the case, there were complaints with how the funds were disbursed. Only 40% of the compensation money has reached the fishermen, claimed Uday Kumar, district committee member of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ Association in Kameshwaram village in Nagapattinam.

Thennarasu alleged that the Tamil Nadu government favoured the rich and gave them higher compensation. Once again, he drew a comparison with the 2004 tsunami. “There was a huge outpouring of aid [at that time],” he said. “We received fibre boats, which we used for 10 years.”

But after Gaja, he claimed, even non-governmental organisations were not even being allowed to help “because of [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi”. He blamed Modi for withdrawing permissions for NGO to access foreign funds, limiting their ability to do the kind of work they had done after the tsunami. The AIADMK is fighting the Lok Sabha election as an ally of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

The gruelling task of finding work and eventually repairing their homes has resulted in a loss of faith in the ruling AIADMK by Thennarasu and many other poor fishworkers in Arucottuthurai.

R Thennarasu and his wife, T Rani, squatted on the beach pick out fish and shrimps caught in the fishing net at Arucottuthurai fishing village in Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu. Photo credit: M Palanikumar/Pepcollective

Similar rumbles could be heard in other coastal villages in the region.

Small fishermen who lost had kattumaram (catamarans) said that did not get any compensation, many because they had no evidence to show that they had actually lost something. About 50 fishermen in Kodiyakarai village, 59km from Nagapattinam town, said that they faced this predicament. They said that usually earned between Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 per day. But now, they have been reduced to finding whatever work they can.

Among them is C Mariappan, 48, who said that he has started sewing broken fishing nets for boat owners. “We get Rs 400 on the days when we have work,” said Mariappan “This work is not permanent. We might get work for three days a week. When the boat owners do not have money, they would just stop the work.”

Added Mariappan: “We have a minister [OS Manian] from region but he has not done anything for us. Why should I then vote for the AIADMK?”

A Palsami, president of Ramanathapuram Fish Workers’ Union, agreed that many fishermen were unhappy with the AIADMK. “But, we have to see if that is reflecting in the upcoming elections,” he said.

Creating its support base

Of course, not all fishermen are critical of the AIADMK. Continuing to support the party are more affluent fishermen who own big boats and who received between Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh from the government.

“It has always been the party of the fishermen,” claimed R Gopi, who received Rs 5 lakh for his damaged boat. “We are slaves of MGR. We will vote for the two-leaves symbol even if a donkey is contesting.”

MG Ramachandran, the actor-politician who founded the AIADMK, carefully scripted his screen personas to play fishermen and agricultural labourers to widen this appeal to the Tamil working class. By the late 1950s MGR fan clubs mushroomed in the state’s fishing villages in Tamil Nadu. At the time, MGR was a member of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

His role as a boatman in Padakotti (Boatman) and a poor fisherman in Meenavar Nanban (Fishermen’s Friend) consolidated the fisherfolk vote behind the DMK and away from the Congress. When MGR broke away from the DMK in 1972 to form the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, his base moved with him. The fisherfolk remained with the AIADMK right up to the time Jayalalithaa died in 2016.

E Parvathi, 70, remembered how she would walk more than 4 km to Vedaranyam kottaai (theatre) to watch MGR’s film. “There was no electricity at home back then,” she recalled, singing a few lines from the famous song Naan Aanaittal (If I Order). “We would light a lamp and walk fast to the theatre to watch the night show. We would watch a movie more than three times.”

From the time MGR entered politics, she has remained a staunch AIADMK supporter. “My allegiance to the two-leaves symbol [of the AIADMK] will not change even in times of trouble,” she said.

Women fish workers at Vellapalam village in Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu. Photo Credit: M Palanikumar|Pepcollective

Disillusioned fisherwomen

Others say that the lack of attention after Cyclone Gaja has left them cynical about all political parties. Among them is Kalimuthu, 65, who supports her family by selling fish. The cyclone blew away the small home in which she lived with her two daughters, one of whom is visually challenged.

On April 3, with the help of a few neighbours, she started to rebuild her hut with wood and palm fronds. It was all she could afford with the Rs 5,000 she received as compensation. The family now lives without electricity since the authorities refuse to run a power line to their makeshift home.

Kalimuthu has decided to demonstrate her anger against the government’s apathy by boycotting the elections.

It’s a strategy that will also be adopted by some in Vellapalam, 32km from Nagapattinam town. Cyclone Gaja destroyed some of the the tsunami quarters built for fisherfolk who lost houses in the 2004 disaster. Since Gaja, they have not even been able to rebuild their toilets.

“We prefer to choose NOTA [None of the Above] option to any party symbol,” said K Valarmathi, a fish worker and local leader of Sneha, an organisation working with fisherwomen in Vellapalam village in Nagapattinam district.