Leaving aside the huge losses of human lives, fishing vessels and gears, the recent Cyclone Ockhi has the potential to rock deep-sea fishing plans of the government for Palk Bay/Rameswaram fishers. The deadly cyclone struck the coast even before the well thought-out government plan for them to avoid the dangers of the shared Sri Lankan waters came into effect – long before the first ‘deep-sea vessel’ under the scheme could roll out to the sea.
When the Ockhi controversy dies down, officials in Tamil Nadu and at the Centre would have to pick up the threads anyway to make deep-sea fishing safer for all, and include their ongoing plans for the Palk Bay region for additional safety measures of every kind.
They may also have to work closer with the fishing communities through social intermediaries to restore their confidence in their own seas and governments, the former in terms of inexperience and lack of expertise, and the latter for post-disaster relief at first call.
Nearly a fortnight after Cyclone Ockhi devastated the southern-most Kanyakumari district, Kerala and Lakshadweep areas for a week from 30 November 2017, both local communities and officials are tallying figures to figure out the number of ‘missing persons’ from ‘deep-sea fishing villages’ in Kanyakumari district, especially. At last count on December 11, the number of missing persons alone stood at a high 450-plus, with modest and unavoidable discrepancies. The number of deaths and destroyed/missing boats is a different story in itself.
While the credit should go to Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for visiting the affected villages early on, address the distraught population and also arrange for additional search parties of the Navy and the Coast Guard to go out into the seas, at times with local fishers on board, the later-day street-protests presented an entirely new dimension. While the social media hailed the Minister’s straight-from-the-heart, no-nonsense approach, later day Tamil television media coverage has brought out a new dimension, whose depth and width have not been fully understood by the critics of these protestors.
There is no denying the fishers’ continuing demand for State Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy to visit them, and hear them out as his counterpart, Pinarayi Vijayan, in neighbouring Kerala had done, all at once.
While the Tamil Nadu Government too put the official machinery into action, identifying pro-active senior civil servants like Agriculture Secretary Gagandeep Singh Bedi, who had served as the Kanyakumari District Collector in the past, the affected fishers claimed that the enumeration of their dead and losses, and also announcement of relief, were all slow in coming, nonetheless. One reason for this was the inaccessibility of some of the coastal villages. The other was possibly the inadequate understanding of the sea-faring communities and their trade and practices, even in the immediate neighbourhood, local officialdom included.
When early official figures of casualty at sea put the number of dead men from Thoothoor village at four, for instance, alarm-bell should have rung at the right quarters. Thoothoor and a handful of hamlets in the neighbourhood are known across the nation’s coastal communities, for their pioneering efforts, experience and expertise in deep-sea fishing, at times going up to 400 nautical miles at one go. To the ‘outside world’ that cannot distinguish between nominal miles and nautical miles, their ignorance could be condoned, but not the losses that resulted from such ignorance, at times bordering on insolence.
The affected fishers are socially organised as they have mostly been by the local Catholic church, with their priests often standing as the bulwark between the fishers, whose life revolves around the seas and the boat-landing areas, and the outside world, including the officialdom and other land-based communities, with which the fishers equations used to be disturbed until the recent past. But what is becoming increasingly clear to the uninitiated is the fact that these fishers work on the boats of counterparts from other coasts of the State and the country, and also work in other seas, operating out of fishing harbours in those parts.
It is thus that fishing communities are independent of even immediate neighbourhood communities for most parts, but are inter-dependent on one another, even when distanced by miles, be they in Rameswaram, Nagapattinam and Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu itself, or any and all the ports along the Kerala and Karnataka coasts, all the way up to Gujarat, and the Lakshadweep and at times the Andaman Seas on the other side, in the east. This should also explain why and how fishers in other parts of Tamil Nadu have launched protests in support and sympathy for the missing men of the Kanyakumari district. If the church was involved, it was incidental, and/or one way to control the mob-sentiments and public outpouring, as well.
In a bid to wean away Palk Bay fishers in the Rameswaram area from the dangers awaiting them in the Sri Lankan waters, the Centre and the State governments have been working on deep-sea fishing plans for them, along with massive subsidies and low-cost bank loans, for building/purchasing high-cost vessels and gears. They will be watching with concern and care as to the fate and future of the deep-sea fishers of Kanyakumari district in the aftermath of Cyclone Ockhi, who have lost men and material, and how much of the latter at least is replaceable and is actually replaced, and by whom and how.
In particular, the Thoothoor fishers are the inspiration for the Palk Bay counterparts to shed their cultural and psychological inhibitions of curtailing their mid-sea stay to a night or two at best, and to extend it to weeks and more. Many of them have trained on Thoothoor and other neighbourhood vessels for preparing themselves, both professionally and psychologically, for venturing out into the deep seas and stay put there for days on end, before returning home.
It is another matter that in the years and decades to come, both the Government and the fishing communities have to think in terms of ‘mother ship concept’ involving months-long stays in sea.
This alone would help the domestic industry catch up with international competition on the technology front and also make do with available fishers after their children, like counterparts inland, began taking to higher education courses like engineering and management that would fetch them high-end jobs and social status that their parental generation did/does not enjoy, whatever be their earnings and incomes.
The Ockhi experience has exposed the shocked fishers of Kanyakumari district and neighbouring Kerala to the vagaries of the nature, which they have not experienced any time in living memory, especially as hapless victims on high seas, where they could not hope for immediate and effective help, whatever be their inherent expectations and whatever the governmental promises and consequent preparations. While the 2004 ‘Boxing Day’ tsunami did affect Kanyakumari fishers, yes, they took it in their stride, also because it all happened on land, and they were in charge of the post-devastation management, if not in control of the unanticipated and unprecedented sea behaviour.
If Tamil literature had referred to ‘kaal kols’ of the kind in the pre-Sangam era that destroyed cities and civilisations in the region over 2,000 years, most of them had neither read about it, nor heard about it. So, when they pick up their lives after mourning their dead and repairing their boats, and the governments, too, become wiser after the event and provide additional safety equipment, the progress in these parts will be keenly watched, especially in and from the Palk Strait area.
In the intermediate term, naval experts of the nation would also be studying the lessons from Cyclone Ockhi to prepare themselves better for the future, especially in terms of search-and-rescue capabilities all across the nation’s coastal and also territorial waters, and also have twin purposes and operability. After all, 26/11 ‘Mumbai attacks’ exposed the inherent chinks in the nation’s much-respected naval armour, but which could be covered by cheap and effective technologies and methodologies.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).