How the Indian State’s flawed policy resulted in loss of over 300 fishermen

It is the criminal negligence of the state which killed more people during cyclone ockhi

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A woman breaks down, seeing the photo of her husband who was lost in Cyclone Ockhi, in Chinnathurai village during the community-led memorial service on Dec. 23, 2017 Photo: D.Arul Ezhilan

I am haunted by the video of the fisherman who was floating over the ocean seven days after the disastrous cyclone Ockhi hit the Indian Ocean on November 29th, 2017. After his boat was wrecked by the cyclone, this fisherman kept himself afloat on empty diesel cans for at least four days, hoping that the Indian Navy would arrive and rescue him. But he and 600 other fishermen like him, perished in the Indian Ocean because of a negligent disaster response.

Calculations of the death toll provided by both Tamil Nadu and Kerela contradicted figures provided by the fishing communities themselves. For instance, Indian Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman maintained that only 97 fishermen were missing. It took sustained protests by the communities for several days before authorities acknowledged the fact that hundreds of them were missing or dead.

Fishermen Overlooked

The fisheries department office of the Government of Tamil Nadu in Colachel doesn’t even allow fishermen to enter its premises because they are clad in ‘lungis’ (Indian Sarongs). The fisheries department is working closely with the fishing communities along the 1,076 km-long coastline of Tamil Nadu. However, the department does not even have meagre representation from the community.

This knowledge gap between fisher communities and state officials has dire consequences. Fishers have been demanding to be included in search operations undertaken by the government in post-disaster scenarios such as Okchi. However, even when fishers are formally included, as they were in recent search operations, their views are sidelined by members of the Indian Navy who manage search operations. Search teams sent out following cyclone Okchi yielded hardly any results and resulted in the loss of life of hundreds of fishermen.

Political Seas

The exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of India, which is also considered a part of the nation’s territory, is 200 nautical miles from the shoreline. However, this part of our territory hardly ever finds representation on maps of the country. And it’s no coincidence that we miss marine territories on our maps: bureaucracies are still highly land-centric in their thinking despite the country having over 7500 km of coastline. But villages such as Thoothur on the shores of the Arabian Sea are occupied by fishermen who typically travel up to 1,500 nautical miles out to sea in search of sharks and other rare fish varieties.

It took China’s “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean for India to design its “Sagar Mala” as an afterthought. String of Pearls is a Chinese strategy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to establish commercial and defence installations; India decided to respond with an Indian Ocean strategy called Sagarmala which will see development of six new major ports along the coastline to boost trade and defence facilities. But the political dominance of the Indian Ocean will remain a pipedream for India unless it involves fishing communities in its defence framework.

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami exposed the chink in the armour of the Indian state in dealing with ocean disasters. 13 years since the the tsunami, India is still ill equipped to deal with any deep sea phenomenon as witnessed during Cyclone Ockhi.

The inefficiency of the Navy and the Coast Guard during cyclones has been well recorded. “When Cyclone Nilam hit the Chennai Coast in 2012, an oil tanker Pratibha Cauvery ran aground; when the crew called the Navy and the Coast Guard for rescue, they were told that the Coast Guard could intervene only after the cyclone subsides. Five sailors died!” recalls K. Bharati, secretary, South India Fishers Federation. It was the fishermen from Oorur Olcott Kuppam who intervened and saved 15 sailors of the oil tanker in this incident.

Non-inclusion of fishermen in the Navy and the Coast Guard is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Nanjil Ravi, a fisher from Kanyakumari district recalled an occasion when a Coast Guard boat joined the fishers in a search and rescue mission. “The Coast Guard boat had to stop mid-way as their reserve of 450 litres of diesel was exhausted but the fishermen continued the search as they usually venture out prepared with almost 10,000 litres of diesel,” he said.

A poster in Vallavilai village declared those who died in Cyclone Ockhi as the state and central governments delayed the announcement despite eyewitness accounts
A poster in Vallavilai village declared those who died in Cyclone Ockhi as the state and central governments delayed the announcement despite eyewitness accounts

Cyclone Okchi Not Declared a Disaster

The Disaster Management Act of 2005 does not include disasters in the sea as part of its framework. Its definition of disaster does not explicitly distinguish between land and sea. This conveniently allows the politically unwilling Indian government not to declare Cyclone Ockhi as a National Disaster despite the loss of lives of over 300 Indian fishermen.

This failure is the result of an ignorance, and the Government of India has refused to acknowledge this lacuna for several years now. Affirmative action to include fishers in running of the Indian State could have saved several lives during Cyclone Ockhi. The process of inclusion should begin with the acknowledgment of the fact that the deep sea fishers in the nine fishing hamlets of Kanyakumari district are in possession of valuable knowledge.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation for the statue of King Shivaji off the Marine Drive in Mumbai, but the Tamil King Raja Raja Chola who had a much bigger Navy than the naval fleet of Shivaji has still not been similarly recognized. It is high time that the centre recognizes Tamil communities and does justice to their needs and aspirations.

This article originally appeared in Manasi Karthik’s Blog

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