These days, Selvendran Joseph, a 52-year-old fisherman from
Poonthura village in Tiruvanthapuram, is fixated on weather warnings. He keeps
track of even mild fluctuations and ponders deeply the consequences of
inferences that could go wrong, even about storm systems he believes can
deceive science’s predictive mechanisms. As a fisherman, it is only natural to
keep a close eye on the weather. But it has been 14 months since Selvendran
went to sea, and in the the 38 years he lived as a fisherman, he was never
really bothered about weather warning systems, let alone obsess about it.
“You have to believe in the law of the sea. The sea can give you riches, and it can take your life, too. As a fisherman, you cannot choose only one of those,” he says.
Selvendran was one of the hundreds from the fishing villages of Poonthura and Vizhinjam who ventured out into the sea on the afternoon of November 29, 2017, the day cyclone Ockhi, one of the deadliest ever to hit the Indian coast.
When Selvendran and his friends started their routine in the afternoon, the sea was rough, but not violent enough to warrant abandoning work. Nor was there any official warning from the authorities. And even if there was one, Selvendran wonders if he or his fellow fishermen would have paid heed.
“All of us live in misery. To abandon a day’s work is not an option,” he says.
e had started going to the sea when he was 14. He does not want his two children to follow the same path and was keen on ensuring that they had quality education. Being the sole earning member, this meant working even in a violent sea. Besides, he had taken a loan for his house, and the bank, he says, “is a merciless creature”. Like the more than 1,200 of the 4,300 odd families that live in the 0.8 sq km area of Poonthura he, too, had most of his life shared a rented home with two other families. It had been a lifelong ambition to have a house of his own. With so much riding on him, venturing into a violent sea was not really an adventure but merely a way to navigate the struggles of everyday life.
The catch was not particularly great in the initial hours that day. By evening, an unusually strong wind started hitting from the north. Usually, in November, the wind blows from the south (in local parlance they call it Vaadakkaattu), and therefore the northern wind combined with the roughness of the sea prompted many of them to return earlier than usual.
But most of those who had gone as a group, including Selvendran and his friends, chose to stay a bit longer, since fishing in groups is an expensive business, and to give up a day’s work means a substantial loss which most of them did not want to incur. In fact, rather than the storm, what worried them more was the prospect of returning with an empty net.
Soon, the storm intensified, and they realised that what had hit them was a cyclone, unlike any they had seen or experienced before. This is how Selvendran describes the experience: “The engine of the boat was damaged. We anchored the boat. After a while, I saw that the anchor of one of the boats near us was damaged and it then hit me that we were facing death. Waves were hitting us with such force that we often fell down from the sea. Our anchor too was on the verge of collapsing. We were running out of fuel too. But we were hopeful. We believed that our mother sea would not abandon us in a storm. We believed that the prayers of those in the shore would save us. We believed the storm would gradually calm down and rescue ships would come and save us. But gradually, we gave in to the reality.
“The waves were rising to the height of ten-storey buildings. One such wave shattered the anchor of the boat and it capsized. The sea was extremely cold, and the rain that battered us was also cold in the extreme, unlike any rain I had known in the sea till that day. Somehow we managed to cling to the capsized boat.”
As he narrates the experiences of that night, it is clear that he does not want to relive the details. “I don’t remember how I managed to cling on or for how long I stayed like that. I remember bigger boats and ships going past us, and we doing all we could to draw their attention. But it was so foggy that I couldn’t even see my friends who were clinging to the same boat. As luck would have it one boat from Tamil Nadu saw us, and they threw a rope towards us, and we somehow managed to reach their boat. I remember when I got on to that boat, I immediately collapsed because the waves had been crashing onto my back with such force. It is still a miracle to me how we managed to cling on and even swim towards the boat that had come to rescue us. I was under the impression we were somewhere near to the coast of Thiruvananthapuram, but we were in fact near Tamil Nadu, and it was at the coast of Pattanam that the boat was headed to.”
In fact, Selvendran was one of the lucky ones. The cyclone claimed 365 lives in total, and 143 from Kerala of which 35 are from the village of Poonthura. Of those declared dead, only 52 bodies were recovered, while the remaining 91 missing were eventually declared dead.
here is widespread resentment among the fishing community at the authorities for their inability to issue sufficient warnings and also for the inefficiency of the rescue. Elias John, senior journalist and the son of a fisherman, describes Ockhi as a “man-made disaster”.
“Even amateur weathermen were aware of the formation of a cyclonic storm system. What was our weather department doing? In neighbouring Kanyakumari (in Tamil Nadu) district, nobody ventured out to sea. Those who died from Kanyakumari were those who had been stationed in the sea for weeks. The district administration was alert enough to prevent the scale of the disaster. If someone so near could do it, what was the district administration in Trivandrum doing?” asks Elias, who runs an organistaion called Ockhi Rehabilitation Mission Agency (ORMA which translates to memory: “nobody will remember the fisherfolk, hence the name”, he says.)
According to records, IMD issued a warning only at noon on November 29. It didn’t mention the word cyclone, instead warned off a “severe weather situation”. Various private weather forecasting agencies had already identified the possibility of cyclone by then.
Elias also points out that the air force and the navy were inefficient during the rescue operation. Joy Peter, whose brother died in the storm, was one of the first to go to sea for rescue work. He says it was left to the fishermen community to pick up bodies floating in the sea as the navy refused to do so. “One of the bodies we recovered had died just an hour ago. If the Navy had been more proactive and bothered to take our local knowledge of the sea also on board, it may not have happened,” he says.
s compensation for the relatives of the dead (including those who went missing) the state government announced a sum of ₹20 lakh. But according to the terms of disbursement, this was to be equally divided among the parents, wife, children and unwed sisters of the fishermen. The compensation was converted into a fixed deposit for a period of five years, with the beneficiaries receiving the interest in monthly instalments. This has led to considerable bitterness among the fishermen.
Most of the survivors suffer from symptoms of acute post traumatic stress, yet, till date no psychological counselling has been provided. They point out that if even for them, who have been going to the sea their whole lives, this experience was completely unknown, how can the authorities treat it like an ordinary calamity?
Celine, the widow of one of the fishermen asks: “What can we do with this interest? Most of us lost the sole breadwinner of our families. We don’t even have a house of our own. They say if we are allowed to take the entire amount, we will splurge it. What sort of condescending logic is that? What right do they have to take us for irresponsible fools? This interest is not enough to even pay our rent. And on top of that we have debts to pay. Despite repeated requests, the government has not taken measure to waive off our debts. Is this what you call relief measures? They said they will give the widows jobs. Where are those jobs? And they say, those jobs are for women under 40 who have passed matriculation. How can you lay down such conditions if you are really sincere about rebuilding our lives?”
The fate of those like Selvendran who came back alive is even worse. They were given ₹10,000 as relief measure which he says was not enough to meet even hospital expenses. Though they were promised fishing equipment, nothing has so far materialised on that front. Selvendran, in fact, considers the offer a joke. “After suffering a traumatic experience of this magnitude, do you expect to go back to the same job? Is that what you call rehabilitation? I still cannot stand up properly. Most of us suffer from chronic back injuries. Some of us are paralysed. Our vision is severely impaired. We also suffer from vertigo. And for you, rehabilitation means going back to the sea without taking into consideration our trauma?”
For Selvendran, matters are even worse since his name is not included in the list of survivors. This means he has not yet got any of the compensation benefits.
Most of the survivors suffer from symptoms of acute post traumatic stress, yet, till date no psychological counselling has been provided to survivors. They point out that if even for them, who have been going to the sea their whole lives, this experience was completely unknown, how can the authorities treat it like they would treat an ordinary calamity?
“Can you imagine what it means to survive in the sea for five days, without food and water, braving both cold showers and terribly hot sea water?” asks Bernard Lawrence, the last person to be rescued, and who has not gone to sea since. “Sometimes I think, it may have been better to die than live like this. At least my family would have got the compensation.”
Simon, a resident of Poonthura village, who was saved by the Navy after surviving in the sea for two days, left his home after two months. He was later found in a completely disoriented state at the other end of the state in Nileshhwaram village, Kasargod. After a couple of months, he committed suicide.
According to Elias John, unless the government sets up proper rehabilitation counselling sessions to address psychological issues, the mental health of survivors is going to deteriorate. “One should not consider it a natural reaction to a disaster, instead there should be efforts to address it as a psychological issue that needs scientific remedies. Unfortunately, our health department seems totally oblivious to this aspect.”
Dr. Kiran P S, nodal officer, (Psychiatrist), district mental health programme said: “We were quick to arrive with psychological first aid to the spot. It is true that people are now afraid to go to the sea. But that has to be considered as a natural response to a calamity rather than as cases of PTSD. There have been isolated cases of verified PTSD which have been treated at mental health centres in the district. There is also a lot of fear mongering now going on which worsens the situation and prevents people from arriving at an objective analysis of the situation.”
In addition to those who survived the cyclone, fishermen who went for rescue operations, too, are hesitant to go out to the sea these days. Maxwell Alphonse is one of them. He was part of a search team to find missing fishermen. “I found the dead bodies of a couple of dear ones. It changed the way I looked at the sea from that point. I cannot put it into words. But I knew that my life as a fisherman was over.” He now runs an auto rickshaw. In fact, most of the survivors now run auto rickshaws for a living, and the number of auto rickshaws in the village have gone up dramatically in the last year.
Fishing related industries like boat manufacturing, sale of fishing nets and engine oil have also been massively hit, crippling the economy further. Even those prepared to venture out to sea do not go too far, and come back at the slightest indication of adverse weather. “Some will say you have to be brave and keep fighting, and that life goes on. It is easy to mouth such platitudes so long as you have not experienced a storm like this. I don’t have any shame in admitting that I am scared now to go to sea. And remember, I have been going to sea for the last 38 years,” says Selvendran. Bernard, and many other survivors I met spoke along similar lines.
In August, 2018, when floods ravaged Kerala, the fishing community across the state formed a rescue force and was at the forefront of operations. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan hailed them as the army of the state. Many Ockhi survivors from Poonthura and Vizhinjam also took part in those operations. Joseph Peter was one of them. He still does not go to the sea, but had no hesitation in risking his life in the flood.
“Nobody cared for us. Nobody still cares for us. So we know what it means to be left stranded,” he says.