Cyclone Ockhi: Why was Coast Guards’ search and rescue operation limited to 60 Nautical Miles?

inquestCyclone Ockhi, which struck the coastal states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Lakshadweep on November 30, 2017, especially adversely affected Kanyakumari district. Excerpts from a people’s inquest* on Ockhi and its impact in the district on December 28- 29, 2017:

The fisher folk from the coastal villages of Kanyakumari district are known for their skills in deep-sea fishing. Ever since the early 1990s, after the Government of India had allowed foreign fishing vessels to fish beyond their territorial waters, the catchment of the Indian fisher folk has significantly reduced, forcing these fishermen to venture, sometimes, as far as a 1000NM in search of fish. As a result, the length of their boats had to be increased to sustain such long journeys and to withstand the brutality of the sea during rough weather conditions.

However, these fisher folks continue to remain invisible when it comes to government schemes and policies. This allegation is substantiated by the fact that most of their boats are not registered due to the restrictions placed under the Tamil Nadu Marine Regulation Act, 1983, which only allow registration for boats with length up to 15 metres. As a result of non-registration, the fishermen are not able to register for insurance of their boats, which costs them up to Rs 2 crore to construct, and hence remain extremely vulnerable.

Though, through fishing a lot of foreign exchange is generated for the government, the fisher folk receive no recognition for it and this becomes more apparent and pronounced during a natural disaster such as Cyclone Ockhi. The lives of fishermen remain undervalued by the government despite the dangers and perils involved in their occupation.

There were no coordinated efforts by the district administration to disseminate the alert and warning about the cyclone to the community. Almost all of the fishermen who were at sea during Cyclone Ockhi did not have adequate communication equipment to receive warnings about the cyclone. If those at the sea were alerted and evacuated in advance, much of the loss could have been averted.

There was no intimation or warning whatsoever about the cyclone to those who were at sea before November 30, 2017. During the visits to the coastal villages, the inquest team observed that the fishing community was well informed and updated about the latest communication systems and other technological aspects of deep-sea fishing. Many of them even possessed the expertise to advice the government in their relief and rescue measures; however, the government has failed to tap into this resource. Several people placed on record the need for a separate provision for youths from the community to work with the Indian Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Police, Meteorological Department, etc., especially during time of extreme weather events and natural disasters.

When asked about the failure of early warning system, Kanyakumari District Collector Sajjansingh R Chavan, told the inquest team that there was no power supply in most parts of the district and hence the poor connectivity. This only proves there, in fact, was a technological and communication gap in the early warning system. Early warning systems are supposed to have and function with uninterrupted power supply (UPS) back-ups during emergencies.

The inquest team finds it shocking that the lack of power is even an excuse by a government official, for the gaps in early warning system. The inquest team feels, in times of a natural calamity, it should be the duty of the state to gather its officials and disseminate the information and warning about the same. None of the early warning mechanisms installed post-tsunami were in operation and almost every fishing villagers visited by the inquest team recorded the same.

Search and Rescue Operations

In their testimony to the inquest team, the local fishermen, who had accompanied the Coast Guard during search and rescue operations, stated that the Coast Guard limited their search up to 60NM. The Coast Guard personnel had even told the fishermen that they do not have jurisdiction beyond that. The possibility of strong winds carrying boats beyond 60NM was not considered by the Coast Guard.

There were comparisons between the search and rescue operations undertaken after Cyclone Ockhi with that of the Malaysian Airline flight, MH-370, which disappeared in March 2015. There was international collaboration in the combing operations and the search area extended from international waters to the territorial waters of many countries. Even India had contributed to the rescue and relief measures. Fisherfolk and the community raised several questions as to why no such combing operations were carried out by the Indian Government for its own.

On December 28, 2017, when the inquest team went to meet the District Collector, the Commissioner of Revenue Administration, Government of Tamil Nadu, Satyagopal, IAS, and Agricultural Production Commissioner of Tamil Nadu, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, IAS. When the inquest team asked about the status of the search and rescue of the fishermen who were at deep-sea, Satyagopal mentioned that the fishermen who went beyond the legal limits in the sea are not of concern since they had ventured out of the legal fishing limit. The team considers this as a very inhumane argument and abandoning a group of fishermen at sea for the same cannot justify it. It is the responsibility of the state machinery to search and rescue those who are in distress and not abandon them because they had crossed some imaginary line or sea boundary.

The inquest team observed many fisher folk claimed that if the search and rescue operations were undertaken with full intensity and on an emergency basis right from November 30, 2017 onwards, several lives would have been saved. It is evident that there was an element of miscalculation about the number of fishermen at sea when the cyclone had passed the coast of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Only after there was a furore from the community, the government intensified its search and relief operations.

Had there been no protest or dissent by the community, there would have been no response from the government as demanded by the people. Given that the Chief Minister and the Prime Minister visited the area only after 13 and 19 days respectively and were busy campaigning for the elections, it is evident that without the people’s protest they would not have visited and assessed the situation.

The information provided by fishermen who had returned safely was not acted upon by the authorities. GPS locations of boats last seen by those who returned were handed over to the Kanyakumari district administration on December 1, 2017, and also to the Defence Minister on December 3, 2017, but no action was taken based on the information provided by the fishing community. The inquest team was informed at Iraiviputhenthurai village that the post-mortem report of one of the fishermen recovered from sea, stated categorically that although the fisherman’s body was floating for 7 to 8 days on the water, the person was alive for almost 6 days. It is evident that there has been a complete lack of efforts by the Tamil Nadu state and district authorities to seek and provide information to the families of missing fishermen. In most of the cases it was the families themselves who had gone to the hospitals in Kerala to check whether their family members had returned as there was no information shared with them directly by Tamil Nadu Government.

It has been observed by the inquest team that there is no registry of arrival and departure of boats from the fishing harbour, hence there is no account of fishermen who had gone to the sea and did not return after the cyclone. Such a registry would have helped in identifying persons who had not returned and those who needed assistance.

In all the coastal villages visited by the inquest team visited, there were strong demands regarding provisions for modern communication equipment for at least one-way communication from the shore to the sea, to provide information about real time weather forecast to the fishermen at sea. There were also demands that the Tamil Nadu government should request the Government of India to lift the ban on satellite phones and provide licensed phones to fishermen who are involved in deep-sea fishing and also provide very high frequency (VHF) sets, radio telephone and Automatic Identification System (AIS).

Conditions of fishing harbours in Kanyakumari

The team visited the fishing harbours of Colachel, Muttom and Thengapattinam in the district of Kanyakumari. In Thengapattinam fishing harbour, the team observed that there were no security checks in place to monitor both entry and exit of vehicles. In Muttom fishing harbour, the team observed extensive damages to the sea walls. Though this is a fishing harbour built, owned and transferred by a private entity, the fisherfolk of the area use it to dock their boats.

The government should incur the cost of repair to the damages to the port due to Cyclone Ockhi. Damages to the Boats The fishermen who are into deep-sea fishing take loans to procure boats, fishing vessels, nets, engines and other equipment. They have to spend around Rs 8,000,000 to Rs 20,000,000 for each fishing boat. They generally do not get loans in banks to buy this essential equipment.

Impact on Livelihood

Many of those who are reported dead and/or missing are labourers who work on fishing boats and are daily-wage earners from the other villages of Kanyakumari district, other districts in Tamil Nadu and other states including Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam. They do not have social security for their families. Hence the government should take into account this aspect for the longterm rehabilitation of the families and provide adequate education, employment and livelihood opportunities. Most of the fisherfolk who have been affected due to damage to boats and other fishing equipment in this cyclone are under debts.

All of them, who were at sea during the cyclone, have lost their fishing catch, especially the ones who had gone for deep-sea fishing for up to 60 days. They have also lost their investment made on their fishing expedition, which involves the cost of diesel, ice, food and other costs. Apart from this they will also have to pay their loan amount back with interest, often to private money lenders. Hence, there needs to be a micro-assessment of the damages made, so that adequate compensation is given to all the affected fisher folks.

The inquest team was also informed about the high rates of interest for loans from the usurers got by the fishermen for purchase of boats, nets, engines and other fishing equipment. The fishermen are arbitrarily charged with a high rate for which they had to pay an interest ranging between Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 10,000 for every Rs. 1,00,000 they have borrowed per month. Charging of high rates of interest is illegal under the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Charging Exorbitant Interest Act, 2003. As a result of non-registration of boats, the fishermen are not eligible to buy subsidised diesel and are forced to buy diesel at market price.

*Members of the inquest team:

  • Justice (Retd.) B.G. Kholse Patil, Former Judge of Bombay High Court.
  • Ramathal, Former Chairperson, Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women.
  • Dr. Shiv Visvanathan, Professor, Jindal Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University.
  • Saba Naqvi, Senior Journalist, New Delhi.
  • K.M Parivelan, Associate Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
  • D.J. Ravindran, Former Secretary of the UN International Inquiry Commission on East Timor and Director of Human Rights Division of UN Peace Keeping Operations in East Timor, Sudan and Libya.
  • Dr. Paul Newman, Department of Political Science, University of Bangalore.
  • Dr. L.S. Ghandi Doss, Professor Emeritus, Central University, University of Bangalore.
  • K Sekhar, Registrar, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore.
  • Dr. Ramu Manivannan, Department of Political Science, University of Madras.
  • Mr. Nanchil Kumaran, IPS (Retd.), Tamil Nadu Police
  • Dr. Suresh, Former United Nations Development Programme and Danish International Development Agency.
  • Prof. Dr. Fatima Babu, St. Mary’s College, Tuticorin.
  • Mr. John Samuel, Former Head of Global Program on Democratic Governance Assessment – United Nations Development Programme & Former International Director – Action Aid.

Download full report HERE

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