By M M Paniyil*, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu
It has been a long wait for Amaladasan. His son-in-law Binu, an artisanal deepsea fisher, was caught in Cyclone Ockhi, and never came back.
From the southern coastal villages of Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu and Thiruvananthapuram district in Kerala, at least 293 fishermen have died or went missing in the cyclone since November 29. At Vallavilai, the worst hit village, the count is 70 — 33 local fishers and 37 colleagues from other places, including four from other states.
"I am a survivor of Ockhi too," Amaladasan told VillageSquare.in, gazing at a poster with portraits of his missing colleagues displayed at the local church entrance. "I had gone to fish off the shore of Kochi. At about 1 am, the sea was very rough, and our wireless sets stopped working."
"There was lightning. One thunderbolt, then blinding bright light and the sky was red." Amaladasan said the fishers did not know about the approaching storm, and now they lost touch with other boats around. Binu was in one of them.
"We have been offshore for six days and six nights," Amaladasan said. "Nobody told us there was going to be a storm. There is no system (of early warning)." Offshore, artisanal fishers seldom get any weather alerts. The fishers' short-distance radio sets are meant only for communication amongst boats in a fleet.
After Ockhi that hit fishers unawares, scientists have called for better communication systems even for small boats. "The only solution is two-way communication," said a senior official of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Thiruvananthapuram. Scientists are now improving Navik, a gadget based on ISRO technology for offshore communication, emergency alerts and tracking of vessels in distress.
In Tamil Nadu and Thiruvananthapuram, there are several initiatives to improve risk communication for fishers by introducing shore-based messaging systems, community FM radio, and two-way wireless communication systems. Studies have shown that the best way forward is a mix of technologies that ensures seamless multi-way communication for the safety of fishermen.
The local villagers are now testing and tweaking their wireless sets for better communication and forecasts. They are part of a small cluster of villages around Thoothoor inhabited by deepsea fishers. Unlike most other artisanal fishers who fish within 20 or 30 nautical miles (37-55 km) over day or night trips, Thoothoor fishers go over 100 nautical miles offshore over a fortnight to 50 days, catching tuna and shark.
They usually operate from Kochi to ensure good harbor facilities and market for fish. They fish from the sea around Lakshadweep archipelago and beyond, some fishers reaching off the shore of Oman and Diago Garcia. Catch from a trip could fetch around INR 500,000 (USD 7,860).
Lost at sea
In the flash of lightning, Amaladasan could see the danger he was in. "The waves were as high as this church. We thought it was the end," he told VillageSquare.in. "Then I prayed 153 beads of the rosary (a popular Catholic prayer)." The shoreline of Kanyakumari and Thiruvananthapuram are dotted with churches of the predominantly Catholic marine fishers. Francis Xavier, a missionary from Navarrese in today's Spain, who co-founded the Jesuit order, converted their ancestors during the 1540s as part of the Portuguese colonial project.
"My colleagues who survived made a pilgrimage to Velankanni (a pilgrim center in Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu). I didn't. I am waiting for my son-in-law Binu," Amaladasan said, holding Binu's daughter, a toddler, in his arms.
"Nine of the us reached an island (presumably an uninhabited island of the Lakshadweep archipelago). We called others over the wireless set. At one point they said their anchor ropes were broken," he said. "Then there was no reply, we did not hear anything from them."
"We were a group of nine fishers in one boat. Caught in the high waves and nets (laden with fish) the boat turned to one side. Someone cut it free from that nets," Amaladasan told VillageSquare.in. They were later rescued. "We told the officials we are fine, go and look for the others."
Locating stranded fishers
While Amaladasan and colleagues were struggling, back home their villagers were trying to locate and rescue the stranded fishers. "We gathered information provided by fellow boatmen who had escaped the storm," Sunil Sabariar, a local information and communication technology expert, told VillageSquare.in. Sabariar is the local version of the name Xavier.
Darwin Peter, the parish priest of Vallavilai, said 182 big boats from the area were caught in the storm. At the same time, there were 32 ships passing by within 142 nautical miles, unaffected by the cyclone.
The villagers set up a wireless station and they could communicate with the ships with powerful radio systems. The ships in turn could locate stranded boats in their vicinity and pass on the details to the villagers, Peter said.
The Coast Guard and the Navy made several rescue trips, still a large number of fishers were stranded in the sea, far offshore, beyond the reach of vessels launched from points in Tamil Nadu.
"On (December) 3rd night, we gave (the rescuers) the latitude and longitude of our boats," Peter told VillageSquare.in. "Still they were not saved. We decided to have a strike. On 7th morning, we had a strike. We walked 22 km. We blocked the National Highway, and the railway line for 13 hours." The protest involving over 15,000 people spurred speedy government action.
Swimming to safety
Meanwhile some fishers made it to safety on their own. "Eight fishers swam ashore in Kalpeni in Lakshadweep, spending three days in the sea," Peter said.
Peter said 18 boats from this village were destroyed in the storm. "With gear and equipment they were worth Rs 60 lakh each. Many fishers are in debt, with loans of Rs20, Rs30 or Rs40 lakh on them."
Peter hails from the neighboring village of Eraviputhenthurai, and he is now busy helping the bereaved families. "There are families in which three to four people have died. Mostly they are young persons. There are a few men in the 40 to 50 years range. About 75% of the orphaned children, however, are under 10."
The Tamil Nadu government has offered compensation of Rs 20 lakh for the families of dead fishers. Ten lakhs will be given now and the rest after six months. Besides, the government will give one job each for each affected family.
Meanwhile Sabariar is testing, tweaking and supplying gadgets to the fishers. "Fishers usually carry cheaper handheld systems that reach only up to 25 nautical miles in good weather. They are good for small boats," Sabariar told VillageSquare.in.
"Big boats can carry powerful wall or desk-mounted wireless sets that can communicate within 400 nautical miles under good weather condition and half the distance or even less in rough weather," Peter said.
"The best solution, however, is satellite phones. They work in all weather conditions. In Sri Lanka fishers use them," Sabariar said. Licensing and security norms, however, make them largely inaccessible and unaffordable in India. Thoothoor fishers are negotiating with the government to make available limited-feature satellite phones.
MM Paniyil researches and writes on environmental issues, and is based in Bangalore.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.