It is days of bitter learning for Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Cyclone Ockhi has not only brought untold and unattended misery to the coastal people of this southern state, but has also given the right dose of medicine to the CPM strongman that heading a government is not like being at the helm of a political party. For in the hour of need, the government headed by Vijayan failed totally in tackling the natural disaster, perhaps worse than the tsunami that took a heavy toll in 2004. And this is not the first time the government has goofed up, underlining the fact that when it comes to governance, the current crop of rulers have to go a long way. To begin with, the government slept over the warning issued by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) that high waves would be seen 10 km off the state coast before the cyclone really hit. However, the state Disaster Management Authority (DMA) chose to ignore the Central authority’s warning, considering it as a routine alert. Hence, fishermen were not informed about the danger lying in the seas. By the time the cyclone gathered speed, thousands of fisher folk from the coastal districts of Kerala, unlike their counterparts in nearby districts of Tamil Nadu, had already set out into the sea. Instead of swinging into action, what followed was the usual blame game. While the Central authorities provided ample evidence as to the date and time of warning, state authorities contented that it received adequate information a day later. Valuable hours were lost in the confusion.
It took a full two days for the state government to realise the enormity of the impact the cyclone had had in the coastal districts, mainly in those of Thiruvananthapuram, the seat of the state capital. Protests erupted in the coastal villages of Thiruvananthapuram district, as relatives of missing fishermen took to the streets alleging “government indifference” over their plight. However, the Chief Minister, who also heads the DMA, insisted that the government received information regarding the gathering storm one day late. His ministers too went on fire-fighting missions, but the fury of those affected remained unabated. While the revenue and fisheries departments put out varying figures on the missing fishermen, the Church, mainly the Latin Catholic, questioned the figures. In fact, the Church is in a better position since most of the fishermen belong to this sect and hence in the know of persons missing. But it is alleged that the government at no time took the Church into confidence and there was no coordination between the two. In fact, over 150 fishermen from Vizhinjam and Poonthura villages of Thiruvananthapuram, the most affected by the cyclone, set out in small boats in search of their colleagues, ignoring pleas from the authorities.
Even as the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard joined the rescue operations, there were complaints of lack of coordination on the part of the state authorities. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman herself flew in to oversee the operations, but still there was no confirmation as to the actual number of fishermen missing. This had become the bone of contention between the Church and the government. As the protest raged, the Chief Minister finally stepped out of the secretariat to visit the grieving families after four days. But in Vizhinjam, Vijayan was showered with abuse, forcing him to abandon the official car and return in a minister’s car, cancelling his plans to visit nearby Poonthura. It has now come to light that instead of visiting Poonthura, the CM went straight to a marriage reception of the son of liquor businessman Biju Ramesh, who was the brain behind the bar bribery case, which was one of the factors that led to the downfall of the previous UDF government. In fact, it was Nirmala Sitharaman, speaking in Tamil, who pacified the agitators, among them hundreds of wailing women and children. Kerala ministers who were accompanying her had to make a hasty retreat.
The government has declared various sops to the fisher-folk, many of whom have outright rejected the offer. The see the government as having let them down, totally. Over a week after the cyclone struck, authorities are still in the dark about the actual number of fishermen yet to be traced. Umpteen bodies have to be retrieved, since so far efforts were on only to rescue those alive. It is alleged that this apathy towards the fishing community both by the Church and the government is because they are an impoverished lot. They lack the glamour of those who belong to the elitist Christian community, rubber plantation owners, who call the shots in state politics. Compared to them, Latin Christians are considered pariahs in the community. So, not many were surprised at the indifference of powerful Catholic bishops of the state, who in the past had come out on the streets in support of the land owning class. 39 of the ruling communist MLAs belong to the coastal districts. Not many of them, or the cadre, were visible in the past one week offering succour to their brethren of the seas. The fishing community is unlikely to forgive them in the near future.