Cyclone Ockhi left a path of devastation to life and property in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Lakshadweep, and further north. But the puzzling fact remains why thousands of fishermen were at sea, even as the powerful cyclone approached. After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 December, alert mechanisms were believed to have been set up. But early-warning in this case appears to have been non-existent.

There are now many versions of why this was so. While the earliest documented “rough seas” warning was sent out on 29 November, the area around Kanyakumari went into a cyclonic storm in the early morning hours of 30 November. The weather system “deep depression” rapidly evolved into Cyclone Ockhi just some 60 kilometers from the coast, thus drastically reducing the time available for extensive warnings—a point enunciated by the Indian Meteorological Department and state governments. Further, because of the nature of fishing today, where fish resources are limited in nearshore waters proximate to land, fishermen venture out further and further away into the ocean. Fishing trips can last for a week or more. They are not advanced boats, but mostly locally-constructed working vessels with minimal facilities, and when overturned, are almost impossible to right/reverse. Further, once on the open seas, there is no way to reach them with warnings, at present. National security concerns have prevented fishermen from having satellite phones (in the past used by terrorists masquerading as fishermen). The mobile phones of the fishermen cannot work on the high seas since the transmission towers are far away. Further, as natural risk-takers, hardy fishermen are reticent to take seriously warnings short of an explicit ban, since they think that “landlubbers” send out erratic alerts and are not able to manage risk and subsistence fishing, and fishermen have indigenous knowledge of assessing impending storms. However, all that does not excuse lapses in the time between the issuance of warnings and their actual delivery to fishermen that various investigations will undoubtedly unearth. Fishermen reported they did not even know the trajectory of the cyclone, making it impossible to decide which direction to move for safety.

The burgeoning Indian space sector has globally-recognised expertise, achievements, tools and knowledge that ought to be applied in fisheries and for fishermen to enhance distress alert and location data to help search, rescue and relief. Meanwhile, the Kerala government has announced that it intends to get installed GPS and other tracking as well as life-saving gadgets on boats, and maintain a registry of fishermen.

On the front lines, the Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force were deployed for search and rescue operations, and 662 fishermen were rescued. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke in Tamil with great empathy and compassion to irate villagers in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and achieved rare praise from the fishing community—Malayalam speakers can broadly follow Tamil as well. The armed forces delivered relief supplies to affected fishing communities including in Lakshadweep, as did state government entities for coastal people in evacuation. Tamil Nadu fishermen were rescued and 282 are in Lakshadweep, 152 in Kerala, 975 in Karnataka and 536 in Maharashtra, showing the scale/spread of the cyclone and frantic efforts to flee. The number of Kerala fishermen missing at sea itself became a matter of dispute with wildly varying initial estimates, until the Kerala government finally announced that 397 fishermen are missing. 39 had died.

When there are deaths due to natural or man-made calamities, a lump-sum is announced usually by the government, and thereafter there is nothing. Since adults are not trained in managing “windfalls” as we have seen from the lives of lottery-winners, similarly, the lump-sum is squandered while the education needs of the children can be the lowest priority. Setting up an annuity for each child of the departed is therefore essential.

While an estimated 90% of the total Indian marine catch of approximately 4 million tons is by relatively small boats, the Indian maritime safety laws apply only to the larger vessels 20 metres or above, and India’s membership of the international satellite system for search and rescue, Cospas-Sarsat, has not yet been extended to smaller Indian vessels. Low-intensity calamities during gales plague the fishing community, and their perception is one of chronic neglect by the establishment. Tardiness in reaching supplies after natural calamities has been a complaint for decades. Humanitarian needs are immediate for fresh water, water purification equipment, oral rehydration solution, antibiotics, analgesics, rice, other food, cooking oil, tents and clothing.

India established the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) comprised of nearly 14,000 para-military personnel, specially trained in disaster management, and an NDRF team even provided help in Japan following the massive earthquake and tsunami of 2011. However, for a population of 1.3 billion, the NDRF cannot be everywhere, and deployment is not instantaneous as the base locations are limited. Training in rapid evacuation from the coast is essential with NDRF collaboration, because of the patchy infrastructure and easily washed-away housing in some villages. I myself served as a young medical doctor in an integrated fishing and health project in Neendakara, Kerala, not far from the eye of this current storm and have observed these needs. 

There are doctors and nurses who have for long been medical stewards of the fishing community. They are trusted not only for medical issues, but also for wise counsel in education, livelihood and financial matters of those fishing community families. These long-serving professionals on the ground in the community should be supported and utilised for linking to the fishing community. 

It is imperative that India should strengthen the coastal management that includes disaster preparedness and a modern system for last-mile delivery and connectivity with fishing communities. One can blame bureaucrats, politicians and fishermen etc., however, the essence of the best future is stronger links with the fishing community. Stronger connectivity, collaboration and communication based on their natural strengths—observational acuity of the sea security and resources. Many examples abound of first-line of coastal defence often having been provided by fishermen’s alert. The earliest insights on marine environmental change are from fishing communities. Fishermen are naturally positioned to be the best guardians for the sea. Their generations of deep knowledge and observation of marine biology are often very unique and sometimes point to fascinating insights for potential academic research and discovery. They have a lot of insights that are valuable for national defence, economic & environmental security.

Despite the catastrophic natural calamities and losses, we must overcome and make progress to build a new state-of-the-art and resilient Indian coastal management system as a leading maritime nation with 8,118 kilometre coastline. Such specialised expertise, technology and efforts will build up India’s commanding role in the Indian Ocean. 

Dr Sunil Chacko is a medical doctor and Harvard University graduate. He has worked as a physician in a coastal hospital and delivered babies of the fishing community even in candle-light. Also, he served in the Executive Office of the World Bank Group. He is an Adjunct Professor in the US, Canada, India and Japan.

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