June 16 2019
Adrift and rudderless in Kanniyakumari
17 December 2017

The trail of devastation that Ockhi left in Kanniyakumari district has been unprecedented. While the district will take a while to get back to normalcy, it is the fishing community that seems to be the worst hit, losing near and dear and breadwinners, as well as the tools of its trade — the boats and the nets.

A fortnight after Cyclone Ockhi took a detour westwards and orchestrated a dance of destruction, rehabilitation is still a work in progress in Kanniyakumari, the district worst affected in the State.

The cyclone hit the shoreline and areas close to the Western Ghats hard, leaving a trail of damage. The unofficial counting of missing fishermen is not yet over. Damaged houses and roads, landslips, mutilated power lines, ravaged crops and uprooted trees mar the otherwise serene Kanniyakumari landscape. Coastal villages are keening for fishermen, who are dead or presumed dead.

Rude shock

Residents were caught unawares on the first day of December. When the storm wound its way to Lakshadweep, it left the movement of vehicles on arterial roads paralysed. Rail traffic was hit due to inundation of the track, landslips and damage to power lines. The district administration, on December 1, had to borrow power saws from neighbouring districts to remove uprooted trees.

Even as the official machinery, with its limited resources, was struggling to crank up the restoration work to top gear, a section of opportunistic traders sold essential commodities at exorbitant rates.

A litre of packaged drinking water was sold at ₹40 and a candle at ₹25. When the demand for generators increased sharply as the district plunged into darkness, ₹600 was charged for hiring a generator for 30 minutes just to pump water from wells to overhead tanks.

The damage inflicted by Cyclone Ockhi affected all aspects of life

Houses 5032 Electric poles 13450
No. of villages hit by drinking water shortage 1155 No. of Panchayats hit by drinking water shortage 95
Area under paddy prior to Ockhi (in hectares) 4284 Hectares of paddy damaged 299
No. of coconut trees uprooted 13150 No. villages with such uprooted trees 144
Power cables 802 kms Rubber trees 5.63 lakh
Banana trees 48.15 lakh Trees uprooted on govt. land 11299
Trees uprooted along the road 175 Damage to horticultural crops (in hectares) 3623
Primary school buildings 18 Middle school buildings 9
Panchayat, panchayat union roads damaged 192.23 kms State highways 9.8 kms
Important roads 11.9 kms Other roads 53.34 kms

As many as 178 persons from the Kaani tribe in Western Ghats affected

However, by all accounts, it was the fate of the fishermen that was by far the worst. Confusion prevailed for more than a week over fixing the number of missing boats, even as the fisherfolk protested against the delay in launching search operations deep sea.

Though Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, during her visit, provided an assurance that the search operation with aircraft and ships would be intensified, the loss of human lives and equipment at sea remains unquantified due to a mismatch between the statistics provided by fishermen and the district administration.

“The exact number of missing boats and fishermen can be ascertained only around December 22-23 as our people would return home from deep sea fishing a couple of days ahead of Christmas,” says Fr. Churchil, general secretary, South Asian Fishermen Fraternity.



Former civil servant M.G. Devasahayam presents a macro perspective on the entire incident: “The Government of India’s attitude towards cyclone-hit Kanniyakumari has been extremely distressing. The National Disaster Management Authority, headed by the Prime Minister, is not functioning. There was no forecasting. The Indian Coast Guard and the Navy did not undertake immediate search and rescue operations in the sea, leading to the death of over 100 fishermen. Even after two weeks, several hundreds are missing. On land, there is massive destruction of agricultural, horticultural and floricultural crops,” he said.

“The loss amounts to thousands of crores of rupees. The State government is unable to cope and the Central government is maintaining a deafening silence. A Central team should visit the district immediately to make a realistic assessment of the destruction and damage so as to award decent relief and compensation,” Mr. Devasahayam added

The government, after realising the magnitude of the situation and people’s anger, rushed senior officials to the district, who expedited relief and rehabilitation efforts.

After Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami’s announcement of ₹20 lakh each to families of the deceased fishermen, farmers also sought a similar compensation to the families of eight agriculturists killed in the cyclone.



Restoration work

Officials say that, as of now, more than 90% of restoration and rehabilitation work has been completed. “By reinstalling 13,450 electric poles, all 5,113 transformers are operational. Power supply has been restored in the plains. Since we have to install additional electric poles in the rocky terrain of Western Ghats, restoration work will be completed in a day or two,” says a senior Tangedco official. Agriculture and Horticulture officials too claim that survey of damaged crops is almost over and they are in the process of giving compensation to affected farmers.



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