Vol. XLI No. 51 December 17, 2017

Cyclone Ockhi and Our Response

Pinarayi Vijayan

ON November 30, when the cyclone Ockhi struck, it was for the first time in 100 years that such an incident had occurred in Kerala’s seas. Thousands of fishing workers were then out in the sea. State government and various agencies were able to jointly carry out the rescue operations in an efficient and timely manner. This has helped to save the lives of hundreds of fishing workers.

Despite the cyclone warning being issued only in the noon of November 30, the same day when it hit us, we were able to rescue around 400 workers and bring them back to land. It was the joint operations of Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard along with the coordinated efforts of the Kerala government which made it possible. From then onwards, hundreds of lives were rescued in a tireless search and rescue operation which continued unabated, day and night. In scope and scale, there has never been such an effort in the history of Kerala like the search and rescue operations undertaken in the aftermath of cyclone Ockhi. Thus far, around 2600 people have been rescued from the sea, including around 1200 Malayalis.

When informed of the cyclone, Army, Navy and Coast Guard were contacted without any delay. Soon after the request was made, they started rescue efforts. The state minister for fisheries and minister for co-operation were deployed on November 30 itself to lead and coordinate the rescue operations. Along with the national agencies, these two ministers and many officers of the Kerala government have been part of the rescue operations. In fact, a group of fishermen were rescued in a helicopter in which a minister himself had gone as part of the operations. The state health minister personally led the efforts to provide medical facilities to the affected, starting from primary health centres all the way up to medical colleges. Ambulances were arranged at affected areas to pave way for the smooth transportation of the injured to medical facilities. Extra beds were also ensured to cater to the possible heavy influx of patients. As soon as the cyclone warning was issued, people within 100 metres of the coast line were evacuated. 52 camps are in operation for the evacuated, and 8556 people of 1906 families are living in these camps. From the very same evening in which the disaster struck, free ration has been issued for the affected. Initially it was granted for a week and now it has been extended to a month.

Kerala’s public works and electricity departments were quick to remove fallen trees from the roads and re-establish power connections wherever they were affected. It was reported by senior officials in the Tamil Nadu State Disaster Management Authority that the greatest difficulty they faced in terms of conducting rescue operations and providing relief has been of cut in power supply in the affected districts like Kanyakumari. However in Kerala, in none of the affected districts and coasts had power supply been disrupted. This shows that the state was well prepared to face Cyclone Ockhi, despite the alert being made only hours before it struck. Even while proceeding on a war footing during this disaster, it was ensured that the required norms and procedures were followed. By no measure is this is a mean feat. The entire government apparatus functioned like a well oiled machine.

It is commonly accepted that, post the disaster, an adequate package was announced by the Kerala government for the welfare of the affected. Some of the fisherfolk caught in the cyclone managed to reach the shores in other states. Financial assistance and free fuel was granted to them which ensured their safe return to Kerala. Nothing can be a replacement for the lives lost. However, the package announced by the Kerala government will be a relief to those who have lost their loved ones, livelihood or homes. An assistance of Rs 20 lakhs was announced for the family members of those who lost their lives in the disaster; this includes the Rs 10 lakhs which was announced earlier by the state government, Rs 5 lakhs from the Kerala Fishermen's Welfare Fund Board, and Rs 5 lakhs from the fisheries department for finding an alternate livelihood. Out of this, Rs 5 lakh will be earmarked for dependant parents of the deceased and Rs 5 lakhs will be earmarked for dependant unmarried sisters of the deceased. Government has also announced an aid of Rs 5 lakhs for workers who have been seriously injured in the disaster and are unable to pursue fishing or any alternate livelihood in the future. For those with minor injuries, an assistance of Rs 20,000 is also being given.

We have submitted before the union government a request for an additional assistance of Rs 1843 crores. I have personally met with union ministers for home and defence, and brought to their attention the urgency of our demands. As a result of these discussions, it was decided to prolong the search operations of the Navy and the Coast Guard. They have intensified their operations as well, on the request of Kerala government. Fishing workers who were willing to volunteer in search operations have also been included in the search and rescue teams. Centre has agreed to send a team to conduct a study on the damages in coastal areas. Surely, the discussions we have had have been fruitful. We are hoping that our request for Rs 300 crores in immediate assistance will be sanctioned soon. Based on the initial evaluation, Kerala has requested Rs 256 crores for the short term efforts lasting two years, Rs 792 crores for the medium term efforts lasting six years, and Rs 795 crores for the long term efforts lasting ten years. The data and demands submitted include projects like the housing project for homeless fisher folk, compensation for the destroyed boats, assistance to family members of the fishing workers who lost their lives for starting small enterprises and so on. The state fisheries department is meeting all the educational expenses of the children of the fishing workers killed in the cyclone. Many such efforts are being undertaken by the state government itself. At the same time, we have also demanded the centre to declare Ockhi as a national disaster.

Our efforts are to make life in the sea safer for our fisher folk in the future. It will be made compulsory for fishing workers to log their journeys to the sea in a registry maintained by the fisheries department. Arrangements will be made to ensure GPS on boats and delivery of weather updates to the fishing workers through mobile phones and satellite phones. A committee has been formed to conduct a study and submit a report on how to deal with such disasters in the future. To ensure that all concerns regarding rescue and relief operations are addressed, we had even convened an all party meeting. I and other members of the cabinet have also personally visited the affected areas and listened to the concerns of the people.

It is a matter of pride that we were also able to rescue many from Tamil Nadu through our search and rescue operations. The media in Tamil Nadu has taken note of this effort and has commended the rescue operations of the state government. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu has also sent a note of thanks to the state of Kerala. It has been noticed that the fishing workers there are demanding for a Kerala model relief package.

All members of the state’s cabinet have donated a month’s salary for the relief measures. We are asking the general public to also contribute to the efforts, through the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund. This LDF government led by the CPI(M) has always maintained that we will relentlessly proceed with short-term relief measures to provide succour for our disadvantaged sections in their distress. Staying true to that commitment we are going forward with all measures possible to resolve the distress caused by Cyclone Ockhi.

Rescue and relief measures have been commendable due to the coordinated efforts of all the governments and agencies concerned. However, the cyclone Ockhi experience brings to the fore that much needs to be done even today in our country, in terms of ensuring early warnings for natural disasters such as this. Equipping our fisher folk to face such situations is also important. All this can be achieved only through improved research, better equipment, trained personnel and prioritised funding. Cyclone Ockhi thus becomes a lesson for us as a country, to move in that direction.