'Not only have we rescued 1,700 fishermen but on the morning of November 30, we evacuated 1,044 fishing folk, otherwise the missing numbers would have been much higher.'
Cyclone Ockhi hit India's southern coast on November 30, and two weeks later the affected regions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala are yet to recover.
The cyclone brought much-needed rain to the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, but also brought in its wake unmitigated disaster whose proportions brought to mind the tsunami that struck the same region 14 years ago.
The worst-affected are the fishermen of the two states who ventured out during the cyclone, with many yet to return.
As cyclone warnings are issued fairly regularly at this time of the year, when the north-east monsoon hits the Coromandel coast, the fishermen took the Ockhi alert to be another routine one and set out to sea.
But the Ockhi's fury drove the hapless fishermen as far away as the shores of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Lakshwadeep; a few of them even sailed across the Arabian Sea to land up in Oman.
A fortnight later, scores of fishermen are yet to return home, leaving their families distraught. The region has seen an outburst of protests, seeking better search operations and higher solatium.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, who visited Kanyakumari district on December 12, hiked the compensation to be paid to the missing families from the earlier Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) to Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) and promised jobs to one member from each family.
Meanwhile, the rescue work is still underway. "The central agencies, namely the coast guard, navy and air force have saved 1,700 fishermen so far," Dr K Satyagopal, Tamil Nadu's principal secretary and commissioner, disaster management and mitigation, tells Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar.
Is Ockhi's path indicative of the direction that the fishermen may have been pushed in?
What they say is that when a cyclone hits and is traveling, it pushes the fishing boats in both directions, away from itself. So, some of the fishermen have been pushed to the west coast and others to the high seas.
The fishermen who landed up in Maharashtra, did the cyclone take them there or did they sail in that direction to avoid it?
It's a combination of both. Some of them moved to the shores when they realised that a cyclone was upon them, while others were pushed there by the force of the winds.
Have you rescued anyone in the Indian Ocean so far?
Specifically I cannot tell you from which part of the ocean they have been rescued from, but I can tell you that the central agencies, namely the coast guard, the navy and the air force, have saved 1,700 fishermen so far.
Who is co-ordinating the rescue operations? The central agencies you named, or the central/state governments?
The public departments of the Tamil Nadu government are the co-ordinating agency.
See, when a disaster strikes, the central agencies take over the rescue operations, we co-ordinate with them through regular review meetings. I personally have attended three to four review meetings.
The chief secretary and chief minister also review the progress regularly. Moreover, we keep in touch on the phone every hour when needed and once a day always.
How much area of the ocean have you searched so far and how much more area remains?
I cannot tell you that as the area is too big. We have ships searching the seas and we have aircraft searching certain areas.
What do the satellite pictures show?
The National Remote Sensing Agency in Hyderabad, a part of ISRO, is sharing their satellite pictures with us. It is very difficult to spot things clearly as the boats are small.
We have to use a combination of pictures to arrive at a conclusion. Then we direct our search operations in that direction.
Have you been able to confirm the number of dead?
From Tamil Nadu there are 14 dead so far, and we also have 12 unidentified bodies in Thiruvananthapuram.
Once they are identified the death toll may go up.
What are your plans to handle a future disaster of this magnitude? It would help if you are able to contact the fishermen during disasters even when they are out in the ocean. Is there a plan for it?
We already have a project for that, it is nearing completion. We will be giving them wireless sets. Some towers have to be erected. By February everything will be in place.
We are also considering putting transponders in large ships that go for deep-sea fishing for many days. This will help us locate them if they are in distress.
VHF (radio) has its limitations but when you have transponders they can be located through our satellite network.
Do you have a deadline in mind until when you will conduct search operations?
There is no deadline. We will search till we find the last fisherman. We are expecting many of them to return by themselves.
The deep-sea vessels stay at sea for 25 to 40 days. Many had gone before Ockhi struck.
You know that most of the fishermen are Christians. They will plan their trip in such a way that they can come home for Christmas.
We think that most will return on December 22. Yesterday (December 13) a couple of boats returned and this morning too a few were expected back.
Are you happy with the rescue work so far?
Definitely! Not only have we rescued 1,700 fishermen but on the morning of November 30, we evacuated 1,044 fishing folk, otherwise the missing numbers would have been much higher.
Were the fishermen rescued off Maharashtra given diesel to return home?
Yes, we have given them 1000 litres of diesel to return home.
Not only Maharashtra, some of them even drifted away to Gujarat. Some seem to have reached Oman, we are waiting for news about them.
What about the compensation given to families of fishermen who have not returned yet?
The chief minister had initially said Rs 2,500 will be given per family as livelihood assistance.
When he went to Kanyakumari recently he enhanced that to Rs 5,000. They will also be getting the lean season compensation of Rs 5,000.
What is the updated number of fishermen missing from Tamil Nadu?
Today it is 400.