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50 days after Ockhi, families wait for a miracle

January 11, 2018 14:38 IST

Picking up the pieces won't be easy for the families of the missing fishermen.
More than the compensation, what they seek is closure, discovers A Ganesh Nadar in Kanyakumari, one of the districts worst affected by the cyclone fury.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

On November 30, 2017, a devastating cyclone ripped through southern Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Lakshwadeep islands.

It destroyed everything in its path and took away numerous lives, leaving behind orphaned families and broken villages.

Five weeks later, the people who found themselves in Ockhi's way have yet to recover, like the residents of Toothoor, a fishing village on the west coast of Kanyakumari that is festooned with banners.

Some banners mourn the dead while others pray for those missing in Ockhi's wake.

The banners are all over the village, wherever you look.


A fisherman sits alone setting his net right; the net looks entangled in a hundred places as he patiently sorts it out.

Nearby, groups of fishermen play cards, their laughter and apparent normalcy hiding the innate sorrow the village feels over the missing.

Sons, brothers, husbands, fathers have been lost at sea.

Three mechanised boats carrying 15 fishermen each left this village and never returned.

Some fishermen went to sea in smaller boats, the wooden vallams.

On the night of November 29, two vallams left together with four fishermen on each boat, hoping to return the next night.

The next morning Ochki struck with all its fury.

Vijayamary was at home with her 17-year-old daughter when all hell broke loose.

Her husband A Alvery, 45, was on one of the vallams and she feared for his life.

Attempts to call him on his mobile phone were fruitless. Two days later, two of his companions were rescued by the coast guard off the Kerala coast.

When they came back to the village they told Vijayamary that Alvery was alive four hours before the coast guard arrived. But he collapsed and could no longer hold onto the logs that the fishermen were hanging onto.

By the time the fishermen were rescued by the coast guard, they had already spent 48 hours floating in the sea.

"They were lucky because of the speed at which the Kerala government started search operations -- a day after the disaster," says Nishant, Alvery's brother-in-law.

"The Tamil Nadu government could have started it (search operations) earlier, but they did not," Nishant complains, adding, "Their entire attention was on the RK Nagar election while the central government was busy with the Gujarat election."

"The inactivity of our (Tamil Nadu) government caused the most deaths," says Nishant.

His view is at odds with what Tamil Nadu Relief Commissioner Dr K Sathyagopal told me earlier: "On the 30th morning we evacuated thousands or the death toll would have been much higher."

IMAGE: A banner in Toothoor, Kanyakumari, announcing the names of the missing and dead fishermen. Photograph: A Ganesh Nadar/

Though news of Alvery's death reached his family a week later, the absence of a body kept their hope alive.

Much later, he was identified in the morgue at a hospital in Kozhikode, Kerala, by matching his DNA with that of his only daughter.

"We went with his daughter to fetch his body -- you can imagine that teenage girl's trauma," says Nishant. "We travelled 480 km by road to get him back. The cyclone had carried him that far."

Alvery was brought back to his village and buried on January 5, 2018.

Gilbert, who was on the same boat as Alvery, is still missing. The fishermen on the other vallams are considered to have died at sea.

The Kozhikode hospital told Alvery's family that they would get the death certificate after a month. Thereafter, the family will need to apply for a legal heir certificate and then approach the government for the promised Rs 20 lakh compensation for families of the dead.

"Within 48 hours of the application," Tamil Nadu Relief Commissioner Dr Sathyagopal had assured me, "We will give the compensation."

Four days after the burial, says Vijayamary, not a single government official has visited her.

She is not worried about the government compensation, she is sure it will come. What worries her is that Alvary's mother will also try to apply for the money.

"The money is for our daughter, I hope they give it to me," says the worried widow, sighing, "He has been fishing for 30 years, but couldn't survive this cyclone."

While the Tamil Nadu government says 200 fishermen are still missing, the fishermen in Toothoor give a much higher figure.

Father Churchill, who works with the fishing community, says around 221 fishermen are missing.

"13 are still missing from Toothoor, 42 from nearby Chinnathurai are missing, 150 from Vallavilai are missing -- and this estimate is only from this area," a fisherman in Toothoor points out.

On January 8 another body came back to Toothoor from Kozhikode. John owned one of the mechanised boats that had gone missing.

"There are 30 bodies in a Kozhikode hospital, 28 in a Thiruvananthapuram hospital still to be identified," says a fisherman. "We are waiting for the DNA tests for final closure."

Search operations still continue in the vast ocean. Cyclone Ockhi had scattered the boats as far as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Lakshwadeep. Two boats were said to have reached Oman in the Persian Gulf.

Meanwhile, a Class 11 student sits in her classroom staring out of the window at the vast ocean where her father used to fish to feed his family.

In his death he ensured that his family received enough money to educate her further, for her marriage and to settle down in life.

Rs 20 lakh is a huge amount for a fisherman's family in a tiny hamlet, but her tears convey that she would prefer her father over all the money in the world.

A Ganesh Nadar / in Kanyakumari