When candles light up several church cemeteries along the coastal villages in the district on Thursday evening to pay tribute to fishermen who died in Cyclone Ockhi last year, Sindhu, from Vizhinjam village in near Thiruvananthapuram, will still be in the dark about her husband, Raju — as she has been for the last one year.
Raju, alias Jerone, 39, was one of the 91 fishermen who never returned after cyclone Ockhi ravaged the southern coast of the country on November 29, 2017. From Kerala, 143 fishermen went missing. Only 59 bodies were retrieved.
“That my husband is still in the ‘missing’ category is heart-wrenching,” Sindhu, 34, says. “If his body was recovered, that would have at least given us some solace – my two children and I could have had a grave to visit, light candles, and place flower petals.”
The tragedy has taken away earning members, mostly young and middle-aged men, and families of Ockhi victims along the Thiruvananthapuram coast are still struggling to remain afloat. Those who survived the killer waves are yet to come out of the shock – when fishing, they are afraid to venture far into the sea, and rush back to the coast on weather warning reports.
Vizhinjam lost 36 men. Of them, 24 bodies could not be retrieved. Similarly, at Poonthura, 20 out of 35 dead have been taken away by the waves forever.
Scores of families of victims are surviving on the interest they get from the Rs 20 lakh compensation the state government has deposited in the accounts of the dependents. The CPI(M)-led LDF government had promised jobs for the widows below the age of 40. Accordingly, two months back, the state Fisheries Department gave temporary jobs to 35 people at its fish-net factory.
“I will get Rs 10,000 as interest (from the amount deposited in her account by the Kerala government). A chunk of that amount will go towards repaying the home loan my husband had taken,” Sindhu says. “The Union government had announced aid of Rs 2 lakh for all the deceased. But dependents of the missing persons are yet to get that assistance. Wherever I go seeking help, doors are shut on me for want of a death certificate for my husband.”
Poncilin, 45, has to take care of three daughters – all of them students. “My husband, Wilbert Layon, did not return. He had taken a housing loan of Rs 10 lakh, and another Rs 1 lakh as educational loan for our eldest daughter. I could not repay the housing loan, and now the lenders have threatened to throw us out of the house,” she says.
At Poonthura village, 55-year-old Paniadima is still afraid to venture into the sea. “I lost my son, Davidson. I survived the cyclone by clinging on to a boat wreckage for three days. Even a year after, I am afraid to go fishing deep in the sea. But when there is no money to buy provisions, there is no option but to go for fishing. On most days, my family doesn’t have three meals.
“We will get Rs 14,000 as interest on compensation. The entire amount will go towards repaying the home loan of Rs 10 lakh.”
Fr Theodicious D Cruz of Thiruvananthapuram archdiocese, who is involved in rehabilitation of Ockhi victims, says, “The cyclone has filled the minds of our men with fear. These days, they don’t go far and stay in the sea for weeks. They venture into sea and return within 12 to 24 hours with a meagre catch. This has affected their revenue also. There should be a proper and accurate weather warning for fishermen.”
Kerala Fisheries Minister and CPI(M) leader J Mercykutty Amma says, “We have taken care of education of all children of all affected families. Some of them will get financial assistance until 2037.”
She says the department also is also planning several steps to make fishing safe and ensure proper communication with the fisher folks. “Satellite-enabled hi-tech communication device Navik, developed by ISRO, will be distributed to a section of fishermen next month. This device will help them stay connected with the coast even without internet connectivity,” she says.