With more than 330 fishermen and those working on the boats still missing 24 days after Cyclone Ockhi hit the coast of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Christmas will not be celebrated in Thoothoor region, in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari, and along the coastal belt of Thiruvananthapuram district.
On Saturday, the latest update, compiled by eight Catholic churches of Thoothoor, said 204 people are still missing. This includes 109 fishermen who were most likely killed on November 30 itself, according to survivors. As hundreds of families and survivors remain in trauma, Catholic churches, which play a big role in the lives of people of Thoothoor, have already brought 40 psychiatric counsellors from Kerala.
In Kerala, where 132 fishermen from coastal villages in Thiruvananthapuram district are still missing, state Fisheries Minister J Mercykuttiyamma said rescue operations had been scheduled to be suspended on December 22. “But we have decided to extend the search till December 24 considering the factor that a few more trawling boats returned the other day. We don’t have any expectations about the 88 people who ventured into the sea in mechanised traditional vessels, which stay in sea for two days. But we still do not rule out chances of trawling boats, which go for deep-sea fishing, returning in the next two days,” he said.
“Normally, all such boats, which stay in the sea for a month, return for Christmas. Next week, the government will review the situation and decide on the next course of action,’’ he said.
Calling the situation “grave”, Father Eugene Pereira, vicar-general of arch diocese of Thiruvananthapuram, said, “Besides 132 fishermen missing from the district, another 185 fishermen who ventured into sea from Kochi are yet to return. Many of these 185 belong to Thoothoor in Kanyakumari, which comes under our diocese.’’
He said most families of fishermen in small vessels have come to terms with the reality that their dear ones would not return. “We will have a memorial service for all the dead and the missing at the church on December 29 —a month after the tragedy,” he said.
He said the search should continue till the last missing person is brought to the coast, as promised by the Prime Minister. All churches in coastal belts of the district have suspended Christmas celebrations, as hundreds of families mourn either the dead or the missing.
On December 12, when 428 Thoothoor fishermen were missing, Andrews Kosmos, forane vicar of Thoothoor vicariate, had told The Indian Express: “We would like to believe that all missing people are busy catching fish in deep sea. We are sure they will come back before Christmas.”
On Saturday, he said the situation is grim — “worse” than what they imagined. “We have no Christmas this year except prayers on Sunday night. There are no stars. No houses are illuminated. We have no reply for those families (whose men are missing) now.” Kosmos said, “It is impossible for a Thoothoor fisherman to remain at seas during Christmas, whatever big catch may await him. We had consoled their families for the last two weeks…we said their men will reach by December 20. We have waited three more days now. Fishermen who have returned on rescue missions say many floating bodies they found were decayed beyond any possibility to pull out of water.”
Thoothoor vicariate, which represents eight fishing villages of Thoothoor zone, has a major role in the routine life of fishermen here. On November 30, when the cyclone warning was finally confirmed, loudspeakers at the churches in Thoothoor villages first announced the warning.
Thoothoor zone comprises the villages Irayummanthurai, Poothurai, Chinnathurai, Eraviputhenthurai, Vallavilai, Marthandanthurai, Thengapattanam harbour, Enayam and Neerodi. In all, 157 people are still missing from these areas. Another 47 people missing are fishermen from other villages and districts such as Nagapattinam, who worked on boats owned by Thoothoor fishermen.
Kosmos said the 47 missing from other places include 12 migrant workers from north India. “Even though Navy and other agencies are still searching, search by our own fishermen was more helpful,” he claimed. “But they were allowed on rescue mission only after two weeks. Had they gone immediately after the cyclone, many people believe more fishermen could have been rescued.”
A Navy official who was part of at least two rescue missions said a few bodies they found and a few reportedly floating on the water were all seen tied together with plastic cans — the 5-litre oil cans fishermen keep on board deep sea boats to ensure stability of their long-liner hooks that catch shark varieties and tuna. Meanwhile, the Ockhi tragedy has taken away confidence of fishermen who have resumed fishing over the last few days.
“A few men have begun fishing but they are afraid to go beyond mobile network and engage in fishing only for a few hours in the night,” John Kennedy, a boat owner from Thiruvananthapuram, said. “The other day, when the government issued a mild warning for fishermen, everyone returned frantically. Even families have started making distress calls when they learn about weather alerts.”