Tamil Nadu Governor and Chief Minister claim search operations for bodies of fishermen missing in Cyclone Ockhi continue but there is no one at sea
Sunil Sabariyar is a fisherman who hails from Thoothoor in Kanyakumari district. He told The Lede that a group of fishermen from his village had gone deep sea fishing in the Arabian sea last week. “On January 12, they told us that when they hauled in their nets, a decomposed body was caught in it,” Sabariyar recounted. “They tried to recover the body as it was likely a missing fisherman’s body. But it was so decomposed that it was falling apart. Even if they had put it into the boat, their catch would have become spoilt and also they would be prone to infection, so they decided to leave it in the sea itself,” he said. Sabariyar says that on return, the fishermen informed the government authorities that they had spotted a body around 300 nautical miles from Cochin.
Over 500 fishermen from Tamil Nadu and Kerala are still missing. Even 45 days after Cyclone Ockhi wreaked havoc on the south western coast of the country, only 71 bodies have been recovered, of which 15 are still unidentified. Of the missing fishermen, over 300 are mainly from Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu, while over 200 hail from Kerala.
Locals in Kanyakumari are in a state of trauma over their missing family and friends. “Still there are bodies floating on the sea,” said Sabariyar. “Fishermen who have resumed fishing find bodies floating on the surface and in their nets. We have no equipment to recover them. We have informed the officials but there is no one to recover the bodies,” he added.
Curiously though, Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit had, in his address to the state Assembly on January 08, stated that the government of Tamil Nadu is taking all efforts and will not stop the search operations until they recover the last missing fisherman.
Nagercoil MLA and former DMK minister Suresh Rajan told The Lede – “I raised a question to the Chief Minister in Assembly over the Governor’s speech on the first day of the session. The government is saying that search operations are still on but the Union Defence Minister is saying that they have called off the search operations on December 27 itself. How then can the state government continue the operations?”
In response to Rajan’s question, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy replied – “We have deployed 300 fishermen to carry out search and rescue operations and government is assisting them by giving free diesel and food.”
But the Chief Minister appears not to have known that these fishermen who are supposed to be carrying out searches for the bodies at sea, have called off their operations on December 31, 2017 itself.
Sunil Sabariyar, who was one of the team of fishermen tasked with recovering bodies from the sea told The Lede – “As we need to resume our regular fishing activity, we called off the search operation on December 31 itself. Initially the Fisheries Department asked us to do search operations by ourselves and promised to distribute free diesel and food. We spent around Rs 18 lakhs and submitted the bills to the government around 15 days back. But we did not receive any payment from the government,” he said.
In various mortuaries belonging to government hospitals in Kerala lie 15 unidentified bodies hauled out from the sea since rescue operations began. Most bodies are highly decomposed and the Kerala government, for health reasons, has decided to bury them by January 22.
On the evening of January 12, Kanyakumari District Collector Sajjan Singh R Chavan issued a statement. In that, Chavan provided a 3-day window for families with missing fishermen to go to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, a distance of 105 kilometres, and provide DNA samples for identifying the bodies. The statement was issued on a Friday evening – over the weekend of January 13 and 14, the lab that would take the DNA samples, Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology in Thiruvananthapuram, was closed. In effect, these families had one single day, January 15, to provide the DNA samples. Only five family members actually made it to Thiruvananthapuram from Kanyakumari district to give samples.
“We have got a total of 1400 reference samples of DNA from Kerala and Tamil Nadu put together,” said a scientist at the Centre, who requested anonymity. “We have stopped taking samples from the recovered bodies also.”
But over 50 families are yet to give their DNA samples for identification. And the Kerala government will bury the unidentified bodies by January 22.
“As of now we have collected nearly 250 DNA samples from kin of missing fishermen and identified 16 fishermen bodies and recovered them through DNA testing,” Kanyakumari Collector Chavan told The Lede. “There are 15 bodies yet to be identified. The unidentified bodies could be of fishermen from Tamil Nadu, Kerala or other states who went fishing in the boats of our fishermen,” he said. “We were informed by officials from Kerala government that they decided to bury the unidentified bodies after 22nd of this month and on 15th they stopped collecting DNA samples from the family members of missing fishermen,” he added.
“Initially, the district administration and Fisheries Department took family members to the Kerala lab to give samples,” said Father Churchill, General Secretary of South Asian Fishermen Fraternity, based in Kanyakumari. “Later they asked us to do it on our own. In the 8 villages covered by our Association, including Vallavilai and Thoothoor, we have complete the DNA sample process. There are more than 50 families of missing fishermen who came from the neighbouring districts and a few from other states like Assam, who are yet to give the DNA samples,” he said.
Kanyakumari and its fishermen are at sea as to what to do next. “Family members of missing fishermen are clueless and waiting to know what happened to their husband, son, father and brother,” said Father Churchill. “It is the responsibility of the government to find the missing fishermen – whether they are alive or dead. Central government has stopped search and rescue operation in December itself. Now state government has stopped collecting the DNA samples. All of us know very well that the unidentified bodies are fishermen bodies. Government should put more effort to identify them and properly hand them over to their family members,” he said.
In the second week of December 2017, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Palanisamy announced that Rs 20 lakh compensation would be paid to the kin of deceased fishermen along with a government job for a surviving member of the family.
But with over 300 still missing and only 18 bodies recovered and identified, the government is stuck. For issuing the promised compensation, a death certificate is required. The law states that in the case of missing persons, they can legally be declared dead only after seven years have elapsed. Families of missing fishermen say that it is impossible for their kin to be alive at sea after 45 days and are demanding the compensation due to them.
To resolve this issue, the state government had, on January 12, passed a Government Order (GO) which stated that a committee would be formed. This committee would issue the names of the missing fishermen in the Gazette and also place advertisements in newspapers to find out if they were still alive. One month later, if the fishermen remained missing, half of the compensation amount, Rs 10 lakhs, would be handed over to the families of the fishermen. The remaining Rs 10 lakhs would be deposited into a joint account of the family member and an official of the Fisheries Department. After 6 months, if the fishermen were still missing, the entire amount with interest would be handed over to the family.
But fishermen are unhappy about this arrangement. “The GO talks only about compensation,” said Father Churchill of Kanyakumari. “There is no word about the promised government job. The government has to declare these fishermen dead and give the family death certificates. Otherwise they will not be able to get the jobs,” he argued.
Tamil Nadu’s and Kerala’s fishermen are in a quandary. Who will help them recover their dead floating on the high seas?