A symposium held in Chennai in wake of cyclone Ockhi sought to bring attention to the lapses by the Centre in terms of response to the cyclone. People’s Parliament for Unity and Development and the Save Kanniyakumari Movement held this conference where they talked about how the downsizing of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) played a significant role in the delaying of rescue operations. NDMA is chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The organisational structure of NDMA consists of a chairman, a vice chairman, and members, under whom there are different advisory bodies. But the post of vice chairman has now been removed, and the number of members have been decreased from eight to four. The symposium also released a resolution document which pointed out that the Coastal Disaster Risk Reduction Project in Tamil Nadu, funded by World Bank, has wound up. This led to a loss of 87 staff members in the state’s Revenue department, who were trained in disaster management.
Fishing communities have been protesting against the tardy state response, which can be attributed to these organisational failures. Ships and helicopters went quite late for rescue operations, and were inadequate in number. The Coast Guard and Indian Navy went searching for fishermen, but they did not go beyond 60 nautical miles. Many fishermen, however, were present in deep seas, much beyond this limit. The fishermen had informed the rescue teams of this fact, but they did not go beyond their jurisdiction for rescuing. The National Disaster Management Policy lacks guidelines on rescue operations deep in the sea.
Speaking to Newsclick on the current state of rescue operations in Kanyakumari, Berlin Enayam, a fisherman involved in rescue operations said that about 300 people are still missing. He told us that 33 boats have come back till now because of the efforts of the local fisher people. The locals went out on their boats for rescuing fishermen stuck in the sea, providing them with diesel to be able to get their boats back. He said that unlike the Navy and Coast Guard, the locals went beyond 60 nautical miles. Till now, 156 people in Kanyakumari have been declared confirmed dead by the authorities, and the rest of the missing will be assumed dead if they are not found by the 25th of December.
The resolution document issued by People’s Parliament said, "We also understand that the involvement in NDMA of matters relating to day-to- day management of disasters, such as examination of the damage reports submitted by state governments, planning and execution visits by central teams, examining the reports of those teams and also the functioning of Inter-Ministerial Committees connected with this field, is also considerably less than what it used to be.”
These findings show that central disaster management agencies are largely responsible for the high number of casualties.
Residents and state authorities have also blamed the scale of the disaster on the late cyclone warning issued by the Indian Meteorological Department. The IMD in its defence has been saying that the cyclone formed much closer to land, because of which the warning was issued late.
Cyclones form over warm ocean waters. These warm waters cause a rise in temperature of the air above the ocean, and warm air rises. This warm air also gains moisture from surface ocean waters as the water evaporates due to the heat. The rising warm air leads to a decrease in air pressure near the ocean surface. When this happens, air from the surroundings pushes into the low pressure area, gets warm, and also rises up. The moisture in the air starts turning into clouds, and the entire system of clouds and winds starts spinning. This system grows as evaporating water from the ocean turns into clouds. As this system spins faster, a depression starts to form in the centre. Cyclone forecasts are made when these emerging depressions are detected.
Generally, IMD issues cyclone warnings five to six days in advance. But this time, IMD detected the depression only on the morning of 29th November. But a proper cyclone warning was not even issued then. Only an advisory was issued citing the depression, asking fishermen to not go out into the sea. The official cyclone disaster warning came at 12 noon of 30th November. The state disaster management authority of Kerala said that it could have acted only after IMD explicitly warned of a cyclone.
Former bureaucrat MG Devasahayam, president of People’s Parliament for Unity and Development, said that the ocean had been showing signs of a building cyclone since a week. But IMD failed to predict the signs and issue a warning.
People’s Parliament has called for the creation of a working group to take care of the relief and restoration efforts. Their resolution document said, "Though more than two weeks have passed, normalcy has not been restored, electricity is not available in some villages. Relief announced has not reached majority of the people. Rescue efforts are still continuing. Restoration of normalcy requires a paradigm change.”
Peer Mohammed, Convener of the Save Kanniyakumari Movement, said that in the whole ordeal, fisher people have been treated as second rate citizens. “Often, fishermen are ignored. But since they have a specialised knowledge of the sea, fishermen should be recruited more into the Coast Guard and Navy, to ensure that they can provide not only coastal security but also aid in rescue and relief operations.”