Alel was still standing in the porch of his house
on John Paul II street even weeks after cyclone Ockhi. The two-year-old smiled
at everyone who passed by, and kept looking again and again at the mud path leading
to the house, hoping that the next man who came that way might be his father,
Some of the houses on the street were decorated
with a star and glittering lights. But Ajikuttan (as his family fondly
calls Alel) stood in darkness. His mother Ajitha, 33, a homemaker, was
inside, crying; she
had been in bed for days. Every now and then, Ajikuttan would hug her
and then return to the porch.
This was just before Christmas 2017. His mother had
assured the little boy that Yesudas will come by Christmas day, bringing new
clothes and a cake. But Alel’s father had not returned.
Yesudas Shimayon, 38, was one of the fishermen who set out from his three-room house
in Karode village of Neyyattinkara taluk in Thiruvananthapuram district of
Kerala when the cyclone descended on November 30. He went to the sea in the
evening of November 29 along with four co-workers. One of them was his neighbour
Alexander Podithampi, 28, three were from Tamil Nadu. Alexander and his wife
Jasmin John, 21, have a 10-month-old baby girl, Ashmi Alex.
Two-year-old Ajikuttan (left) lost his father
Jasmin (right), her husband; both went out to sea on November 29 but have not returned
The group usually returned to shore after 6-7 days
of fishing. They would then auction the fish and go back to sea the next day.
That was their routine. But ‘Star’, their boat, has remained untraceable, with
no information received so far. At least
13 fishermen are missing from Pozhiyoor hamlet of Karode, a large village of around 32,000
More than 1,500 fishermen from Kerala and Tamil
Nadu had gone to the sea that evening. Their families told the media they
didn’t get precautionary warnings from any government agencies about the
Mable Adima’s husband Shilu, 45, and their son Manoj,
18, are among those missing. They too set out that day, the two always went
together on the Vallarpadathamma, a boat that had a wireless set. The boat’s
owner, Kejin Bosco, from Paruthiyoor
hamlet of Karode village, got messages once on November 30 that the sea was
very rough. Then the signal vanished.
Search teams later found two dead bodies –
companions of Shilu and Manoj – from this boat; they saw other bodies floating
in the water but could not recover them because of the rough waves. "We
lost the boat, nets and all other equipment in the sea,” Bosco says. “The total
loss is 25 lakh rupees. The rescue team couldn't bring the boat back. But the
saddest thing is that we lost our friends and the loss of their families is incalculable."
Mable Adima's husband and son, both fishermen, are untraceable too
Mable has a 15-year-old daughter, Princy, who is
studying in Class 10. In addition to her grief about her untraceable husband
and son, she is now worried about Princy’s education and about a Rs. 4 lakhs
loan the family took to build their house.
Ockhi (in Bengali the word means ‘eye’), an intense
tropical cyclone in the Arabian Sea, hit
Sri Lanka on November 29 before reaching coastal Kerala and Tamil Nadu
noon on November 30. It was especially severe in Kanyakumari district of
Tamil Nadu and Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, where it also
impacted Kollam, Alappuzha and
afraid of the tide now. I won’t go to the sea again. I can’t,” says Clement
Banjilas, 65, his face pale. Clement, a fisherman from Poonthura hamlet of Muttathara village in Thiruvananthapuram
taluk, has been out on boats since
the age of 12. On November 29, he went to the sea with two others at 3 p.m. The
night, he recalls, was calm. But when they were returning to shore around 5
a.m. the next morning, the weather deteriorated, a furious wind started, and
their boat suddenly turned over. Clement (who spoke at the Press Club in
Thiruvananthapuram) says he snatched a rope from the boat and tied a jerry can to
his body to help him float. Despite gigantic waves washing over him and the heavy
rain, he survived for about six hours in the sea. Then another boat came by and
The prime minister and Kerala’s Minister of
Fisheries J. Mercykutty
Amma promised people in the cyclone-affected villages that they will bring
the missing persons back home before Christmas. In the operations carried
out by the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and the Air Force, more than 800 fishermen
were rescued, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman informed Parliament on 27
December – 453
were from Tamil Nadu, 362 from Kerala and 30 from Lakshadweep and Minicoy
But the government agencies suspended their search and
rescue operations two days before Christmas. When people protested strongly,
the search was resumed after December 25 – and it is still going on.
to the Kerala government, 143 persons from the state are missing; the central
government says the number is 261. And the Latin archdiocese of
Thiruvananthapuram has collected 243 names, while 440 persons from Tamil Nadu
are still missing.
People from coastal areas of Kerala, including the relatives of missing persons, gathered together at Shankumugham Beach in Thiruvananthapuram on a sombre Christmas evening
Ockhi, the National Fish Workers Forum and the Kerala Independent Fish Workers
Federation have given a list of demands to the disaster management team set up
by the central government. These
include: financial aid and support to bereaved families; financial
assistance to fish workers who lost equipment; licensed satellite wireless sets
and satellite radios to be distributed to all deep sea fishing vessels; life-saving
sea-safety kits and navigational equipment for all fishermen going into the
deep sea; marine ambulances for all coastal districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu;
and the participation of fish workers in decisions related to disaster mitigation
And because of the bitter experience after the December
2004 tsunami – when funds were used inefficiently and without transparency – the
funds allocated as part of the Ockhi cyclone relief package should strictly be
utilised only for the affected fishing villages of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Meanwhile, members of various political parties
have come and met Yesudas’s family and other families in Karode. They have
assured help and offered to support the schooling of Ajikkuttan's sister Aliya,
12, and brother Alan, 9.
Yesudas’s family still hopes that he and the other fishermen
might have safely reached a shore somewhere. And that he will soon come home or
phone them. “He has been going to the sea since the age of 15,” says his sister
Thaddeus Mary. “He is so vibrant. He knows many languages. He will come back."
But when the government declared on December 23
that the search was suspended, the elders in the community advised Ajitha to
perform her husband’s last rituals. Reluctantly, she agreed. His rites, along with those of the other missing
fishermen of the village, took place at the local St. Mary Magdalene church that
The family though continues to hope. "We are
waiting,” says Thaddeus Mary. “We will wait for him a few more days."
A version of
was published in
December 24, 2017.