Hunger and poverty have increased among families of missing Indian fishermen


Relatives refuse to accept their breadwinners died in Cyclone Ockhi as poverty increases in the Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Hundreds of families remain anxious and living in poverty in the fishing villages of southern India as they wait for the homecoming of some 300 fishermen who went missing after Cyclone Ockhi hit them seven weeks ago.

Fear and trauma are keeping fishermen on land as families hope for their men to return, refusing even to file missing person reports with police as it would be tantamount to accepting them as dead.

“We can’t accept that my father is dead,” said 35-year-old Treesa Rajan, whose 62-year-old father Thomas Benjamin of Valiathura village has not been seen since the cyclone hit the southern tip of India from Nov. 29 to Dec. 5.

“He’s a brave man. He doesn’t fear the sea and has decades of experience. He will come back if he got carried away to some distant unknown shores,” she said.

“If we (the family) have to accept him as dead, then we have to bury his body according to our Catholic faith.” Portuguese missionaries brought Catholicism to the region in the 16th century.

Rajan said 12 bodies in the mortuary have yet to be identified. “We will wait until all are identified,” she said, asserting that without funeral rites they cannot consider her father as dead.

Like her father, thousands of fishermen were at sea unaware of the impending cyclone. A month after the tragedy, government officials put the number of missing at more than 600. But church officials say the number has come down.

Father Eugene Pereira, vicar general of Trivandrum Archdiocese that covers the area, told that 324 people are missing from the southern coastal tip, which includes areas under Tamil Nadu and Kerala states.

Kerala government records show 71 people have died and 105 are missing in Kerala. Parliament was told on Dec. 27 that 400 people were missing from Tamil Nadu. The government has not released any renewed figures since then. Father Pereira agreed that official government records do not tally with Church data.

Local media reports said Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has asked officials to prepare a final list of the missing and dead before Jan. 22 when the state’s Legislative Assembly begins.

“Our men are traumatized after the cyclone as they suffered irreparable destruction. Most deep sea fishermen are still haunted by the effect of the cyclone,” said Augustine Kanippily, archdiocesan public relations officer. He said those who survived the disaster are not yet ready to go fishing.

Local people say the sea has become erratic. “Since the 2004 Asian tsunami, there have been a lot of changes happening in the sea,” said Robert Panippilla, a researcher. He said fishermen are seriously afraid of the sea after the cyclone. The last cyclone on the coast was about 70 years ago, he noted.

Hunger and poverty have increased since the cyclone as families do not allow their men to venture out to sea, he said. “This is not the sea we saw growing up as children. It has become unpredictable for us. It’s much more polluted and unclean,” Panippilla said.

Trivandrum Archdiocese has assigned doctors and counselors to help traumatized fishermen and family members. “But it will take at least a few months for people to recover. People in trauma can’t exactly say what is haunting them and what is going on within them,” said Carlos Pius, a social worker among fishing people in Poovar village.

The Kerala government has provided free rice, other provisions and a monthly grant of 2,500 rupees (US$39) to all families in the affected area. The government has also distributed 2.2 million rupees each to 29 families whose members died in the disaster.

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