Cyclone Ockhi puts Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan in the eye of a political storm
Bengaluru: Cyclone Ockhi may have moved away from Kerala’s shores but it’s left chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the eye of a political storm.
A debate is growing around how the Vijayan government handled the impact of the cyclone that has claimed 25 lives since 30 November, fuelled by protests in fishing villages and drummed up by the opposition.
While the government claims to have done its best—it has rescued 690 missing people since Thursday’s cyclone alert—the fishing communities say authorities failed to issue an early enough advisory, which could have stopped them from going to the sea.
The opposition Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the government also fumbled with search and rescue—at least in the initial stages. Unhappy with the government’s rescue missions, although they were equipped with navy and air force choppers and ships, many people from fishing villages went to the sea on their own to try and rescue their missing friends and family.
Vijayan’s failure to stay in the optics has also come under the scanner. He did not visit one of the most affected areas and an epicentre of the protests, Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram, until on Sunday. But just after news came in on Sunday that the opposition BJP leader and Union defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be visiting it on Monday, he made a hurried visit on Sunday night and found himself unwelcome among the locals.
Vijayan’s car was mobbed by protesters at Vizhinjam and he had to be whisked away to his cabinet colleague Kadakampally Surendran’s car. The chief minister finally left after meeting the local vicar and making a short speech to the community assuring help.
“The government failed to alert the fishermen adequately,” said BJP Kerala president Kummanam Rajasekharan. He cites in support a statement made by Satheesh Shenoi, director at Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) on Sunday. INCOIS, along with Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), are responsible for issuing weather forecasts in India, based on which the state government can act.
Shenoi, in the statement, said high wave alerts were issued to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Lakshadweep on 28 November, and that the depression was declared as a tropical storm on 29 November noon, much before the state started relief operations on 30 November noon.
But those were only the usual warnings and none of them advised them to brace for a cyclone, said a senior state official associated with relief operations, requesting not to be named as he is officially not authorized to speak to reporters.
“IMD and INCOIS have issued at least 2,000 such warnings in the last one year itself. Such warnings are taken as a joke by the fishermen, a study we conducted along with Sussex University just the last month had shown,” the person said.
“A cyclone warning is different from a depression warning or a deep depression warning; there is a clear protocol for these kinds of things and they could have outrightly asked us to ban fishing in the sea. Why didn’t they give a cyclone warning before 30 November, by when many fishermen had already gone to the sea? I think it is impossible for them to predict given their current state-of-the- art technology,” the person said.
This person said that within three hours of the IMD warning on 30 November noon, the state government was able to develop a system for relief and rescue operations, adding, “Given that Kerala is facing a cyclone after nearly 60 years, this is a formidable achievement.”
The state government got a breather when Union tourism minister Alphons Kannanthanam on Sunday backed its contention that they had not received any prior warning about the cyclone. Sitharaman on Monday visited Kerala and praised both the security forces and the state government saying rescue missions are much better than what the region witnessed during the 2004 tsunami. The technology to predict cyclones in India has not been that good, so there is no point in arguing about early predictions, she told reporters.
So far, she said, 357 people have been rescued across Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands by the joint operations of Indian Coast Guard, Navy and the Air Force along with the respective state governments.
However, as per official figures, about 96 fishermen are still missing in Kerala, and efforts to find them are progressing on a war footing, she said.
The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) chaired by cabinet secretary P.K. Sinha on Monday evening reviewed the relief and rescue operations in states and Union territories affected by the ongoing cyclone Ockhi. The committee also took stock of the levels of preparedness in Maharashtra and Gujarat where a high alert has been sounded.
Sinha spoke to chief secretaries of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Andaman and Nicobar Islands to review the situation. The meeting was also attended by officials of ministry of home affairs, National Disaster Management Authority, ministry of defence, Indian Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, ministry of earth sciences and Indian Meteorological Department.
“A total of 243 fishermen in Tamil Nadu, 250 in Kerala and 1,047 people in Lakshadweep have been rescued so far. Relief material is also being provided to inmates in relief camps set up by the government agencies,” a statement issued by the centre said.