In a swanky room at the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) in Chennai, a large colourful screen — about 6 feet by 4 feet — exhibits multiple windows with maps and data on atmospheric conditions around the Indian Ocean.
Pointing towards one such window, K. Jossia Joseph, a scientist with the Ocean Observation System division of the autonomous institute under the ministry of earth sciences explains: "The National Institute of Ocean Technology has deployed data buoys fitted with sensors at strategic locations in the ocean along the Indian coastline. These sensors measure various surface meteorological parameters and ocean parameters [up to] 500-metres depth, which are used to track cyclone paths and to study the monsoon dynamics."
The real-time data collected by these sensors fitted on buoys in the ocean is transmitted through a satellite directly to the shore-station located at NIOT.
"This data is then used by the Hyderabad-based Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services and the India Meteorological Department to issue daily weather reports and forecast and issue warnings for extreme weather events, such as cyclones," she added.
Two years ago, in November 2017, Cyclone Ockhi brushed the tip of peninsular India and killed at least 347 fishers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala who were deep out at sea and could not be informed in time about the approaching cyclone.
The death toll in Tamil Nadu was 204 — 27 confirmed dead and 177 missing but declared dead so their families could receive monetary compensation. In Kerala the death toll was 143 — 52 dead and 91 missing. It was the first time both southern states lost so many fishers to a cyclone.
"Ockhi was an unusual cyclone as it intensified within 24 hours and moved in an unusual path. We did not have proper information from the [metrological] department about the cyclone. Hence, we could not inform the fishers in the deep sea," said Julius Edwards, deputy director with the department of fisheries, Government of Tamil Nadu. "Ockhi made us realise our usual methods of communication and warnings were not adequate to respond to disasters like Ockhi," he added.
"Ockhi was a great tragedy. All of us learnt new lessons from the Ockhi experience. The India Meteorological Department could issue forecast only 2-3 days in advance since the cyclone occurred very close to the coast, which is very rare, and it intensified rapidly," M. Rajeevan, a secretary at the ministry of earth sciences, told Gaon Connection.
According to him, there were issues with disaster management and reaching out to fishers in the sea.
"We could not reach them and inform them to avoid the storm. Good science should come out from the Ockhi experience and we should improve [our] prediction capability for such kind of cyclones," he added.
In the last two years, the ministry of earth sciences and various research institutes under it — the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) in Chennai, National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR) in Chennai, and the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) in Hyderabad — are working on ways to use science and technology to pre-warn the fishers and find ways to communicate with them in the deep sea.
"INCOIS has developed a new gadget, which will be very useful to reach out to fishermen in the deep sea," said Rajeevan.
Meanwhile, with scientific inputs from research institutes, the Tamil Nadu government is also revamping its cyclone-related disaster communication system.
"Post Ockhi, with technical support from ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation] and other scientific agencies, we have developed a three-tier communication system to warn fishers in the sea about extreme weather events. More work in this direction is underway," said Edwards.
Data collection and dissemination
The first step in responding to an extreme weather event, such as a cyclone, is the availability of real-time data to forecast and track the cyclone path. And this is where the crucial role of NIOT comes in.
"India is a country surrounded by ocean on all three sides, hence our weather is very much influenced by the ocean," said M A Atmanand, director of NIOT. His institute has deployed 12 data buoys in the ocean, both in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. These data buoys measure parameters, both sub-sea as well as atmospheric, such as wind speed, wind direction, sub-sea temperature, dissolved oxygen, and more.
"These buoys collect data in-situ around-the-clock and transmit it through satellite to the earth station at NIOT. From here, data is further transmitted to our sister institute INCOIS in Hyderabad, which passes it on to the IMD. The latter has various models into which this data is fed and the predictability of weather is improved," Atmanand explained.
The data collected by the NIOT is also being fed regularly into a new mobile phone app —- Thoondil [which means a hook in Tamil]. Meant for fishers in Tamil Nadu, this android mobile app is developed by the Chennai-based National Centre for Coastal Research along with Tamil Nadu's fisheries department.
"Thoondil is an app for coastal fisher safety at sea in Tamil Nadu. Fishers get weather details and information on the potential fishing zones through the app. Also, there is a rescue plan fed into the app, which can guide fishers to the nearest safe shore in case of weather events like a cyclone. The rescue plan is available even offline," said Sujith Kumar of the National Centre for Coastal Research, Chennai.
Tamil Nadu's three-tier communication system
Two years ago, when the Ockhi cyclone hit Tamil Nadu, the state had a disaster-warning system whereby once the IMD informed the state about a developing weather event, the information was passed on in a usual route from the state chief secretary to all the district collectors.
"At our fisheries department head office in Chennai, we have a distress management cell. There is a weather warning WhatsApp group, too. Through that group and fax and email, all district officials would be warned [and would] in turn pass on the information to fishing villages," said Edwards.
In fishing harbours, there is a system of daily issuing of fishing tokens to fishers.
"If there was an adverse weather system, we would deny fishing tokens to avoid fishers entering the sea in rough weather," Edwards added.
But the unusual nature of the Ockhi cyclone showed how the existing system of warning and communication was not sufficient.
Post Ockhi, the Tamil Nadu government, with support of the Centre, set up a three-tier communication system for fishers in the state. These tiers are based on the distance to which fishers venture deep into the sea.
"Tier-1 [extends] up to 12 nautical miles into the sea from the shoreline. In this zone, mobile phone networks are available. Tier-2 is from zero to 50 nautical miles into the sea, and tier-3 extends further deep into the ocean. All these tiers have a different communication system," explained Edwards.
Communication in zero to 12 nautical miles of tier-1 is not much of a challenge as mobile phones work in this range and it is easy to inform the fishers about weather events. The Thoondil mobile app, developed by the National Centre for Coastal Research, is part of the tier-1.
"Apart from weather-related information, there is an SOS button which fishers can press in case of an emergency. This shows us their lat-long coordinates and we can rescue them," said Edwards.
But the challenge is that a large number of fishers travel beyond 12 or 50 nautical miles where regular modes of communication do not work.
Tier-2 of the communication system is based on a very high frequency (VHF) system (like a walkie-talkie) and extends up to 50 nautical miles. The Tamil Nadu government has erected 17 exclusive communication towers along its coastline to communicate with the fishers.
"We have got a licence of our own exclusive channel to communicate with the fishers from these towers through VHF sets up to 50 nautical miles. We have provided fishers with VHF sets on a subsidy basis. Country crafts [traditional fishing boats] have been given 15,004 VHF sets with a five-watt capacity. Another 2,535 VHF sets of 25-watt capacity have been provided to the mechanised boats," said Edwards. Fishers have to pay Rs 500 a year to renew their annual licence of VHF sets, he added.
The state government has spent Rs 66.14 crore on erecting 17 VHF towers and distributing VHF sets on a subsidy basis to the fishers. But not all fishers are covered.
The total number of country crafts and mechanised boats in the state is 35,906 and 5,798, respectively — much higher than the number of VHF sets (17,539) that have been provided.
The real challenge of warning and communicating with the fishers comes in tier-3, which extends beyond 50 nautical miles and goes up to 200 nautical miles and beyond [200 nautical miles along India's coastline is the country's exclusive economic zone]. In tier-3, neither the mobile nor the VHF sets work.
"In tier-3, we propose to use satellite phones and NaviC [a device developed by ISRO] to communicate with the fishers. NaviC uses India's indigenous GPS and uses defence spectrum of a particular band to communicate with the fishers in the deep sea," said Mithun, a software consultant with Tamil Nadu's department of fisheries.
According to Edwards, the department has also given 160 satellite phones to the fishers that can be used in tier-3. Each device costs Rs 1,10,000.
"We cannot provide satellite phone to each fisher due to its huge cost and recurring expenditure. Hence, we have adopted a cluster approach," he said.
Fishers who go deep into the sea, move around in clusters. The fisheries department has formed 80 such clusters with each cluster having 7-10 fishing boats. Each cluster has been given two satellite phones, three NaviCs and two Navitecs for communicating in the deep sea. All these seven devices are in seven different boats of a cluster.
"We are also exploring ways by which the Thoondil app can be made available to fishers in tier-2 and tier-3, beyond the mobile network range, by using ISRO's transponder. But this is still at the discussion stage," said Edwards.
Fishers, however, are not confident about the communication system in tier-3.
"At present, NaviC can manage one-way communication — from land to sea. But, we need two-way communication because it is mostly the fishers who come across untoward events in the deep sea and need to inform the mainland," said T Peter, general secretary of the National Fishworkers' Forum, Thiruvanthapuram.
Marine ambulance and training
While Tamil Nadu has taken a lead in developing a comprehensive communication system with the fishers in the sea, the Kerala government, too, has also taken some initiatives. Its fisheries department has gotten funds and permission from the state disaster management authority to distribute 40,000 life jackets to the fishers. Of these, 21,312 have already been distributed.
"We are also providing satellite phones to fishers. For now, the plan is to procure 1,000 satellite phones at the cost of Rs 95,000 each. Half of these would be given to traditional fishers and the rest to mechanised boat owners. Fishers will have to pay half the cost of each satellite phone," said an official at the Kerala fisheries department.
Like the Tamil Nadu government, even the Kerala government is providing NaviC to its fishers. The plan is to distribute 15,000 NaviCs, which cost Rs 10,000 each. Beneficiaries are expected to contribute Rs 1,500 per NaviC device.
"So far, we have received 2,340 applications from the fishers for NaviCs. We have already distributed 1,549 such devices," the fisheries official said.
He acknowledged there was an issue with one-way communication in NaviC, but said the issue was being looked into, predicting that by November two-way communication through NaviC should be feasible.
Apart from providing communication devices, the fisheries department in Kerala is also training youth in the fishing villages for rescue work during cyclones. A total of 900 youth are to be trained, of which 317 have already received rescue training at the Goa-based National Institute of Watersports.
"We have also got Rs 18.24 crore in the budget towards three marine ambulances, which we expect to launch by January next year," the fisheries official said.
According to Peter, fishers have been listening to these promises for the last two years and the marine ambulances are nowhere in sight.
"We fishers are like 'second soldiers' as we live all along India's long coastline and keep the country safe. We also feed a high protein diet to the people of the country. Should the government not support us and protect our lives, too?" he asked.
Rajeevan, the secretary from the ministry of earth sciences, guaranteed that next time the country will be better prepared to face an Ockhi-like situation and save precious lives.
This is the second story in the Ockhi cyclone series. The first one can be read here.
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network.