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When a cyclone's wake is worse than the cyclone itself
Tamil Nadu, India

When a cyclone's wake is worse than the cyclone itself

One barrier to improving disaster resilience is that Tamil Nadu hasn't held local council meetings for the last two years.

A fisherman repairs his boat / Credit: Aparna Shukla

NAGAPATTINAM, Tamil Nadu -- On the night of November 15, 2018, thousands of lives on the Tamil Nadu coast were uprooted by the Gaja cyclone. With wind speeds of 140 miles per hour, it laid waste to villages in Nagapattinam, Thanjavur, Thiruvarur, Pudukkottai, Vedaranyam and Cuddalore districts, among others, and claimed the lives of 45 people.

Apart from damage to houses and the death of cattle, the destruction of crops and marine ecosystems were particularly disruptive. In a belt where farmers predominantly grew coconut, mango and tamarind, which take about 5-10 years to mature, people knew getting back on their feet would take a long time after reports that 1 crore of trees had been destroyed.

“At present, our agriculture work has stopped because open water ponds are all salty,” as are all the borewells, said Selvi Chandra, a 42-year-old farmer who lives in Manalmedu. “Earlier, we would take the fresh water from the ponds to water our fields. Now, to even get one pot of drinking water, I walk two kilometres from my house.”

Women from the fishing community also say they’re travelling to distant villages to fetch potable water. Meanwhile, the salt producers at Vedaranyam claim sales have fallen by 50 percent. The challenges these communities face now are a testament to the fact that the wake of a disaster can be just as difficult as the disaster itself.

Bad news for fishing

Vedharajan Balaji, a marine biologist at Thanjavur’s OMCAR Palk Bay Centre, stood with the fishermen on the day of the cyclone, helping them evacuate. Now, Balaji is working closely with the fishing community to find ways to restore normalcy to marine life.

“In the cyclone, a very important part of the ecosystem, the sea grass, which is food for several marine animals, has been uprooted. And that will take at least two years to grow back to the way it was,” Balaji said. “Right now, there is an open sea bed. That’s why the fishermen are facing a hard time. Other sea animals like sea horses, sea bass, etc. have also gone far away.”

Women carrying pots of water from one village to another. Credit: Aparna Shukla

Kumar Arumainathan, a 38-year-old fisherman from Minavar Colony in Nagapattinam, lives 50 meters away from the sea. Thanks to losses and the financial burden he has incurred, he is leaving his village in search of work in Oman.

“The biggest challenge right now for us is to get catch. It’s next to nothing, so we are sitting ducks,” he said. “There’s just too much pressure after Gaja. Since Oman provides work on a contract basis, I’ll be able to take care of a lot of my debts,” including those he said he accrued from repairing his house.

Fish vendor Malarkudi Chandran, 58, leaves at 4 am every day for the harbour to collect fish and sell them at the Nagapattinam city market. She agreed the catch had fallen – but noted that demand had fallen as well. “People are spending cautiously. A place where I would easily make a profit of Rs 500 every day is not giving me more than Rs 200 today.”

Getting back on their feet as fishers comes with added challenges now because boats have become a big expense, particularly for those who are earning less and have debts to pay off.

“I get why people resort to repairs” instead of buying new boats, said Arumainathan. “However, a patched-up boat will always be more prone to falling out when the waves are strong, and even a small leak will take everyone down. So every day, they are risking their lives because there’s no other option.”

Karthikeyan, a fisheries inspector who conducted one of the first surveys to estimate the number of damaged/lost boats, said the government has distributed relief to 90% of the affected fishermen but the remaining 10% haven’t been able to submit proof of ownership. Even if if they come back with papers, however, “the Nagapattinam district doesn’t have any more funds, Karthikeyan said.

“A lot of fishermen didn’t come when the verification was happening, and now they are suddenly appearing out of nowhere.”


Yakob, 61, lost his mango and coconut trees and hopes someday he can find the money to rebuild his home, which was badly damaged by Gaja / Credit: Aparna Shukla

Selvarasu, a scientist at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Nagapattinam has been working closely with the fishing community of the district’s Poompuhar region. He said Gaja had done a fine job of highlighting why the community isn’t disaster-proof.

“It is high time that we review our local policies and come up with a better and more structured plan,” he noted.

Balaji suggested finding ways to manage fishermen and their practices locally.

“Mangroves that are protecting the ecosystems are being uprooted for personal benefit. That needs to stop,” he said. “Fishermen need to be taught long-term sustainable ways of fishing. For example, the sea grass that mitigates and reduces wave energy, and even the force of a cyclone, should be heavily promoted.”

Apart from restoring long-term resources, the short-term also demands attention, with most farmers desperately seeking alternative sources of income to pay for basic needs.

Murugarajan, a 41-year-old farmer from Vilundamavadi, had over 30 coconut trees, 25 mango trees and five tamarind trees. The coconut and tamarind trees fetched Rs 15,000 a month on average. In mango season, he’d make an extra Rs 7,000.

Now, he makes a little over a tenth of what he used to, which only covers his food. His son had to be shifted from a private engineering college to a public institute after Gaja.

“We would earlier spend around Rs 5,000 only on food, but now, we can’t afford to do that. We are only thinking about managing tomorrow’s meal, nothing more,” Murugarajan said. The story is the same in the surrounding villages.


Murugarajan and his wife / Credit: Aparna Shukla

One structural barrier to improving disaster resilience is the fact that Tamil Nadu hasn’t held a panchayat meeting for the last two years.

“We need small resource centres at each level that can give technical support and archive data. At present, we have officers at district level, village level, but who goes to the villages?” R. Mannivannan, a project manager from the AVVAI Village Welfare Association, asked. “Because there’s no panchayat system, a block development officer [BDO] has almost 30 villages under him. Will he go around and address the problems of each village? No.”

Local officials say the reason block development officers and clerks charged with addressing village issues didn’t reach people in the wake of Gaja was due to the large number of duties that piled up.

“The biggest problem during Gaja was that everyone needed help,” said Soma Sundaram, BDO of Pudupalli village in Nagapattinam who has over 24 villages under his purview. “Either electricity, removal of debris or simply providing food, all the responsibilities were on me.”  

But the gap in outreach is expected to exacerbate the lack of recovery.  “The government talks about insurance, but how many will really get crop insurance when so many documents were lost? How will the most vulnerable people like the old, the bedridden, the physically and mentally challenged speak for themselves?” Mannivannan asked.

“Earlier I would speak to the panchayat head and get issues like absence of street lights resolved, but now I don’t know who will get the job done,” said Suresh Kumar, the fishermen community’s head in South Vilundamavadi, Nagapattinam.

Priya Shankar’s toilet broke when the cyclone struck. Without street lights – which she has been complaining about for four months – she now has to walk to another facility half a kilometre away to relieve herself. And “without street lights, my entire area lives in the dark, and I don’t feel safe going out to the toilet at night,” she said.

Salt-pan workers

Labourers at a salt pan in Vedaranyam / Credit: Aparna Shukla

Vedaranyam was a major exporter of salt to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. After the cyclone, its supply has been cut to half, according to producers in the area.

“We were proud of our exports, which provided salt to so many other states. At present, since we are not able to provide enough salt to our own state, there are traders who are importing salt from Gujarat,” said N.V. Kamaraj, a former MLA, owns over 50 acres of land and employs 200 labourers. “Earlier, I used to take Rs 1,000 for each tonne but now it’s only Rs 500,” he said.

Poor business means worse prospects for those working directly on the pans. One of them, R. Marimuthu, 51, said the state government gave Rs 10,000 to each worker after Gaja.

“A mixer to make chutney, a grinder to make idli batter, utensils to eat and buckets and pots to get water from – just these cost that much. The cyclone has destroyed trees that were sown by our ancestors,” said Marimuthu, who has five daughters and is the sole breadwinner. “To get our lives back, Rs 10,000 or even 4-5 years of hard work on the field is not going to be enough.”

Another worker, N. Veeraiyan, 35, from Motandithopu village, said, “Marriages in my house were cancelled, and we don’t have enough to arrange for that again.”

He also said he is yet to receive relief money from the government. According to Kamaraj, the ex-MLA, as many as “60 percent of the people in Vedaranyam” have not.

As a defence, Selvi Baby, assistant commissioner of the state’s Gaja Cyclone Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Rejuvenation Program, said, “If we just give the money to the community, they will spend it quickly. It’s not necessary that they will use it” to rebuild their houses. “Hence, we have taken the responsibility of construction.”

She also said many Gaja relief activities had to be pushed back by the Lok Sabha elections. “But we are positive that the long-term programs that we have planned will have a positive effect.”

Not everyone agrees.

“Vedaranyam has over 40 villages; 70 percent of these were non-concrete houses, so a total washout was inevitable. But at present, out of a 1,000 houses, only 20 are being rehabilitated,” said M. Patiyasheelam, a project manager at a local NGO called Bedrock.

To Mannivannan from the village welfare association, what needs to change is the way in which officials determine what is a national disaster. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was classified as such because of the huge loss of human life, he said.

“Gaja didn’t claim as many lives. It did claim our entire ecosystem, livelihood, cattle but those aren’t the parameters of emergency in our country.”

An earlier version of this story originally was published in The Wire on 2 June 2019. This piece is a part of EJN's Climate Change Resilience initiative.