Fishermen cover their boats in Chennai. Photo: PTI
Chennai: Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry have been bracing for Cyclone Nivar. But the fishing and farming communities are yet to recover from the aftereffects of Cyclone Gaja which in November 2018 had claimed 45 lives and resulted in immense destruction with lakhs of trees uprooted, houses demolished and livelihoods lost.
The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in its bulletin on Wednesday said that Cyclone Nivar has intensified into a severe cyclone over southwest Bay of Bengal and it is likely to intensify further into a very severe cyclonic storm during the next 12 hours.
Cyclone Nivar is likely to cross Tamil Nadu and Puducherry coasts on November 25, late in the evening, and the landfall point will be close to Puducherry. The IMD has said that there will be strong winds and heavy to very heavy rainfall over parts of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
The districts of Villupuram, Tiruvannamalai, Chengalpattu, Pudukottai, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Cuddalore, Ariyalur, Nagapattinam, Perambalur and Kallakurichi are likely to experience heavy rainfall between November 25 and 26.
Weather blogger Pradeep John who runs the popular Tamil Nadu Weatherman blog said that Cyclone Nivar is expected to cross between Puducherry and Chennai near Mahabalipuram- Kalpakkam belt on the night or morning of November 25 and 26 respectively. Hrishi Jawahar, another independent weather blogger said that cyclones over the last few years had intensified closer to the coast.
“Very heavy rains and wind gusts of 100 kilometres per hour are a major threat from Chennai to Cuddalore. Karaikal and Nagapattinam have to be cautious till the cyclone crosses their latitude. There is a major threat of rains for North Tamil Nadu and interior districts,” he said.
Memories of Gaja
Nivar is the third cyclone to hit Indian coasts this year, preceded by Amphan and Nisarga. Around 22 teams from the National Disaster Response Force have been deployed in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry, while eight others are in reserve and 20 other teams are on standby.
In Chennai, the shutters of the Chembarambakam reservoir were opened at noon on November 25 as a precautionary measure to prevent inundation. Flood warnings have also been issued to low-lying areas along Adyar river and Kundrathur, Sirukalathur, Tirumundivakkam and Tiruneermalai. In addition, people have been evacuated.
The preparation and panic is similar to the situation during Gaja, which made landfall between Nagapattinam and Vedaranyam in Tamil Nadu. The state’s delta region (in the lower reach of river Cauvery), comprising the districts of Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Tiruvarur, suffered the most.
Veerasenam, a coconut and paddy farmer and president of the farmers’s association from Pattukkottai, which is usually one of the worst affected towns in Thanjavur district, recalled how on the morning of November 16, he was woken up by his neighbour who rushed in teary-eyed to inform that their entire coconut farm had been razed by Cyclone Gaja.
“True to its name, Gaja was indeed the elephant that stormed our lives. It uprooted trees. We were provided a paltry relief amount of Rs 1,100 per coconut tree. Now I have just 30 coconut trees to tend to and after the news of Cyclone Nivar, I have lost sleep,” he said.
On Sunday, the Agriculture department issued an advisory for coconut growers to reduce the crown weight of coconuts trees in Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur, Thanjavur, Pudukottai and other districts, ahead of Nivar.
According to Veerasenam, around 80 lakh trees were damaged during Gaja across the state’s most affected districts. “In Thanjavur district alone, close to 37 lakh coconut trees were uprooted across Orathanadu, Pattukottai, Madukkur, Peravurani and Thiruvonam areas. Around 1,41,179 huts and tiled houses were impacted, of which around 17,614 were fully damaged. The relief compensation hasn’t reached many of us and we already have another cyclone hovering,” he said.
“This region is popular for rice farming but contributes to a quarter of India’s total coconut production. The coconut plantations in Kuruvikkarambai village in Peravurani Taluk and Orathanad town in Thanjavur district were among the worst affected, taking us back by 25 years. I grew 1,875 coconut trees over 25 acres of land, most of which were flattened,” said Kamaal Baasha, a coconut and paddy farmer from Mallipattinam, a coastal village in the Pattukkottai taluk of Thanjavur district.
“I then had to spend Rs 5,000 per tree to clear them, which took almost a year. Most farmers have initiated coconut farming along with paddy and some have moved on to coconut entirely which is less labour and water intensive with a better yield. We are anticipating a huge blow as Cyclone Nivar is going to sweep away the remaining 25% of our plantation,” he added.
Across Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, fishing operations have been suspended. “Fishermen are busy securing their boats, motors and nets and hoping that the cyclone spares their sole source of livelihood. Some lessons have been learnt and compared to cyclone Gaja, the level of preparedness is better now,” said N.J. Bose, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Fishermen’s Association at Rameswaram.
The fishing community has several horror tales to narrate.
The house of Kalidas, a fisherman from Adirampattinam, a panchayat town in Thanjavur district, was wiped away by Cyclone Gaja. “With every cyclone, our efforts to survive if not thrive, takes a backseat. I was provided a relief amount of Rs 9,000 to rebuild my home. My fibreboat got damaged, for which the relief amount hardly sufficed. With every catastrophe, the not-so-concrete homes are blown away,” he said.
On November 24, Thajudeen, the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Meenavar Peravai at Mallipattinam of Thanjavur district found the sea eerily calm just like the day when their livestock and fields were wiped away. “It is the calm before the storm. We hope to get adequate relief now. We got Rs 5 lakhs out of what should have been a compensation of Rs 10-15 lakhs for our boats in Gaja. The fishing community had almost nil revenue through the year,” he said.
Manoharan, a fisherman in Nagapattinam district said that most of the affected families had to start from scratch to rebuild their homes.
In Muthupettai, a panchayat town popular for saltwater lagoons and mangroves in Thiruvarur district, farmer and fisherman Yoganathan feels that livestock needs protection too. “Gaja left more than 102 cattle and 633 goats dead all over the state. The government had promised Rs 30,000 per cattle and Rs 3,000 per goat as relief which was insufficient and didn’t reach us all,” he said.
Short term relief measures do not address the real problem of a lack of disaster resilience in fishing and agrarian communities. “While the government is inviting everyone to register for crop insurances, how many are actually able to avail themselves of them? Tamil Nadu and Puducherry have 11 lakhs and 2 lakhs fishermen respectively. Out of these 13 lakhs farmers, 90% will incur massive losses in Cyclone Nivar,” R.V. Kumaravelu, vice-president, National Fishworkers Forum based in Nagapattinam, said.
In all, 15 lakh persons would be directly impacted, Kumaravelu said. “While short-term relief of dry ration, medical support and hygienic temporary shelters are crucial, we need to go beyond disaster relief measures to promote long-term livelihood support by teaching them sustainable ways of fishing and making it easier to build concrete housing, among other things. While the fury of nature cannot be tamed, Tamil Nadu, which is no stranger to natural disasters can strive to become disaster proof,” he added.
Meanwhile government authorities have taken precautions. “We have inspected coastal areas and positioned personnel. We have also kept JCBs, motor pumps, generators, relief material, food items, matchboxes and candles on hand, ” said M. Govinda Rao, District Collector of Thanjavur.
“We have mapped 195 vulnerable hotspots and 255 relief camps have been arranged. We have 24/7 control rooms at district, divisional and taluk levels. In vulnerable areas, we have started evacuating people to relief centres. The calls to control rooms have been related to pruning of trees and power supply issues,” Rao said, adding that most persons affected by the Gaja cyclone have received required relief.
The Puducherry District Magistrate has imposed Section 144 of CrPC (Code of Criminal Procedure) from 9 pm on November 24 till 6 am on November 26. Deputy Collector of Puducherry, Tamilselvan, said that the UT is fully equipped to deal with the cyclone.
“Around 10 fishermen who went fishing haven’t returned ashore so far and the coast guard has been handling the matter. Relief shelters, ambulance facilities and food arrangements have been made and power will be shut off during the cyclone. We have been removing all hoardings across the UT to prevent accidents,” he added.
Two teams from NDRF have been positioned in Puducherry and one team at Karaikal, along with personnel from the Indian Army and Police. The revenue department has divided a cluster of ten villages into firka as part of the monitoring and response management to the cyclone.
Below are a list of Cyclone Nivar helpline numbers:
Toll free number: 1913
Helpline: 044 2538 4530, 044 25384530, 044 25243454
Helpline: 044 27427412, 044 27427414
Arakkonam: 04177236360, 9445000507
Arcot: 04172 235568, 9445000505
Walajah: 04172 232519, 94445000506
Helpline: 04365 252500
Helpline: 04329 226709
Helpline WhatsApp: 9445071077
Helpline WhatsApp: 934536838
Helpline: 0422 230114, 0422 2301523
Free helpline numbers: 1070/ 1077
Control Room: 04368 228801, 04368 227704
Whatsapp number: 99438 06263
Disaster management control room: 1077, 044 27237207
Nalini Ravichandran is an independent journalist who has worked with The New Indian Express and Mail Today and reported extensively on health, education, child rights, environment and socio-economic issues of the marginalised. She is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism.