Kerala's coastal hamlets are waiting for their dead to be brought home four days after cyclone Ockhi took them by surprise. The death toll has risen to 25 and about 100 fishermen from the fishing villages around Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram are still missing.
The sad fact is that all of this human tragedy could have been avoided if the state government had done its job.
If Cyclone Ockhi has revealed anything beyond the nature's rage and its inscrutable ways, it's the fact that there has been a ridiculous failure of governance in the state. The post-cyclone scene was a throwback to an era when dependable weather prediction was unheard of — when fishermen had nothing to bank on but some native intelligence.
What happened last week will remain etched in the state's memory as a stigma nonpareil. To begin with, the lethargic government machinery was unmoved by a severe cyclone warning, and when the tragedy hit, its apathy and inefficiency were exposed.
Hundreds of fishing boats sailed out into the sea on Wednesday evening and night, hours after the state government received clear warnings from the weather agencies and the Central government. In fact there were warnings a day earlier of heavy rainfall and strong winds in Kerala and South Tamil Nadu.
The weather agencies issued the warning on Wednesday afternoon, which was conveyed to the office of the Chief Secretary and the state disaster management agency. It warned of a deep depression that was potentially becoming a cyclone. There was a specific warning against fishermen venturing out into the sea in the following 48 hours.
Local reports said the office of the chief secretary passed on the message to the chief minister's office. The Kerala chief minister is blessed to have a battalion of advisors including those for science and technology. However, no action ensued.
Normally in cases like this, the offices of the district collectors and revenue divisions waste no time sending out warning to the coastal belt. However, even as Ockhi was waiting in the wings to lap up the luckless humans on the rough waters, the government was in an unexplained inertia.
Hundreds of fishermen left the shores in what could be the last expedition of their lives. As the tragedy played out the next day, the government was not much in sight. When the officials and ministers did speak it was a miserable sight. The fisheries minister tied herself in knots trying to explain away the disaster as somebody else's making.
Chief Minister Pniarayi Vijayan froze in his seat at the secretariat, barely a few kilometres from the frothing shores where women and children, hundreds of them, wailed in agony with hands outstretched to the sea. Forget about the deadly goof-up with the weather forecast, there wasn't much of rescue ops happening. There was disorder and chaos.
There weren't enough helicopters and vessels to look for the dead and the dying far out in the ocean. There weren't the ships to ferry the dead bodies home. Finally the fishermen ventured out into the seas in their own boats to look for survivors and collect the bodies rotting in the sea. And they brought home their dead.
"The public felt that the administrative mechanism was ineffective in dealing with such a situation ... The government and the authorities were trying to hide some of their flaws," Latin Catholic Archbishop M Soosapakiam was quoted as saying by Deccan Chronicle on Sunday.
The Marxist chief minister, who loves to earn brownie points by making polemical speeches in RSS hotspots like Mangaluru braving violence and dire warnings, was absent for longer. However, when he did make a visit three days after the tragedy struck, the violent and hostile crowds turned him away.
Will Pinarayi face up to the real challenges, and responsibilities, of governance? Or will he continue to be just obsessed with the narcissistic self worship? Will his advisers tell him that governance is more than merely appearing as a tough cookie? That everyday administration is more than just relishing the status of a deity in a party hamlet?
Vijayan's initial failures and disastrous handling of sensitive issues were condoned by the public. A series of misjudgements and governance failures were happily written off as a stalwart's feet of clay. However, it appears that more than the feet is just clay.