Ockhi was a landmark in the history of Kanyakumari. Home to one fourth of the fishermen population in Tamil Nadu, the district saw its people are at the mercy of forces of nature.
Hundreds of Kanyakumari fishermen are still considered missing – their near and dear presume they are dead – and the authorities did not seem to have the wherewithal to save them. Among those who took up the issue was Anto Lenin, a fishermen activist of Colachel, who even filed a habeas corpus in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court regarding missing fishermen.
Nearly nine months after the killer cyclone, Lenin, as part of Fishermen Coordination Association, is working on a proposal to start a sea ambulance service of their own that would save fishermen in distress.
Kanyakumari fishermen have no dearth of professional expertise. The community has provided many merchant mariners with specialized knowledge and the sea ambulance service seeks to leverage their expertise. “Our immediate goal is save fishermen in distress who venture out on small boats fitted with outboard engines and fiber boats,” says Capt Charles Johnson, a merchant mariner.
Johnson explains that the catamarans that the fishermen would take to the sea in the past were easy to set right if they capsized. But the fiber boats of today are not easy to overturn if they capsize. It is these fishermen who often lose their lives, he adds. “The deaths of these fishermen are frequent,” Johnson says.
The concept of sea ambulances saving fishermen in distress is not new. It is widely prevalent in other countries, though not in India. A sea ambulance would have a 10-member crew including two male nurses, as well as first aid equipment and facilities. It would be able to take onboard 15 fishermen in distress.
While there is much enthusiasm among the fishermen community, cost is a factor. Johnson explains that a full-fledged service that is authorized and certified by relevant government agencies and classification societies would need Rs 15 crore to purchase. Operating cost would be in addition. “We are looking at various options including purchasing used sea ambulances. An innovative idea we are considering is purchasing a Navy patrol craft in Cochin that is about to be scrapped but its hull is sea-worthy. We can refit it and install engines with a water jet propulsion. This would bring down costs,” says Johnson.
The sea ambulance would be a permanent service that would be on call if fishermen are in distress.
Anto Lenin rues that fishermen in Tamil Nadu are too bogged down in internal conflicts and hopes that they would unite and support constructive suggestions such as the sea ambulance.