A Fishing Village in Tamil Nadu: Remembrances and Realities, after Cyclone Gaja

This photo essay looks back at the Gaja cyclone of November 2018 and its aftermath in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu.


'Tsunami Colony’ in Akkaraipettai

In the days leading up to Cyclone Tauktae and Cyclone Yaas in 2021 , the media published many stories about preparedness of the state in meeting the consequences of the calamity, evacuation of people to safety, comparisons between the two cyclones etc. Immediately after each cyclone hit various parts of India, there were several more stories about wind speeds, extent of damage and death tolls, and the action taken by political leaders. But what does a post-disaster scenario actually look like? 

What is the story of the people days, weeks, months after the storm? Communities who live in disaster-prone regions are often still recovering from the effects of one disaster, when the next one strikes. 

This photo essay cites Cyclone Gaja (2018) to illustrate how disaster-affected communities fare months after the event and much after the media attention has faded. It captures the travails of disaster-affected communities in Tamil Nadu's Nagapattinam district, which lay in the path of this devastating storm that made landfall in November 2018.  Nagapattinam is an area which has already taken the brunt of the—tsunami.

Over 45 people were killed and 2.5 lakh people lost their homes in the aftermath of Cyclone Gaja. According to government sources, only 20 percent of the region's tree cover survived as Gaja's fierce winds uprooted around 1.7 lakh coconut and banana trees. It also caused long-term effects such as saltwater intrusion and sand sedimentation, which have led to long-term degradation of the agricultural lands here.

While the main occupation of people in the area is fishing, people also work as agricultural and daily wage labourers, in aquaculture and on salt pans, all of whom continue to be struggling with the consequences brought down upon them by Gaja, six months after the cyclone.

Rathnam and Muthu live in Akkaraipettai’s Tsunami Colony and have been working as fishermen for around 10 years now. They detangle their fishing nets with knives and prepare it for the next day as they talk to us. Before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, they lived in a fishing village that was closer to the sea, with their homes beside their boats.

“After the tsunami most of us received boats and nets as compensation. During Gaja, the motors of our boats were destroyed but we did not receive any compensation. We only received a standard livelihood compensation of Rs 5000. For three months after Gaja, we could not go out to sea. During this time, we struggled. We had to manage with the money (standard livelihood compensation) and what we had saved up. We complained but to no avail. Some of us took up odd jobs as casual labourers when we needed money. 

We have no knowledge of any other job; during times like this we have no other option.” 

Rathnam and Muthu, fishermen

Timely evacuation of villagers into shelters such as this one in Nagapattinam helped save lives, though they struggled to cope with material and non-material losses in the aftermath. Surviving Gaja was only the beginning. With livelihoods took a blow, other struggles began to surface.

“Most of the support we received was from the fishers’ union and other fisherfolk. “Our own people” were the only ones who truly helped us. The fishing community from around the area gave us relief materials. It was like we were being helped by our relatives.” 

Lakshmi, leader of a local union from Kameshwaram


Villagers purchase fruit and vegetables for the day at the local market in Akkaraipettai

In the absence of adequate support from the government and NGOs, local communities are often left to fend for themselves for their daily needs even as they are on the path to recovery. 

“The government and other NGOs gave us rice and other essentials after Gaja. This lasted for the first two months, but what were we supposed to do after that?” 

Selvi, fisherwoman


The Tsunami Memorial at Kameshwaram amidst a coconut grove

The cyclone destroyed the fishers’ boats and flung their nets all over the coconut groves, some of which were still tangled around the trees, six months on.

 “We were devastated when we saw our boats and nets destroyed. We had kept them so safe till now.  We approached the Fisheries minister, the District Collector, and we protested for many days. If we are citizens, isn’t it our right to receive compensation? We collected our Aadhaar cards, ration cards and voter IDs and surrendered them to the Collectorate (as an act of protest). They told us that within three days, we would receive compensation. Later, Rs. 1.2 lakhs were given to the entire village as a whole.Since then, we have started fishing. But I wouldn’t say that we have completely recovered.” 

Velu, fibre boat maker and union leader


A group of women sit together while cleaning and cutting vegetables for lunch outside their houses in Akkaraipettai

 Many of them help their families in selling the daily catch. 

“It is impossible to forget such events. If things change for the better after them, then it is good. But if nothing changes, then it just exists in our minds as a bad period in our lives, in the history of our people.” 

Pushpa, fish seller


Crops planted after the cyclone in Kameshwaram 

While the tsunami affected fisherfolk and those living along the coast, Gaja affected farmers more significantly. Several of them lost their cattle, crops and trees and houses, and had to rebuild their houses from scratch. Farmers also suffered because the storm surge brought seawater into their fields, making the soil saline. 

“We lost a lot during Gaja, only our lives were saved. The mango and coconut trees that my grandfather had planted in my house, which had survived so many decades, were lost. We had lime trees-- all these were little ways to supplement our income. 

Now it is hard to find work. Less and less land is cultivable, less people are needed to work on it. Coconut trees take about five years to grow, and with the poor condition of the soil and saline water, it may take even longer to grow, probably 10 years. By that time we cannot say what the condition of nature will be.” 

Kausalya, farm labourer 


A barren field off the Vedaranyam-Nagapattinam highway, close to Thirupoondi

Successive droughts have exacerbated the impact of Cyclone Gaja for the villagers.

“‘Sama veli’ means land without agriculture. Forty years back, this land had no crops, only natural vegetation. The only thing we realised after the cyclone is that we lost 40 years of our hard work. We cannot find a single mango tree here now.  There are around 10-15 coconut trees. The rest of the crops were destroyed.  

Kumar, a landed farmer, who helps other farmers with micro-irrigation projects


Fallen trees serve as a reminder of the impact of the cyclone in Thalainayar, with no one to buy or cut them 

Locals have known cyclones to be regular threats since 1993, so when they received early warnings, some thought it would be manageable like the others. 

“The coconut and casuarina trees in my farm are still lying there, uprooted. We haven’t had a chance to clear them. There is nobody to buy or cut the trees, then how are we supposed to remove them? Then obviously we will still be talking about the cyclone, right? When our livelihood comes into our hands again, that is the day we will be fine.” 

Vijay, landed farmer 

 

While water supply has been a persistent concern with droughts becoming more frequent, groundwater salinity is an added issue in some villages like Kameshwaram.

“The tsunami water went back with the same speed which it came in. But ever since then, the groundwater salinity in the area has been continuously increasing. Now, it is hard to find drinking water. Even the well and lake waters are saline. We had good fresh groundwater but now everything is salty.” 

Ramani, homemaker 


On the way from Vedaranyam to Velankanni, a group of women brave the blistering heat of the summer as they package salt

Suseela and Meena are two such women who are employed full time in the salt pans. They walk here from their village around 5 km away, where they live in shelters built after the tsunami. 

“We were warned about the cyclone by the Collector. We packed some of our important belongings, and were evacuated from the village in the afternoon. I think it depends on the kind of Village Officer. If you have a hard working, sympathetic officer, you can get a lot of support during recovery. Some areas don’t receive support because their village officers are aloof.”  

Suseela and Meena, salt pan workers 

 

Financial instability hampers the recovery of daily wage labourers. Just off the Vedaranyam-Nagapattinam road, this site had over 50 daily wage workers, many of whom depended on the national employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGA) for their income. Infrequent allocation of work is now hampering their recovery.

“After Gaja, work is not continuous. For one week, there are jobs allocated, next week, it might not be. Even when the job is provided, the money might not reach us on time. The only way of making life better and to initiate recovery is providing us full-time employment.” 

Dhanaraj, daily wage labourer

Conclusion

Our conversations with the people of Nagapattinam  revealed that ‘recovery’ was typically understood as returning to normalcy, to means of livelihood like farming or fishing, and being able to go to school again. It also meant overcoming developmental deficits by building stronger homes and having access to better public infrastructure. The most important signifier of ‘recovery’ for farming and fishing groups was linked to the tools and practices of their livelihood, and the second most common signifier was stronger houses with robust roofing. 

The Indian disaster management policy framework as well as the media have tended to focus on the immediate aftermath of the disaster. This period is a time of great crisis when public attention on it is at its peak. Policies have consequently prioritised preparedness measures in order to minimise loss of lives. But what is the state of well-being of those who survive? As evident from the impact of cyclones Tauktae and Yaas, there is still a lot to be done in terms of supporting vulnerable communities who live along India's at-risk coastline.

Recovery needs to go beyond quick fixes carried out soon after the event. It is a long-term process that presents an opportunity for positive change but it also bears the risk of exacerbating existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. We need a more holistic approach to recovery that puts disaster-affected people at its centre and  does recognise their needs and capacities to enable better risk reduction and prepare for future crises. 

As one villager from Nagapattinam put it: “We know we are on the way to recovery if we have trees in the village and fish in the sea.”

 

 

Yashodara Udupa is a filmmaker and researcher currently based in the Media Lab at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. All names changed to protect privacy. The author would like to acknowledge that this piece draws from work done with a larger team comprising Jasmitha Arvind, Chandni Singh and Mark Tebboth for a project titled 'Recovery with Dignity' studying processes of recovery in the aftermath of extreme events, funded by the British Academy.

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