India is still missing 661 fishermen, almost a month after Cyclone Ockhi battered its southern waters, according to Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Most originated from coastal areas of Tamil Nadu and Kerala states.
Sitharaman, replying in parliament Wednesday after allegations that authorities gave insufficient storm warnings, said 821 other people had been rescued by India's navy, coastguard, and merchant vessels.
Ockhi emerged from the Bay of Bengal in late November and by December 6 had swept west across India's two southern states, its Lakshadweep islands off its southwestern coast, as well as Sri Lanka, before dissipating over the Arabian Sea.
Hundreds of fishermen in mostly rudimentary boats were caught in heavy seas and winds of up to 130 kilometers (80 miles) per hour.
Sitharaman, answering questions from an opposition Kerala parliamentarian in India's Lok Sabha parliament, said warnings were issued that fishermen should return to harbor and "all assets (ships, aircraft, helicopters)" were involved in the search-and-rescue operation that was launched "immediately."
Official responses questioned
She said the figure of 661 fishermen still missing had been collated by India's fisheries department through to December 15.
The high presumed loss of life prompted rights activists in Tamil Nadu earlier this month to call for an official report on how authorities had dealt with the storm.
Officially, India's federal Home Ministry put the death tolls from Cyclone Ockhi at 70 in Kerala state and 18 in Tamil Nadu.
India's Defense Ministry in a Twitter message Wednesday said navy and coastguard vessels continued to search waters off Kerala and Tamil Nadu for the missing fishermen.
Sri Lankan response doubted
Sri Lanka's Disaster Management Center has also said early storm warnings were issued but acknowledged these might not have reached everyone.
Sri Lanka lost 13 people and nearly 700 houses to the cyclone.
The Red Cross president in Sri Lanka Jagath Abeysinghe said climate change made it essential that early storm warnings be broadcast via public mobile phone messaging systems.
ipj/jil (AFP, Reuters, dpa)