The haunting Dhanushkodi cyclone of 1964


The recent Cyclone Michaung, which briefly paralysed life in Chennai and parts of its neighbouring districts, also rekindled memories among sections of people in the State about what happened to Dhanushkodi in December 1964.

By any yardstick, the December 1964 cyclone, known as the Rameswaram cyclone, can be called the worst that Tamil Nadu has seen as the event had wiped out Dhanushkodi, a vibrant coastal town. Despite the passage of time, certain aspects of any natural calamity appear to be similar or repetitive. For example, even then, the government headed by M. Bakthavatsalam, the last Congress Chief Minister, was pulled up by the Opposition for lack of preparedness.

The Chief Minister’s defence was that the cyclone was an “act of God for which none could be blamed”. On the positive side, the Air Force’s aircraft – Dakotas – were deployed to drop food packets, bread and butter. A report published by The Hindu on December 27, 1964 said: “About 15,000 food packets have been airdropped in the last three days by the IAF planes.”

A range of contributions

Contributions for the cyclone-hit people came from different quarters of society – from the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to the then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister K. Brahmananda Reddy, the Pune Municipal Corporation, and popular cinema artistes Gemini Ganesan and Savitri.

It all began with a severe cyclonic storm crossing the Rameswaram island on the midnight of December 22 and the early hours of December 23, 1964. A depression, formed in the extreme southeast Bay of Bengal on December 16, intensified into a cyclonic storm three days later and became a severe cyclonic storm on the evening of December 20, according to a technical paper published in the April 1966 issue of Mausam, a journal brought out by the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

A weather bulletin published by The Hindu on December 22 said: “…The severe cyclonic storm is expected to move in a westerly or west-north-westerly direction.” The technical paper indicated that the centre of the storm initially passed through the Vavuniya town of the Northern Province in Sri Lanka on the evening of December 22 before moving close to Dhanushkodi at midnight. Around noon the next day, it moved northwestwards and crossed the coast [near Tondi].

A news report carried by The Hindu on December 22, 2014 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the event said that about 1,500-2,000 persons were killed in the cyclone. The most dramatic element was that the Pamban-Dhanushkodi passenger train, with 110 passengers and five Railway staff, was swept away by tidal waves and submerged in water while reaching the destination. The train, which left Pamban at 11.55 p.m. on December 22, was said to have been hit by tidal waves as high as 18 ft. to 24 ft.

Those days, Madurai, about 160 km from Rameswaram, served as the headquarters of the Ramanathapuram district administration, The then Collector, M.M. Rajendran, who later became Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary (1988-1991) and Odisha Governor (1999-2004), could reach the troubled spot only after everything was over.

In an interview with The Hindu in December 2014, Mr. Rajendran, who had planned to be in Chennai during Christmas, however, said that there was “no advance information” from the Meteorological Department. Otherwise, the people would have been evacuated, he had argued.

Given the fact that the train had six bogies, there could have been ‘easily 300 passengers” because many might have travelled without ticket, he had said.

In fact, what the outside world knew initially was that the famous Pamban draw-bridge connecting Mandapam with Rameswaram had been completely washed away. It took more than two days (only on the night of December 25) for the Railways to acknowledge the tragic event of the train having been swept away. On the same day, the then Chief Minister along with his predecessor — Congress president, K. Kamaraj, made an aerial survey of the affected areas. For about a week, V. Ramaiah, Food Minister, was stationed there to monitor the relief operations. In March 1965, Mr. Rajendran was transferred from Ramanathapuram to Tirunelveli.

A report published on December 27, 1964 in The Hindu said that the Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameswaram “offered protection” to thousands of people who had gathered in the spacious prakarams (corridors) to escape the cyclone’s fury. The paper had also quoted Kamaraj as having said that the Kothandaramaswamy temple was “intact.”

A ghost town

Dhanushkodi soon came to be known as a “ghost town,” as all its residents had moved out of the place. About 53 years later (July 2017), Prime Minister Narendra Modi threw open to the public a road, linking Dhanushkodi with the mainland over a length of 9.5 km. However, there appears to be uncertainty over the project of reconstructing the 17.2-km rail line between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi, the cost of which was revised from ₹208.3 crore to ₹733.91 crore.

Land acquisition was also initiated during 2021-22. But, in July 2023, Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw informed the Rajya Sabha that the State government wrote to his department in April this year, requesting the latter to drop the project in view of the region being “ecologically very sensitive”.


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *