After more than 80 hours of non stop rescue efforts two year old Sujith Wilson was found dead. He had fallen into the borewell while playing at family’s farm. Efforts by several voluntary groups, fire and rescue officials and the National Disaster Response Force could not save the toddler. Nation collectively mourned the tragedy.
This tragedy has yet again brought forth the problem of abandoned and uncovered borewells in India. These have claimed many lives in the recent years. In 2014, six year old girl child died after falling into a borewell in Tiruvannamalai district. In another incidence three tears old got stuck in a borewell in Villupuram. After 19 hour struggle she was rescued alive but died later at hospital. In 2009 an 11 year old from Palanpur, Gujarat died after falling into a 100 feet borewell. Another two year old died after falling into a one in Warangal in Andhra Pradesh. Earlier in 2007 another two year old died in Pune in Maharashtra. Another three year old died in Dausa, Rajasthan.
Al Jazeera in a 2012 article “India’s wells of death” notes that group of people comprising mafia style groups, builders and landlords labeled “tanker mafia” – a group trading in illegally extracted water are responsible for these illegal and abandoned borewells. Flouting rules, they dig borewells and then abandon these when they don’t find any water or these dry up.
In February 2010 the Supreme Court issued guidelines to state governments on abandoned/under repair/newly constructed borewells/tubewells to prevent fatal accidents involving small children. The guidelines state that in case a borewell is abandoned at any stage, it is necessary to procure a certificate from the concerned government department, and that the District Collector or Block Development Office should take ensure that such data are maintained. A borewell that is being dug or repaired must be fenced.
National Green Tribunal has declared that people who depend on borewells for drinking water and do not have alternative sources of supply, need to obtain permission from the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA). Last year, the National Green Tribunal had directed the Delhi government to act against unauthorised water extraction in the national capital and instructed it to seal the illegal borewells within two weeks. After repeated raps from the National Green Tribunal, Delhi Jal Board sealed around 730 illegal borewells. Again, after Sujith’s death, the Madras High Court on Tuesday pulled up the Tamil Nadu government and asked if the government needs a corpse to implement each and every statute in its books.
The recent tragedy has also brought forth the issue of trial and error methods deployed for rescue efforts. Rescue efforts for Sujith have been criticized. He was initially trapped at 26 feet but slipped to 88 feet when attempts to pull him through ropes failed. Wider parallel tubewell was dug only in the last two days.
According to the National Disaster Response Force, since 2009 over 40 children have fallen into borewells and, on average, 70% of conventional child rescue operations fail. Success depends on variety of factors such as incident and its location, diameter and depth of borewell, availability and type of digging equipment, nature of soil (rocky, sandy, soft) and availability of doctors, ambulance, oxygen, food, water etc. Usually rescue is attempted by digging a parallel hole and the connecting to the child through a horizontal tunnel. This requires considerable time and resources and often can be disrupted if machine hits hard rock.
As the nation collectively mourned this tragedy many on social media commented that it is ironical that country is attempting moon missions while failing to rescue a child from a borewell. These illegal abandoned borewells are tragedies waiting to happen. There needs to be more research into tools that can be used for such operations. There also needs to be devised a protocol for handling such rescue missions. Most importantly, abandoned borewells must be identified and sealed with urgency.