As TN's drowning death toll mounts, state parched for remedy
What lies behind Tamil Nadu's overwhelming cases of death due to drowning are tales of human greed. Real-estate builders, brick-kiln owners, even farmers in some cases and official indifference all have a part to play.
By December, once the north-east monsoon fills the lakes, ponds, “kuttais”, “kanmaais”, farm-ponds and stone “quarry-ponds” in Tamil Nadu with water, a series of identical tragedies grips villages across the state.
The following months are marked by the deaths of school-going children and adolescents due to drowning. Often, two to four children - in some cases, siblings – lose their lives in these water bodies. From January to April-end, Tamil newspapers publish a news item, almost every day, on these tragedies which occur with numbing regularity. What is terrible is that these deaths are entirely preventable.
The reporting in Tamil newspapers is done in a clinical, stock manner, with no empathy: the children waded far into the lake /pond, where their feet were caught in slush and they drowned. If a newspaper in English cares at all to publish such a news item, often reporters could be so unfeeling that they would say that the children’s bodies were “fished out” by Fire Services and Rescue Department personnel. One tends to overlook that these are tragedies which bring unimaginable grief and pain to the mourning families. Often, these families lose two children in the same incident.
Let this writer quote from a news item published in the Tamil newspaper Daily Thanthi, Chennai edition, on page four on January 30, 2021. The news item offered a small insight into the magnitude of this kind of incidents. Datelined Manamadurai, it said, “Rajkumar belongs to Moongil Uruni village, near Manamadurai, Sivaganga district. His son, Dhaswantha Priyan (aged 12), was studying in the fifth standard. Their neighbour is Bharathiraja and his son Prajin (8) was studying in the third standard. Dhaswantha Priyan and Prajin were friends. Last evening, they went out to a farm-pond situated outside of the village. On seeing the pond, they enthusiastically got into the pond and played in it. When they unexpectedly went into the deeper portion of the pond, both the children lost their lives from drowning. It should be noted that in this month [January 2021] alone, 11 children - both boys and girls - have lost their lives from drowning in water bodies in Sivaganga district alone.”
Even as recently as 8.30 p.m. on February 2, 2021, the Tamil news channel “Polimer News” showed visuals of two young men, who lost their lives by drowning in the water body formed in the blue metal stone quarry at Tirusoolam, opposite Chennai airport. The report said the two friends, Akash and Dinesh Kumar, thought the water body was a “tourist spot” and that they went into the water for a “photoshoot.” The television visuals showed Fire Services and Rescue Department personnel using inflatable dinghies to traverse the quarry pond and retrieve a body. The visuals also revealed the emotional impact that the death of two young men, in their 20s or 30s, had on their friends.
The same news channel had reported the death of an 18-year old youth from drowning in a pond, near Koyambedu, a suburb of Chennai, two days earlier.
Daily Thanthi, Chennai edition, had published another news item on January 24, 2021. It detailed the death of two siblings – an older brother and his sister – who lost their lives in the Minjur lake, near Chennai. Tarun (17) and his younger sister, Devi (14), were the children of Ramesh (42) who lived in Sembakkam village, near Minjur. On visiting a lake in Palamedu village, near Athipattu, they went in for a bath with their friends. However, when they reached “the deeper part of the lake”, the brother and sister, who did not know swimming, drowned. They shouted for help. Fishermen in the area tried to rescue the children. Their bodies were retrieved later.
What lies behind such deaths due to drowning are tales of human greed. Real-estate builders, brick-kiln owners, even farmers in some cases and official indifference all have a part to play. For the powerful lobby of real-estate builders and brick kiln owners excavate deep and massive pits on the lake- and pond-beds for red soil, “vandal mann” (energising soil), clay and what is called “savudu.” It is in these cavernous pits filled with water --after the monsoon has ended -- that the victims drown.
Revenue or Mining Department officials may permit builders, brick kiln owners and quarry operators to excavate the lake or pond beds for red soil, “vandal mann”, clay or “savudu” over an area of, say, 20 feet * 15 feet with a depth of three feet. However, in reality, the excavation spans 40 feet * 25 feet with a depth of 15 feet. Full of water, these cavernous pits become death traps.
The quarry-ponds are a deadly, different story and a morbid reflection of this deep-rooted issue. If the Mining Department permits an individual to quarry a hill and the surrounding areas, the entire hill will be illegally gouged out from the earth. Besides, a vast area of the size of several football fields, around the disappeared hill, will be mined to a depth of many hundreds of feet for minerals. Sprawling artificial lakes and ponds form in these gigantic excavated areas, which are not fenced. Therefore, it is no surprise that human beings and cattle perish regularly in them.
As Vettri Thamizhan, a young, social activist belonging to Villiambakkam village, about eight km from Chengalpattu town, said, “The Village Administrative Officers (VAOs), the Revenue Inspectors (RIs), the tahsildars and the police officials know what is happening but they turn a blind eye.” There should be boards on the paths leading to these water-bodies that bathing and swimming are banned there, he said. “There is no warning signage near any of these water bodies. If there were such boards, it will instil fear in the boys venturing to go for a swim in these lakes and quarry-ponds,” he said.
Vettri Thamizhan (38) alleged that massive pits were often mined on the floor of water bodies without any Government permission. Builders dug up lake and pond beds for the red soil to be supplied to gardens, nursery owners, to lay roads and to fill the foundation pits of individual homes or apartment complexes. “Vandal mann” is in demand because farmers use them to energise their cultivable land.
The type of soil that occurred differed from lake to lake, Vettri Thamizhan said. “If the soil is good, massive pits will be dug. Clay from lake and pond beds is used by brick manufacturers. They dig up a lot of clay,” he added.
A Tamil journalist, who has been observing these developments for several years, explained that savudu, excavated from the lake margins or river beds was in demand because farmers used it to loosen the tightness of the soil they were cultivating. “It helps reduce the hardness of the cultivated (repeat cultivated) soil. It loosens it”, he said.
Where clay occurred on the lake or pond beds, it was dug up by potters to make pottery. Many also use the clay to build their huts. Also, desilting and de-weeding of ponds, lakes and canals, using earthmovers, resulted in a portion of these water bodies with an elevated level and another sloping down. “When the slippery, sloping portions are filled with water, people, who do not know how to swim, will drown in no time. When the children wade a bit far into such lakes, they will slide down from the elevated level into the big, deep trenches, which are watery graves,” the journalist said.
The Tamil Nadu Government has been active for the past three years in desilting and de-weeding lakes, ponds, canals and rivers under what is called “kudi maramathu” scheme. The Public Works Department (PWD) and the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) execute these “kudi maramathu” work.
A news item published on January 4, 2020, in the Tamil daily “Theekkathir”, (an organ of the Communist Party of India -Marxist) spoke about how the bed of Then Pennaiyar river is pock-marked with 15-foot deep pits from the quarrying of sand. Quarrying of sand on the river-beds, far beyond the permitted expanse and depth, is another big factor behind these deaths.
Yet another villain is the “farm-pond”, known as “pannai kuttai” in Tamil. The State Government excavates these farm-ponds on the farmers’ lands, using earthmovers, to enrich the aquifers around. Farmers are encouraged to use the water from these farm-ponds for drip-irrigation of crops. But these ponds turn out to be death traps because they are several feet deep. When children venture into them, they drown.
On February 3, 2021 forenoon, when this writer reached Tiruvidanthai village, about 40 km from Chennai on the East Coast Road on the way to Mamallapuram, he found several lakes and ponds which were invitations for disasters. A historic temple called “Nithya Kalyana Perumal temple” is situated at Tiruvidanthai village. Less than a kilometre from this temple is another small temple, with a tank nearby. This tank has a short cement-concrete wall running on four sides and the tank is full from the recent rains. The lotuses in the pond made for an enchanting sight. There are cement-concrete steps on each side of the pond, leading into the water.
Four boys, none over ten years of age, were walking on the short wall around the tank. Even one misstep would have cost them their lives. As this writer was photographing them, they reached the opposite side and tried to get into the pond by walking down the cement-concrete steps. One of them slipped and fell into the water but managed to get up and climb up (see the pictures). It was a close call. There are no warning boards around the tank not to get into the water.
Some distance beyond this tank is the Ammal Eri (lake), with considerable water spread. Beyond it are paddy fields. Nowhere around the Ammal Eri is any signboard, warning people not to trudge into the lake.
There are several ponds in the area with lotuses blooming in them and surrounded by tall grass, which will be hardly a deterrent to roaming, adventurous urchins.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), there are an estimated 3,20,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide [this includes drowning deaths from boat capsizes]; children, males and individuals with increased access to water are most at risk of drowning; and drowning is the third unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for seven per cent of all injury-related deaths.
WHO website adds that “drowning is one of the top five causes of death for people aged one to 14 for 48 of 85 countries…” It blames “lack of supervision” as one of the important causes.
B. Sathish Kumar (32), a social activist from Chengalpattu town, also blamed “parental carelessness” as one of the leading causes of child drowning deaths.
A researched story written by Chaitanya Mallapur and published in IndiaSpend on January 23, 2020, said, “In 2018, there were 83 deaths every day in India, on average, due to drowning – an unseen public health disaster – according to a report on Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India (ADSI), released in 2020. Still in a country, with unguarded lakes, ponds and rivers, especially in rural areas, there is no government policy for preventing drownings, such as barriers around water bodies, safety lessons to children in schools, and safe boating laws...There were 30,187 deaths in 2018, which experts said is an underestimation, as many drowning deaths go unreported.”
Mallapur added, “The most common cause of drowning was accidental fall into a water body (66 per cent of deaths), which resulted in 19,939 deaths, and capsizing of boats (less than one per cent) which led to 258 deaths…”
This writer has been monitoring the loss of lives from drowning in lakes, ponds, rivers and canals for the past several years in Tamil Nadu and he can vouchsafe that a few hundred, mostly school children, lose their lives in these accidents every year.
Here is a list of drowning accidents that occurred in January 2021, all reported by the Daily Thanthi, Chennai edition. (This is not a full list. It covers only a couple of districts including Chennai district in Tamil Nadu. The State has 38 districts. In Sivaganga district alone, 11 children lost their lives from drowning in January 2021.)
January 3: Deivanai (65) and her grand-daughter, Vaishali (17) drown in Krishna canal, near Uthukottai, when the car in which they were travelling, lost control and dove into the canal brimming with water on January 2.
The same day, Saravana Raj (53), a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) officer, drowned when his motorbike crashed into a canal, near the Puzhal (Red Hills) reservoir.
January 5: Venkatesan (30), an auto-rickshaw driver who belongs to Tambaram sanatorium locality in Chennai, drowned in the nearby Chitlapakkam lake when he went into the water to take bath. He was reportedly drunk.
January 14: Mohan Kumar (15), a tenth-standard pupil of Ullagaram, went with his friends to take bath in a quarry-pond near Burma Tamils’ Colony, Chennai. Mohan Kumar was caught in the slush in the quarry-pond and drowned.
January 17: The body of Bala Venkatesh (40) of Ashta Lakshmi Nagar, Pallikaranai, a suburb of Chennai, was found floating in the Chitheri lake, located nearby. Police are investigating whether he accidentally fell into the water or took his own life.
In another incident, Balaji (32) died when he fell into a deep trench dug on the bed of the Arani river, near Pulicat lake, about 55 km from Chennai. Balaji and his four friends had gone on a picnic to the scenic Pulicat lake. On the way, they bathed in the Arni river. When they saw some persons fishing in the river, they also started fishing. It was then that Balaji fell into the river where there was a deep trench.
January 17: Priyadarshini (18), a college student, living with her parents at Pothur village, near Avadi, a suburb of Chennai, was bathing in a pond with her mother and a friend. The pond was located near their residence. Priyadarshini went farther into the pond, where her feet were ensnared in slush. Her mother shouted for help. The neighbours rushed into the pond and managed to bring out Priyadarshini’s body.
January 18: Two school-going children – brothers – died when they drowned in the Kosasthalayar river, near Sethupakkam village, in Tiruvallur district. Jayachandran (16) and his younger brother, Manoj Kumar (14), had gone to Sethupakkam to stay with their grandparents to celebrate Pongal. On January 17th afternoon, the children were bathing in the Kosasthalayar river when they were swept away by the swift-flowing water and they were drowned in a deeper part of the river. The brothers’ death caused a big sadness among the villagers at Sethupakkam.
January 19 (This is a news item which showed some insight into these tragedies): “In the quarry-pond, near Chengalpattu, three persons, who went to bathe in it, drowned.
“A private stone [blue metal] quarry in the Kanthalur village, Pulipakkam panchayat, Chengalpattu district, was functioning for 15 years. The quarry is not functional now but a gigantic pit has formed from the quarrying of the stone.
After the extremely heavy rains last month, the quarry pit, which is more than 1000 feet deep, is brimming with water and it presents a picture of a sea. Since the water spread is vast and the area looks scenic, it became a popular picnic spot.
In this situation, Thameem Ansari (25) of Washermenpet, Chennai, his niece, Sameetha (17) and her friend Angela (17) bathed in the quarry-pond. When they reached a deeper portion of the pond, all the three were drowned because they did not know how to swim. They lost their lives…
Stories of people drowning in this quarry-pond have become a serial story because there is no warning board here and so people, not realising the danger, take bath in it (sic). Demand has gone up that the district administration should ban bathing in this quarry-pond around which there are no protective measures at all. The death of two girls and a man has caused tremendous sadness in the local area.”
The same day, two school-going children lost their lives in another drowning incident. Chiranjeevi (14), a school pupil from Chennai and his friend Jeeva (14) from Molachur village, near Tindivanam, were staying with Chiranjeevi’s uncle Janardhanam near Keezh Pennathur (close to Ginjee). When the two boys took the path in a local pond called Varattu Kulam, both drowned.
January 25: Radha (38), her daughter Bhavya (13) and Bhavya’s friend Saraswathi (13), all belonging to Kaveri Chettiyapatti village in Dindigul district, went to bathe in a local pond called Senkulam. Radha was teaching the two girls how to swim. However, Bhavya and Saraswathi waded farther into the pond and fell into a deeper portion there. They drowned. When Radha tried to rescue them, she also lost her life from drowning.
January 28: The body of 14-year-old Ganesh was found floating in a lake at Ayapakkam village, near Tirumullaivayil, a suburb of Chennai, on January 27th evening. He was earlier seen playing with his friends.
Several such incidents took place from January to April in 2020 as well. Here are two such incidents that took place in 2020.
On January 19: Rajesh (22), a lorry driver belonging to Naravarikuppam, Red Hills, about 30 km from Chennai, went to the nearby Puzhal reservoir with his friends to bathe. Rajesh, who was not a swimmer, had reached a deeper portion of the lake when his feet were caught in slush. He drowned.
On January 27: Sivakumar (41) of Avadi, an All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) functionary, lost his life when he drowned in a big lake at Kannappa Palayam, near Avadi. He had gone to the lake to bathe after attending a relative’s funeral. “Sivakumar did not know swimming. Unexpectedly, he went into the deeper portion of the lake and lost his life,” the news item said in Daily Thanthi said.
As R.S. Guru, an artist belonging of Tirumukkudal village in Uttaramerur taluq, Chengalpattu district, noted that a powerful lobby made many crores of rupees out of the soil and sand found on the bed of lakes, ponds and rivers. Guru added: “The excavation of trenches on lake and pond beds is done beyond the permitted limits. The State government should investigate them. For the villagers cannot control these powerful people. Unaware of the dangers posed by these massive trenches filled with water, children and adults wade into them and die. The local bodies can at least erect boards, cautioning people that these are accident-prone zones and that people should not bathe or wade into them.”