'Even those who know swimming are unlikely to survive if they fall in deep waters with strong undercurrent, wearing heavy clothes'

Five NCC cadets who drowned in the Periyar were in their trekking gear and that perhaps hastened their end, caught in the depths of swirling waters on Wednesday afternoon.

Volunteers of the Vana Samrakshana Samithi and forest guards on the spot aired a similar opinion. Even those who know swimming are unlikely to survive if they fall in deep waters with strong undercurrent while wearing heavy clothes, they said. So, why the youngsters who didn’t know swimming were not wearing even life jackets, considered a basic necessity in such situations?

Posed with this question, Commodore T.P. Jaison Thomas, trek manager of the national-level trekking camp organised by the 22 Kerala Battalion of NCC at Malayattoor and Group Commander NCC, Ernakulam, said that life jackets never figured in the scheme of things as the cadets were given strict instructions both in writing and verbally not to enter the water. “Trekking is a purely land-oriented expedition and the participating cadets were not supposed to venture into water at any point. Strict instruction in this regard was included in the booklet issued to cadets months in advance in writing and verbally when they turned up for the camp. Besides, the Chief Conservator of Forest had given us permission only for trekking through the reserve forest,” he said.

Mr. Thomas felt that life jackets would not have made much difference as the death was almost instant as not much time was lost between the fall of the victims and the recovery of their bodies.

A.V. George, environment expert and former coordinator of the disaster management course at M.G. University begs to differ. He felt that the tragedy could have been averted if the cadets were wearing life jackets.

Life jackets could save lives even when those who wearing it have fallen in to deeper waters and even deep creeks between rocks, he said.

“In fact, the draft policy on water-related disasters under the consideration of the State government specifically states that wearing life jackets should be made mandatory irrespective of the depth of the water and the threat perception,” said Mr. George, who was part of the expert panel, which drew up the draft policy.

For a State with 44 rivers and innumerable water bodies, extra care like posting enough life guards at prominent water-related tourist spots and giving swimming training to children should be taken considering the very high number of fatalities due to water-related accidents and disasters.

Divisional Forest Officer, Malayattoor, B.N. Nagarajan said that life jackets need not be insisted for those venturing into the river at Mahoganythottam for taking bath along the safe banks. “We don’t allow people into the danger zone anyway. So, the question of life jackets does not rise,” he said.

Mr. Nagarajan said that in this case, the tragedy occurred because the cadets give the supervising officials a slip and entered the danger zone with scant regard for the warnings of the forest guards.

Strict instructions

Besides, the two Associate NCC Officers from the Delhi Directorate who accompanied the trekking party were given strict instructions regarding the safety of the cadets and rules to be observed. The court of inquiry ordered into the incident will look into the aspect of dereliction of duty on the part of these officers, it is learnt.

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