It's simple and yet, effective. But most of all, it saves lives while creating livelihoods. Panambur beach saw around 119 people losing their lives in the 13-year period between 1995 and mid-2008. Yet, post June-2008, just three people, the last being in October 2009, had drowned in the swirling waters on the beach.
The stark difference was the transformation of the beach – from a dirty, free-for-all beach to a controlled atmosphere where activities of beachgoers in the rough waters are monitored by lifeguards.
The introduction of lifeguards, who are from the local fishing community, was the brain child of Yatish Baikampady, who is the Chief Executing Officer of the Panambur Beach Tourism Development Project.
“While developing the beach, we realised that there were a lot of drowning deaths. And to change the image of the beach as being unsafe, lifeguards had to be employed,” he said. The local fishing community were got in by “glamourising” the job and elaborating on the differences between lifeguard and watchman was spelled out, said Mr. Baikampady.
The idea resulted in incorporating traditional knowledge with modern rescue tools. Around 2010, local fishermen, who had been rescuing using their inherited knowledge of ocean terrain, were trained to use jet skis, life buoys, training in first aid.
A rescue operation is methodical and calculated, said Roshan Jairaj, a lifeguard. “When a person is seen drowning, two of us rush at them. Two more lifeguards follow with extra jackets or to take over in case the first two tire out. Meanwhile, the rest coordinate with transport and with first aid, so as to rush the rescued to a hospital,” he said.
Explaining the dangerous underside of the lapping waves, Sharath Bangera, a supervisor at the beach, said: “The water surface looks calm. But there are currents underneath, and the sea bed has deep pits. Even if the water comes to only knee-level, the currents may be enough to make a person lose his balance, and get dragged away by the currents.”
Apart from the rough seas, a difficult daily challenge they face is the people themselves. “While some cooperate when we tell them to come back, others, start fighting with us. They tell us that they have come from far just to swim, or that they can manage on their own,” said lifeguard Anish (24).
For the lifeguards, their duties extend beyond just rescuing drifters. They also ensure the beach remains family-friendly. “We have stopped men who come to the beach only to take videos of women bathing in the beach. We have, unfortunately, had many cases like this,” said 23-year-old Latish Kulal, a lifeguard there.
Though there is danger in their work, the reward lies in the gratitude of the rescued, said the lifeguards. In a written note, P. Malleshwara and P. Parath, two students from Coimbatore who were caught in the currents in September 2009, said: “The life guards saved my life. I will forget never this.”