In recent months, reports of people drowning in Chennai’s beaches filled sizeable column inches in the local pages of newspapers. And the majority of these incidents were consistent with what we know about drowning in the sea. It was often either a student or a young tourist throwing caution to the wind and wading into the waters for a swim.
Among the many sad stories that have emerged from the city’s beaches this year is the one about a 13-year-old schoolboy. At Marina, he and his friends reportedly defied a signboard that dissuaded people from venturing deep into the waters. The boy paid for this indiscretion with his life. As the trip to the beach was undertaken secretly, his parents were completely in the dark about the fate that had overtaken him. Two days later, they found out.
Before we discuss the interventions required to prevent such incidents, let us look at the major guardians of the beaches. Public Works Department has authority over the beach land. The Corporation is entrusted with beach management, which entails keeping the beaches free of litter, regulating shops on their sands and landscaping. The Fisheries Department has the responsibility of watching over the fishermen at fishing hamlets. The police have to be on the lookout for disruptive elements and also warn people of dangers at beaches.
All or most of these stakeholders can play certain roles, big or small, in checking deaths by drowning. For a good number of people, intense patrolling by the police is the most effective mechanism to check the problem. But deploying a huge police team to look for foolhardy people on the shores, will pose an insurmountable practical issue.
According to a senior Corporation official, awareness is a less demanding but a very powerful weapon to fight this scourge. Warning boards that graphically describe the risk of drowning – a la hoarding campaigns carried out by the traffic police – can prove effective.
And then, he also calls for intensified surveillance during festivals. “For example, at Pongal, people throng the beaches and drowning incidents go up,” he says.
He suggests that the Fisheries Department can extend the services of its divers to help deal with the issue. “Post-Tsunami, the Department has kept divers on standby. These safety personnel can be pressed into surveillance and rescue work on the beach during weekends and festival times when crowds swell at beaches,” says the official.
Residents can also serve as guardians of the beach.
He cites the case of the Thiruvanmiyur beach, which has an active and huge walkers club.
Members promptly report anything that amiss at the beach. Associations such as this can mobilise volunteers to monitor the beach at select hours.
In conclusion, he says, safe beaches are not the burden of individuals alone.
They concern the community and the major initiative has to come from there.