Despite many deaths and the deafening chorus of complaints by residents, action on closing stormwater drains is disappointingly slow

It is official now. If you fall into a pit/manhole in Chennai, you are very likely to die. And you may even die an unrecorded death. Of the 114 persons who fell into pits/manholes in Chennai over the last ten years, 110 of them — a staggering 96.49 per cent — died, according to the National Crime Records Bureau’s data.

24-year-old M. Sarala’s death due to a fall into a stormwater drain is one such case that will remain alive in public memory. On Nov 4, 2011, Sarla was walking to a bus stop on North Usman Road. She was on her way back home to MGR Nagar from a spoken English class when she fell. Her body remained in the manhole for ten hours before her mother discovered it next morning. Today, her family is yet to recover from the blow (see box story).

But even if you survive a fall — and only 4 people survived over the last ten years — you could end up with crippling injuries, as a boy from Chintadripet did in 2010. 5-year-old Manoj Kumar fell into an open pit on the road near his home in Navalar Nedunchezhian Nagar. The boy, who dreamt of being a cricketer one day, was paralysed chest-down. He is eight today and remains wheelchair-bound.

Incidentally, the data shows that 2012 witnessed zero cases. However, the press reported at least four cases that year. Is the official data underreported?

“Why would NCRB underreport data? The data in NCRB reports comes from the State Crime Records Bureau. In turn, our records come from the police stations in various districts. If the number of cases is zero, it means the city police has not furnished the data,” said a senior official in the State Crime Records Bureau, Tamil Nadu. The data also pertains to pits that are not on the roads, he said.

This fact however does not in any way lessen the danger that open manholes and stormwater drains pose. They continue to menace the city. Indira Ganesh, a senior citizen who lives on Motilal Street in T. Nagar, offered a victim’s account: “There are many open manholes on my street. The inlets to the stormwater drain are bigger than usual. Three months ago, while trying to avoid a lorry on the road near my house, I unknowingly stepped into one of these openings and fractured my ankle.”

Her account of the streets confirms what many residents’ welfare associations have relentlessly pointed out. “On many streets, where the civic body took up the construction of stormwater drains, the conditions remain the same. On Dhandapani Street, one can find gaping holes which could prove dangerous. In Raja street, close to T. Nagar Head Post Office, open inlets are common,” said V. S. Jayaraman of Motilal Street Residents’ Welfare Association.

P.K.Gunaseelan of Federation of Adyar Residents’ Association offers a similar story: “Manholes of stormwater drains jut out above the surface by about 6 inches. Sometimes, the covers are simply missing. People steal the covers of manholes. Also, sometimes they get damaged. This makes pedestrians highly vulnerable.”

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