Perilous pitfalls in Vijayawada: open drains turn death traps

This year, two 6-year-olds drowned in channels in Vijayawada’s alleys, sparking the city’s wrath. Despite funds being allocated, projects have been delayed, putting the vulnerable at risk, Nellore Sravani finds  

Updated - February 08, 2024 03:53 pm IST

Published - December 15, 2023 07:45 am IST

Sharmila, mother of six year old boy Sheik Suleman Ashraf, looking at the drain situated close to their house at Old Rajarajeshwaripet in Vijayawada, on Friday. Her son allegedly died after falling into the drain

Sharmila, mother of six year old boy Sheik Suleman Ashraf, looking at the drain situated close to their house at Old Rajarajeshwaripet in Vijayawada, on Friday. Her son allegedly died after falling into the drain | Photo Credit: KVS Giri

As the sky opened in the forenoon on May 5, Teku Abhiram, 6, asked his mother, Teku Nookaratnam, 23, to heat up some water for his bath. In the wait, he stepped out to play with two of his cousins. The trio made paper boats and put them out in a narrow drain abutting Abhiram’s house. Around 40 houses, all one-roomed, in this alley near NAC Kalyana Mandapam in Gurunanak Nagar in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, are built in a straight line, with the drain running on one side. The alley, home to people from economically weaker sections, measures not more than 60 inches. Here, men do odd jobs, while most of the women work as domestic staff in houses of Gurunanak Nagar, one of the city’s posh colonies.  

The children, following the paper boat trail in the drain, reached the entrance of the alley, less than 200 metres away, where the narrow drain flows into a bigger, outfall drain. Abhiram reportedly bent down to find his paper boat, slipped, and fell into the drain. That day, as is the case every time it rains, water was gushing into the outfall drain. 

“My children came running to me saying that Abhiram had fallen into the drain. We did not immediately realise the gravity of the incident, but his mother, ran there. We reached the spot in less than three minutes, but Abhiram had disappeared by then. We couldn’t find him anywhere. A sanitary worker nearby told us she saw him raising his hand but before she could pull him out, he was washed away,” recollects Devi, Abhiram’s aunt, who was with her sister-in-law Nookaratnam at the time of the incident. 

Also read: Residents vent ire at Vijayawada Municipal Corporation after boy falls to death in open drain

Abhiram was found a few hundred metres away after a two-hour search by police and the Vijayawada Municipal Corporation officials and other neighbours. “His body was entangled in wires and other waste that came with the water. He was breathing then, but we lost him before we could reach the hospital,” Nookaratnam, who is now four months pregnant, says. 

This year, two children, Abhiram and Sheik Suleman Ashraf, both 6 years old, died after falling into open drains. While the city moved on in a few days after Abhiram’s death, Ashraf’s death in October in the old Rajarajeswaripeta area in the city brought back attention to the danger that open drains pose to children. 

Yenkamma pointing out to the open drain near NAC Kalyana Vedika in Gurunanak Colony in Vijayawada where a six-year-old boy, Teku Abhiram, died after falling into it in May this year.

Yenkamma pointing out to the open drain near NAC Kalyana Vedika in Gurunanak Colony in Vijayawada where a six-year-old boy, Teku Abhiram, died after falling into it in May this year. | Photo Credit: KVS Giri

While Abhiram’s parents received ₹1 lakh compensation from the Vijayawada Municipal Corporation, Ashraf’s parents refused to take it. “We do not want any compensation. Will it bring back our son? We want the municipal authorities to ensure that no parent loses their child in such a manner again,” Sharmila, Ashraf’s mother, had said while addressing the media in October. 

A month after, she is too grief-stricken to speak about her son. “We only hope that no parent has to go through this,” she reiterated, refusing to meet in person. Ashraf too fell in the open drain while playing outside. His body was retrieved the next day. 

A police officer said since these deaths are categorised as ‘accidental’, culling out information on the number of deaths due to drowning would be difficult. But, varying estimates put the number anywhere between 6 and 10 or more in the last five years.

Governments and governance 

Stormwater drains collect excess water from the roads and other places when it rains. The depth of these drains varies from 1 foot to 5 feet. The water is then released into bigger water bodies. If constructed and maintained properly, there will be no flooding in cities during times of regular rainfall. 

Many of these big drains were constructed as part of the stormwater drain project, says M.V. Anjaneyulu, secretary of the Vijayawada Taxpayers’ Asssociation, which has raised the issue of open drains often.

As per official information, stormwater drain project was launched in 2016 in the city. The Central government, through One Time Special Finance Assistance, had given to the State funds to the tune of ₹461. 04 crore. The Public Health & Municipal Engineering Department (PHMED) had undertaken the project, while L&T was given the contract to complete construction of stormwater drains. 

“The funds were meant to be remitted to local bodies’ account immediately. But we did not see that happening. From 2015 to 2018, there was no progress at all. What happened to the money in those three years, no one knows,” Anjaneyulu says. 

As per the rules, he explains, funds have to be released to the municipal bodies within 15 days of being disbursed by the Centre. If not, the State government has to pay interest for the extended period. 

A PHMED source, on condition of anonymity, says that L&T had completed 59% of the project by the end of 2022 in a few localities of the city and on the outskirts. This includes 47% completion of major drains and 62% of minor drains. Out of the proposed length of 142 km of major drain, 66.1 km of it was completed by 2022-end, while 187.4 km out of 302 km of minor drain has been completed.

“Some drains were constructed by the corporation. Generally, we leave minor drains (1 foot) open and major drains (4 feet) closed. While it is okay to keep the major ones open on the outskirts, we have to close them in residential areas in view of the danger it poses for public,” said the official.

Also read: Six-year-old boy Abhiram drowns in overflowing drain in Vijayawada

He added that all major drains in the city had not been covered yet, and the project was seeing this lag overall because of several factors, including a delay in shifting of electrical poles and transformers, the non-release of payment to workers, and a delay in getting permission from various departments. 

Now, PHMED has submitted a proposal to the State government to hand over the project to the municipal corporation to complete the remaining work. A response from the government is awaited, the official says.  

Troubled project 

MLA from Vijayawada East Gadde Rammohan Rao, whose TDP government governed the State until 2019, says, “Of ₹460 crore, work worth ₹230 crore was completed by 2019.” He blames the current Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) regime for the work being stalled. “Whatever work was done on the drains until 2019 was halted midway as the governments changed. As with other projects such as [development of the projected State capital] Amaravati, the YSRCP government was not interested in continuing any work that began during the TDP rule.” says Rao, adding that funds were not released to L&T and that the corporation had expressed unhappiness that the project was not given to them, but to PHMED. 

While stormwater drainage is part of every city infrastructure, Vijayawada’s landscape includes hills. When it rains even for an hour, water gushes from upland to low-lying areas, leading to overflowing drains, explains Ch. Babu Rao, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, who was at the helm of several protests by the party on this issue.  

Anjaneyulu alleges that handing over the project to L&T, which did not know the lay of the land, was the first mistake that the government made. “The project was begun in a slapdash manner. The contract should have gone to someone who was from Vijayawada,” he says. There were reports of water entering the premises of apartments when the project was being constructed. 

Abhiram’s father Teku Veerababu, who works at a shop in Autonagar area of the city, says: “While the same drain is covered with a ramp at other places of the road, it is open near our home,” he says. 

“The municipal authorities built a wall on both sides of the alley at the entrance where it passes over the big drain. But even after eight months of my older son’s passing, the drain remains uncovered,” Abhiram’s mother Nookaratnam says, fighting back tears. Abhiram’s younger brother is now 4. Had it not been for the open drain, Abhiram would have celebrated his seventh birthday on December 5. 

There are about 20 children in the age group of 2-12, who play outside their houses, near the drain. “After the incident, one of us keeps a watch on them all the time. It has become part of our routine now,” says Yankamma, whose house is also located just next to the drain. She says they have asked the corporation officials to cover the drain.

M. Prabhakar, chief engineer, Vijayawada Municipal Corporation, says cleaning is difficult if the drains are covered. “On M.G. Road, footpaths are built over the drains. The problem arises when silt increases in the drain. Sometimes, machines cannot reach them and as per law, workers cannot be asked to climb down to remove the obstacles. This is why keeping the drains open seems the best option to us,” he says, acknowledging that it poses a danger to children. “We are therefore erecting a parallel wall along drains in the city,” he explains. However, open drains ‘invite’ people to throw garbage in, which also clogs them.  

Rao argues that on prominent roads in Vijayawada, such as M.G. Road or B.R.T.S. road, most drains are closed. “But that will not be seen in slums or areas peopled by the poor,” he says. “Stormwater drains are meant to collect only excess water from roads. But often we see that wastewater from houses is also released here, leading to accumulation of silt,” he says. 

In the to-ing and fro-ing between government departments and politicians, the families of Ashraf and Abhiram are suffering the loss of a loved one. 

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