Deep traps: On borewell deaths

The onus on closure of abandoned wells should be on the local body, and not the owner

October 30, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:50 am IST

As with several such incidents in the past, the intensive operation in Tamil Nadu to rescue a child who slipped into an abandoned borewell in Manapparai, Tiruchi district, ended in spectacular failure . Hopes for two-year-old Sujith Wilson were brightest in the initial phase, but they faded when the victim sank further into the borehole, partly buried under earth. The valiant measures of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel along with their State counterparts and the slim hope for a happy ending of the kind witnessed in Kurukshetra 13 years ago kept spirits up for some time, but the end was a tragedy. Unfortunately, the truth is that no breakthrough method has emerged, whether in terms of technology or protocols, when it comes to rescuing small children who have fallen into deep holes that are less than a foot wide. The disaster that befell the Tamil Nadu farmer’s family last week is no different from the one that took the life of another two-year-old in Punjab’s Sangrur district earlier this year. Worryingly, more such disasters are bound to occur, since there are many disused and uncovered well holes scattered in farms in several States. No time can be lost in implementing the safety rules relating to wells issued in the past, to save children at risk.

Tamil Nadu issued, under its Panchayats Act, the Regulation of Sinking of Wells and Safety Measures Rules 2015 , incorporating measures ordered by the Supreme Court in 2010. Among the many steps prescribed for orderly well-digging, there is a provision requiring the holder of a permit or well to fill up an abandoned hole up to the ground level using clay, sand or boulders (the court also mentions pebbles and drill cuttings). For meaningful implementation of this provision, the onus should rest with the local body, and not the owner of the borewell who is often a farmer of poor means. Under a normative system, closing an abandoned well would no longer be seen as a wasteful expenditure by farmers, since they would not be charged for it, and panchayat personnel would execute the closure rather than merely certify that action has been taken. Besides avoiding the ghastly human toll, time-bound capping of open wells will eliminate the intensive, high-cost rescues that the NDRF has to attempt; the agency deployed its teams no less than 37 times until 2018, mostly in Maharashtra, but also in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka. Deep borewell accidents have also occurred in cities that rely heavily on groundwater, and as the Supreme Court pointed out, it should be the task of the municipal and public health authorities to eliminate the lurking danger. In the court’s view, the District Collector bears responsibility for enforcement. Now that another life has been lost to neglect, it is time the State governments took safety seriously, came up with a census of well structures in need of attention, and capped the problem forever.

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