Any resident of Tamil Nadu from the Nineties will remember the horrific days when tankers carrying hundreds of litres of water first began to roam the streets of Madras.
The rains had failed. The water reservoirs had run dry.
The city was parched, and the solution was the Metro Water Corporation, whose lorries created puddles and potholes as they irrigated roads on their ways to homes and offices.
The water was procured at steep cost, and a good bit of it was lost to the roads, creating further problems for the city. So high was the damage that the state government began to build concrete roads instead of the regular tar along the roads most frequented by the water-carrying lorries.
More than two decades later, it is still a common sight for people to line the streets queuing for their turn at a lorry, carrying plastic pots in fluorescent colours so their families can get through the day.
But the queues are shorter now, and the lorries travel less now.
The reason? Borewells.
Much narrower, and therefore cheaper and deeper than regular wells, they dug hundreds of feet into the earth searching for water to pump up to homes.
It seemed an apt solution, until even the borewells began to run dry and fall into disuse.
The people who had dug them left them untended, covering the openings with material as flimsy as polythene bags.
Children who were playing began to fall into impossibly small holes, between four and seven inches in diameter.
It was some time before their families even found out that they had fallen, and then it was a task to trace them, and a bigger task to rescue them.
The soil around the borewell was either too muddy or too sandy or too hard for a rescue operation to be completed with ease.
Little surprise, then, that only one in five children who fall into these death traps have been pulled out alive, and even among those, some die in hospital hours later.
The first incident I remember of a successful rescue was a boy who was pulled out of a borewell in Dindigul in 2004.
Between 2012 and 2014, there were several cases of children falling into these wells. A child was rescued in Krishnagiri district in 2012.
Next year, a 6-year-old girl died after falling into a borewell in Pulavanpandi village of Tiruvannamalai district.
In April 2014, three children were pulled out from borewells in different parts of the state. A three-year-old girl died in hospital after falling into a 500-foot borewell on her family’s farm in Pallagaseri village. She had been stuck 30 feet deep for 19 hours. A 1-year-old, also called Sujith, died after falling to 47 feet of a 200-foot borewell in Kidampalayam village. His body was pulled out the next day. The only successful rescue was of a 4-year-old child called Harshan, from a farm in Kuthalapuri village in Tirunelveli. He was out within six hours of falling in.
These are only the cases in Tamil Nadu.
Back in 2006, a 5-year-old called Prince was rescued after a two-day operation from a 55-foot deep borewell in Kurukshetra district of Haryana.
Two years later, a 2-year-old girl, Vandana, was rescued from Saiyan village near Agra.
A few months later, in October 2008, media clustered around a borewell in Lehrakapura village of the same district after a 3-year-old boy, Sonu, fell into it. He was stuck at 70 feet. The rescue operations were telecast live. Four days later, the child’s body was retrieved. The soggy mud around the area was cited as one of the causes for the failure of the rescue.
Back in 2010, the Supreme Court framed guidelines for the digging and sealing of borewells, but with practically every family using one, it is hard to keep track of where they are and which ones have fallen into disuse.
In March this year, a one-year-old child, Nadim Khan, was pulled out alive from a borewell in Hisar district of Haryana, following a two-day operation by the National Disaster Response Force, the Army, and the police. That borewell was only 54 feet deep. The soil was sandy, and a parallel pit had to be dug at a distance of 20 feet, but the rescuers were able to reach the baby through a connecting tunnel.
Not long ago, a two-year-old child, Fatehvir Singh, fell into a borewell at a farm in Bhagwanpura village of Punjab. The cloth with which the borewell had been covered had fallen in with him and hampered efforts to reach him. It was 110 hours before he was pulled out, and he was pronounced dead in hospital.
In the case of Sujith, only hours before his decomposed body was retrieved in parts, officials told the media he was being monitored through a camera and was being supplied oxygen.
It was later learnt that botched rescue attempts by amateurs before the NDRF arrived may have caused him to sink from 27 feet to 88 feet deep.
If only the rescuers had arrived right away and begun work on digging a parallel tunnel, the end may have been different.
There are regulations that require borewells to be sealed, but it appears most people think camouflage is sufficient. Under such circumstances and with so many prior instances of children falling in, shouldn’t the authorities have a better mechanism in place to conduct rescues efficiently? How many more children will the borewells claim before each state puts a plan of action in place?
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the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com