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Why borewell deaths are so frequent and rescue measures fall short most of the time

Death of 3-yr-old Sujith Wilson who had fallen into a borewell in Tamil Nadu Friday, has once again brought to focus the dangers posed by open & abandoned borewells.

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New Delhi: When 3-year-old Sujith Wilson fell into a borewell in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirappalli district Friday, a gruelling rescue operation — involving state and national forces — was launched. But Sujith could not be saved.

Parts of the child’s body — swollen and decomposed — were retrieved early Tuesday morning, over 80 hours after rescue operations began.

What is worse is the fact that Sujith’s case isn’t the first, but the third to be widely covered by the media this year alone. According to the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), over 40 children have died after falling into borewells since 2009, and rescue operations failed at least 70 per cent of the time. 

What is a borewell?

A borewell is a deep, narrow hole drilled into the ground from which water is drawn through a pipe and pump. Borewells are typically small in diameter — ranging from 4.5 inches (low-capacity borewell) to 12 inches (high-capacity borewell).

Borewells tap into water-bearing soil or rock layers called aquifers, and can go as deep as 1,500 feet into the ground. Borewell technology was first introduced in India in the 1970s as a measure to counter water scarcity.

India now has approximately 27 million borewells, but several of them have been abandoned because they no longer supply water.

When a borewell dries up and is no longer in use, its cover, usually made of cast iron, is removed and the PVC pipe pulled out, leaving behind a naked hole. The pipe and the iron cast are removed to show that the well is no longer useful.

Since water is a state subject, there exists no national-level database of abandoned borewells. States such as Kerala have begun tracking the number of borewells constructed and those abandoned, but other states are yet to follow as diligently. 

Also read: Not water, Chennai has a governance crisis. This ex-IAS officer has the solution 

Why aren’t rescue operations successful?

In June this year, 2-year-old Fatehveer Singh from Bhagwanpura, Punjab, died when he fell over 100 feet into an open borewell. In May, 4-year-old Seema from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, met with a similar fate.

The NDRF data suggests the deadly combination of uncovered, abandoned borewells and children playing around them is the biggest cause of such fatal accidents. Other reasons include flimsy covering of borewells and a lack of warning signs.

“When a child falls in, they fall into a pit from which a pipe has been removed, so the walls of the borewell are not smooth, but rugged. Even if you want to pull the child out, there is hardly any space to do so, and the type of soil surrounding the pit could lead to collapse,” said an official of Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), who didn’t want to be named.

Rescue operations depend on a number of factors — the type of soil, diameter of the borewell and the depth at which the victim is stuck. Since surfaces beneath the ground vary across states and regions, standardising equipment and methods of rescue is impossible, experts say. 

“In places like Rajasthan and Haryana, soil tends to be loose and sandy, making it more susceptible to collapse. In hillier regions, where the soil is rocky, drilling requires heavy machinery and is much harder to do. The rescue team has to keep this in mind when going about the operation,” Krishan Kumar, assistant commandant of the NDRF, told ThePrint.

Kumar said when the victims are children, the rescue operation gets harder because they are very young and don’t listen to instructions properly when scared and stressed. 

The space to manoeuvre within a borewell is also very less, making it difficult to pull out victims. The most popular method of rescue is to drill a parallel hole and then move horizontally until the path reaches the victim.

Rescue measures taken by NDRF 

The overwhelming number of borewell deaths led the NDRF to use improvised methods during rescue operations, including an “umbrella like device”, which is placed under the victim, and then opened up. Another is called “rope rescue” by which a rope is tied around the victim.

“These methods are based on experiences of the NDRF and a technique will have to be followed depending on the circumstances of the case. We are always trying to improve these methods,” Kumar said.

The most effective measure to prevent borewell deaths is to seal borewells once they are no longer in use. In February 2010, the Supreme Court had issued guidelines, directing all borewell owners to notify the district magistrate concerned or equivalent authority to fill up abandoned borewells to the ground-level. The NDRF recommends doing this with mud, pebbles and clay.

“The only way to ensure deaths like these don’t happen is to identify the open borewells and fill them up. But unless it is taken seriously at the block and district levels, accidents like these will continue to happen,” said the CGWB official.

Also read: Punjab govt wakes up after death of 2-year-old, closes over 2,000 open borewells


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