Kolkata, May 23 (IANS) The tragic deaths of Pushan Sadhukhan and Souradeep Chatterjee will haunt the memories of many Kolkata residents for years to come.
The teenagers weren’t juvenile delinquents who sneaked out of school for a swim at a nearby lake. Students of a prestigious south Kolkata school, the 14-year-olds were part of the school rowing team. They were practising for an upcoming event with three others at Rabindra Sarobar on Saturday when a nor’wester, accompanied by strong winds of up to 90 km/hr, struck the city. Their boat overturned. While three teammates swam to safety, Pushan and Souradeep drowned.
The incident has thrown up several uncomfortable questions regarding the safety of children participating in such sports in the country. A question raised by a senior Indian Coast Guard (ICG) official is why children who aren’t expert swimmers weren’t allotted personal flotation devices (PFDs) such as life jackets. He is also appalled as to why there were no chaser (rescue) boats with life guards in the lake during the practice session.
An office-bearer of one of the clubs that manages the lake said that rowers do not wear life jackets as they are bulky and affect their performance, causing unnecessary fatigue.
The ICG official, who has participated in several national and international events, pointed out that lightweight life jackets have now been specifically designed for rowers that are little more than vests covering the chest and shoulders. These jackets do not inflate or bulge when it rains but only when the wearer is underwater. Such jackets are now readily available in India.
“The matter about life jackets for rowers has been debated worldwide. Nowadays, after such protective gear has been developed, rules are changing in countries like the US and Australia that are known for extreme watersports. Tasmania in Australia, for instance, has mandated the use of life jackets for rowers.
“This was an inter-school event and all students should have been made to wear life jackets. It wouldn’t have mattered much if their performance had dipped. Once all teams are made to wear life jackets, there is a level playing field. Later on in life, as these children turn into expert swimmers and rowers, they could have made a choice,” the ICG official said.
The clubs at Rabindra Sarobar, in an attempt to shrug off all responsibility, have been maintaining for over two days now that life guards are posted only during a tournament and not during a practice session.
They have also claimed that the use of rescue boats with diesel engines was not possible due to a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order. But, it has been several years since the NGT has passed this order. Why haven’t these clubs procured battery-operated boats till now? This question was raised by an official of the Kolkata Police’s Disaster Management Group (DMG) that succeeded in fishing out the bodies of Pushan and Souradeep after nearly three hours.
“How can the clubs say that they stopped operating the rescue boats after the NGT order while continuing to allow rowing and other activities in the lake? They should have stopped all such activities till they had managed to bring in battery-operated boats. I am a police officer and I know the law. Even if the NGT’s order on the use of boats with diesel engines been flouted to save lives, there would not have been any legal issues. When it comes to saving lives, court orders can be flouted. The club authorities were clearly not prepared though they had allowed use of the lake by school children,” he said.
Nor’westers and squalls have arrived late to Kolkata and the surroundings this year but there was a thunderstorm warning for Saturday. It would be unfair to say that the storm gave no warning. The skies turned dark and it began to rain at least 15 minutes before the windspeed increased. Officials of the clubs should have rushed out on realising that the weather is deteriorating and ordered the rowers to shore.
“I was appalled. The students who survived have claimed that they had to rush into the clubs to alert the officials about the accident. But then, the clubs around the lake have now turned into entertainment joints for those in the city who couldn’t manage memberships at other elite clubs of Kolkata. Sporting activity is now secondary. The NGT had also directed that such social activities at these Clubs around the lake be curbed. Has that part of the order been followed? The NGT is cited only when it comes to the operation of rescue boats,” said a resident of nearby Hazra, who has been a regular swimmer in the lake.