After celebrating New Year at a friend’s house, Alvin (name changed) and eight of his friends went for a walk in the Thiruvamiyur beach in Chennai.
The soothing tune of the waves tempted several of them to venture in, while the rest stayed ashore.
Little that they knew about the underlying danger.
“Initially we thought they were just swimming and playing around. We realised they were in
trouble only when Alvin waved his hands calling for help,” says one of Alvin’s friend who witnessed her friends’ struggle from the shore.
“We tried finding help, but nothing turned up. We felt helpless. Glad they survived,” she said.
“Even for us, it took a while to realize that we are in trouble,” says one of Alvin’s five friends who survived the ordeal.
“With every wave that hit us, we were dragged further and further into the sea,” recalls Alvin.
Alvin is an athlete, and a good swimmer, so are his friends; they nearly drowned and barely made it ashore.
Dangerous beaches of Chennai
Beaches in Chennai have rough water and strong currents, yet people are tempted to explore the beauty and play with the galloping rough waves.
The fun they have playing in the waves blocks their eyes from seeing the underlying danger. And they pay a huge price either with their lives or by going through a traumatic experience.
The major reasons for people to drown are dangerous currents, lack of lifeguards, no proper sign boards, swimming under the influence of alcohol and lack of swimming skills.
According to police, most people who venture into the sea are drunk, including the guy who
came to the rescue of Alvin and his friends.
But the influence of alcohol and not knowing to swim, are only a part of the problem. Chalking up everything to drinking alcohol and not knowing to swim is unfair, Alvin says.
“It’s always been the case in the society where the victims get blamed for just being the victim. Yes that guy was drunk, it’s shocking. But it’s wrong to assume that everyone who ventures into the sea is drunk. I and my friends weren’t drunk. And we are all good swimmers, yet we got dragged in by the rip current,” says Alvin.
Rising death toll
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRD), from the year 2009 to 2014, nearly
800 people have drowned in the beaches of Chennai. The highest death toll came in 2011, with 248 deaths.
Despite of rising death toll, the authorities haven’t taken any concrete safety measures such as an adequate number of lifeguards and sign boards warning of the treacherous surf.
Even in Alvin’s case, when he and his friends were struggling with the currents the guy jumped in to their rescue was wearing jeans and t-shirt when he jumped in, unlike the rest who were wearing swim gears. While the rest managed to reach shore, he got into trouble. There were no lifeguards around. Lucky for him, the fishermen came to his aid.
Rip currents can occur in any beach, but in rough waters, they are quite common.
Courtesy : NOAA
Chennai beaches have rough waters and strong underwater currents, making the rip currents quite common.But there are no sign boards on what to do, if they are caught in one such current.
Fishermen as lifeguards
Even though there aren’t any professional lifeguards stationed in Chennai beaches, there are fishermen who act as life guards but are unpaid volunteers.
They don’t get paid, so most don’t patrol the beaches on a regular
Selva Raj, a fisherman from Neelankarai fishing village say, “They should either pay people who act as lifeguards or station professional lifeguards there at the beaches, in the watch towers. Only then, lives can be saved in time.”
He further states that, “Most rescues in the beaches are done by fishermen.”
Are there any lifeguards apart from the fishermen?
Apart from fishermen acting as lifeguards, there are lifeguards in the State of Tamil Nadu. But most of them can hardly be considered as lifeguards.
Endurance and rescue test conducted by Rashtriya Life Saving Society (India) (RLSS(I)) in the year 2009 is a proof for that. Out of 126 lifeguards who took up the test, only 38 of them cleared the test, revealing the shocking truth that 70 percent of Tamil Nadu lifeguards were incompetent.
RLSS (I) is a branch of the Royal Life Saving Society (Commonwealth), headquartered in the
UK and also a member of the International Life Saving Federation, based in Belgium.
From 2009 to till date, no steps have been taken to improve the quality of lifeguards.
Given the case, even if there were enough lifeguards, they won’t be competent enough to save lives.
Police and coast guard role in saving lives
Marine police, coast guards and Indian Navy could save lives, but they are stationed far from the shore.
Marine police control the first 12 nautical miles, whereas the coast guard patrol from 12 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles. And the Indian Navy takes care beyond 200 nautical miles.
There are emergency helpline numbers to contact the Coastal Security Guards (1093) and Indian Coast Guard (1554), in such situations. But there is little or no public awareness about that.
Most people don’t even know such numbers exist.
There are very few warning sign boards down the beach.
Of the very few warning sign boards that are posted on the beaches of Chennai, the emergency contact numbers aren’t mentioned.
Unless lifeguards are stationed at every beach and public awareness improves, things won’t get any better.
(Big thanks to my wonderful faculty Stephanie Shapiro for her wonderful guidance and constructive feedback that helped me in writing this article and also improved the overall quality of my writing. Still learning and improving.)