It’s been eight years, but Bharati still closes her eyes every time she drives by the storm water drain at Lingarajapuram in Bengaluru. On May 31 2009, as rains lashed the city, Bharati’s 5-year-old son, Abhishek, slipped through an opening in the storm water drain when they were walking down the road.
His body could not be recovered.
Living with the loss of a child has not been easy for Bharati and her family. To get over the trauma, they moved to an area 50km from where the incident took place. But, Bharati’s work brings her back to the city, and the memory of losing her son washes over her.
“It was a day before Abhishek was to join Class 1. As we were walking home, he was talking about how his shoes were loose and how I should tell Appa to get him the right size,” Bharati said.
Buried Unceremoniously Under Garbage
Since 2009, Abhishek was the first to be swept inside an overflowing drain in Bengaluru. Since that tragedy, at least eight others have been washed away in the sewer, seven of whom were children, and the bodies of four yet to be recovered.
They have been buried unceremoniously in the sludge and garbage.
The most recent victim is Shanta Kumar, a 30-year-old construction supervisor. On May 22 2017, Kumar was supervising the construction of the retaining wall of a storm water drain in Kurubarahalli when the worker failed to judge the sudden rise in the water level. Despite attempts by residents to save him, Kumar was washed away.
Even Army and NDRF Couldn’t Help
Days after Abhishek drowned in 2009, the city administration took the help of the Madras Engineers Group of the Indian Army.
The men combed the storm water drain for over 15 days before finally calling off the operation.
Things were no different when Kumar was washed away. Diving experts of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were called in to help recover his body. But, they had to call off the operation, finding it hard to look through the garbage and sludge.
Trained Men Can't Survive, How Will Children?
The operation to recover 9-year-old Geetha Lakshmi’s body took four days. “As several parts of the storm water drains are under the road, our men have to walk inside the sewer. Because of the garbage, it is hard to walk fast. As the team was going through the storm water drain, there was a distress call and one of the men was rushed back. Even though he had breathing equipment, the stress made him claustrophobic,” said a Regional Fire Officer (RFO), who wished to remain anonymous
If trained professionals find it difficult, you can imagine what a little child would have suffered.Regional Fire Officer
Drains Filled with Toxic Fumes
According to rescue experts at the Karnataka Fire and Emergency Department, there is little hope of finding someone who has been washed away in the storm water drain. And even recovering the bodies is life threatening.
“Even though these are storm water drains, our men have to use breathing equipment to walk into several parts of these drains because of the toxic fumes inside them. These fumes are created because of the garbage,” the officer said.
The officer said that one of his men had to be given medical treatment while trying to recover the body of the 9-year-old girl on Bannerghatta Road. in 2014, Lakshmi, the victim, had come to Bengaluru from Chennai to spend the holidays with her relatives. She fell in to an open roadside drain in Bilekahalli area on Bannerghatta Road when the road was inundated with four feet of water.
Where Are We Going Wrong?
When The Quint went back to the spot where Abhishek drowned in 2009, several sections of the drain were still not fenced. The rampant encroachment and the lack of timely cleaning only leads to such tragedies.
V Ravichander, a prominent urban expert, said that the government’s inability to remove encroachments has been a major issue. “There are several places in Bengaluru where houses are constructed on storm water drains. And most of the time, under pressure, the government doesn’t demolish these illegal constructions,” he said.
Drains Not Desilted
These drains, over the years, have been clogged with construction debris and garbage. Every year, Bengaluru’s civic body, the BBMP, is expected to undertake the desilting of these drains to ensure water flows smoothly. But, only 102 km of the 183-km storm water drain has been desilted, according to a government review report.
Officials Not Held Responsible
Following the death Lakshmi, a case was registered against four officials of the BBMP. However, in June 2017, three BBMP officials were acquitted after 21 of 23 eyewitnesses in the case failed to show up for the hearing.
How Many More?
Whenever Bengaluru receives torrential rain, the threat of another victim being swept away in the storm water drain looms large. Unfenced and uncovered drains remain death traps as the water levels in the city rise.
How many Abhisheks and Geethas does Bengaluru have to lose before we realise too many lives have been lost because of negligence?
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