Making Waters Safe

Mumbai’s coastline paints a distinct scene this time of the year,as during high tide,swells of water splash against the shore throwing out what the city irreverently dumps in it.

Written by Alison Saldanha | Published: July 17, 2012 4:12:13 am

Mumbai’s coastline paints a distinct scene this time of the year,as during high tide,swells of water splash against the shore throwing out what the city irreverently dumps in it. Partnering with this leaden sea foam,the monsoon sky weaves a dreary mood most clearly reflected among 23 lifeguards stationed along the city coast.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) Fire Brigade Department has 37 lifeguards,with two on standby,guarding Mumbai’s six public beaches.

Of these,12 are permanent while the rest continue to covet an opening into the exclusive fold.

“After six months,we will sit for the interview again and relive the process of selection and anticipation before we are stationed again,” said Nitish Sangvekar (24),a lifeguard at Versova Chowpatty,who has taken the test six times in the past three years.

Earning Rs 6,000 a month,these contractual lifeguards are the anchor of BMC’s frugal beach safety plan for the city coast that has recorded 15 deaths and 22 successful rescue efforts in the last month. Half-way into July,the sea has claimed six lives in two high-profile cases at Juhu and Gorai beaches respectively.

“We risk our lives to save people and we are not even medically covered. If we hurt ourselves or fall sick during rescue operations,we have to pay for our own medical bills,” said Naturam Suryawanshi (21),a contractual lifeguard at Aksa Beach for the last two years.

“Sometimes we even think twice about going in to save someone if they are too deep,” said another lifeguard. He further added many of the new contractual guards that have been hired this year have even received training in rescue operations yet.

The prospect of a secure government job may have attracted many of these young men into the force but uncertainty stretches the string thin. “I will apply again for the job and if it is not confirmed then I will have to look for other options,” said Manoj Patil (21).

A permanent lifeguard admitted,“It would not have been possible for me to get my job confirmed here had it not been for influence.” “These boys stick around on the promise of better pay and benefits but if an opportunity arises after they cross 30 years,then it will be too late for them. Since,the BMC do not hire contractual lifeguards once they cross 30 years,” said Rajnikanth Mashalkar (57),stationed at Aksa Beach.

According to Deputy Fire Officer P Rahangdale,the beach safety budget earmarked for 2012 is Rs 2.1 crore. “Since we took over in April 2010,we have put certain things in order but it will take us some time to process all requirements.”

In March 2011,apart from regular training at Worli,Goregaon,and Juhu,all temporary lifeguards were trained in using jet-skis at Mandwa.

However,it was only after the three drowning deaths at Juhu exactly a week ago that the department has now decided to expedite the acquisition of these water vehicles,and other upgraded equipment.

“In 2000,12 drowned here. I was the only lifeguard on duty and could save only one. The drowning incident made Aksa notorious and people stopped coming to this beach,” said Mashalkar.

Recounting his career since 1968 Mashalkar said,“The Fire Brigade has brought in more positive changes in the last two years than I have seen in 35 years. We now have nine new permanent guards,and uniforms from which people can identify us,” he said.

Manohar Shetty (48),a senior lifeguard posted at Juhu for the last 13 years said,“The beach safety plan is good but the truth is there is not much the government can do if people do not listen.”

On any given Sunday,brandishing photographs as proof,he estimates at least 25,000 people throng to the city’s most famous beach.

Along with an army of 150 volunteers from the Juhu Lifeguards’ Association,the 10 lifeguards,working in two shifts of five,patrol the 5 km beach on foot repeatedly. “We cannot have patrolling vehicles on the beach because of a High Court order,” explained Shetty.

On weekends and during high tides,the fire brigade’s flood-relief teams,comprising one officer and four firemen with an ambulance in tow,join these men along all public beaches in the city.

Still the manpower is a drop in the ocean of beach-goers. As waves slap heavily against the jagged rocks,Subodh Kadam (24),a permanent lifeguard at Dadar Chowpatty said,“On June 8 while guarding the crowds from the water,a group of 10-15 drunk men beat me up and ran away. In the attack I even lost my wallet and phone and I had filed a police complaint but no one takes us seriously.”

A rusty old iron watchtower stands tall on Aksa Beach as the only specimen in the city. To admit drowning cases to the hospital,the ambulance must travel 12 km to reach Bhagwati Hospital in Borivali. “It is the only government hospital. Earlier,I used to take them to the nearby INS Hamla by rickshaw but for the last two years they have barred entry,” said Mashalkar.

On week days,the presence of an ambulance is uncertain.

“Last year,on a weekday a woman tried to drown herself. I pulled her out of the water but couldn’t take her to the hospital as there was no one else to guard the beach. By the time the ambulance got here,she was dead,” said Sangvekar.

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