By Pia Krishnankutty
The Navy operates far out at sea, the police monitor the beach, while lifeguards work in between. Bunty Rao, 32, who has been manning Juhu beach for almost two decades, says there are very few day-to-day lifeguards, who have minimal life-saving skills and are often unsupervised. With help from the Rastriya Life Saving Society (RLSS), Rao has a certificate in rescue training, first aid and CPR.
Rao is part of Baywatch Lifeguard Association (BLS), a non-profit organisation, that he started along with friend Sayeed Umar Shama in 2011. Dressed in yellow and red, the team of 15 volunteers are equipped with lifebuoys, life jackets, surfboards and jet skis, all donated by former Congress MP Gurudas Kamat.
Initially working at a kala khatta (ice balls dipped in syrup) beach stall in 1999, Rao rounded up beach stuntmen and watersports trainers over the years and trained them to be part of his team. They are all volunteers who have part-time jobs.
“I make money as a photographer on the beach for tourists and families,” he says, adding that he earns Rs 500-800 a day to sustain his family, comprising his wife and two children. A Madh Island resident, Rao comes to Juhu beach on his bike everyday and works from 8 am to 8 pm.
“Not only do we rescue people from drowning, we also help the BMC staff clean garbage from the shores,” he says. He claims to have saved over 50 people and prevented 12 suicides at Juhu beach. “I once saved an assistant bank manager. In a formal suit and blazer, the woman had swum far out into the sea to drown herself. I’m glad I rescued her,” recalls Rao.
Apart from this, the other victims are usually college students, who bunk classes for a swim. The monsoon is the most dangerous time for swimming, according to Rao, because of strong underwater ‘rip’ currents that get worse ever year. For this, the team has got remote-controlled robot buoys that can be controlled from watchtowers and help lifeguards track down victims in the dark. The team also uses rope to cordon off the beach for three to four hours a day during high tide. Workers at 80 stalls on Juhu beach inform the team whenever they see people struggling in the water.
Earlier this month, two out of five schoolboys who went for a swim at Juhu beach died. “It was raining that day and my team had warned the boys not to enter water. They had gone to Mora Gaon side of the beach, which is secluded.
After the incident, I had performed CPR on three boys, who survived. After that the BMC did nothing and children were still swimming in the sea,” he says. It is also the time of year when Ganesh Chaturthi festival takes place and hoards of people immerse idols into the sea. “During the festival, people feel confident to swim during high tide and do not pay heed to our warnings,” he says. Large lifeguard teams and makeshift watchtowers are put in place during the festival. However, Rao claims that these lifeguards accompany families to immerse idols, in the hope of getting tipped.
At Versova beach, there are several unregistered lifeguards during the festival. “Most are average swimmers with minimal life-saving skills. They even wear uniforms that has ‘BMC’ written over them, when they have not even been posted by the municipality,” he adds.
While his task may be to rescue people from the sea, Rao finds himself in the midst of situations he may not have been trained to handle. On such days, life is not exactly a beach.
Rao says he has received many complaints from women about hawkers pretending to take selfies and clicking them instead. At such times, he has often intervened by making the hawkers delete those pictures from their phones. “Pick-pockets are another problem. But we cannot supervise every crime like this,” says Rao.