Bhushi dam, a rainy season tourist attraction located between Lonavala and Khandala, has seen 28 deaths by drowning in last four years. But shockingly, this place, visited by thousands of tourists everyday, has just two ‘life guards’ – one who runs an eatery and another who owns a photo studio next to the dam. Neither the Central Railways, which has the jurisdiction on the dam, nor any other authority has ever deployed life guards at this tourist spot that has around 50,000 people visiting it every weekend from Pune and Mumbai during the monsoons.
On Sunday evening, 22-year-old Amol Anil Chavan, a resident of Ulhasnagar in Mumbai who had come to Lonavala for a picnic with friends, drowned in the dam reservoir. Thirty-year-old Raju Pawar, who owns a photo studio for tourists near the dam, later fished out his body after his friends raised alarm. Amol was the first to drown there this season.
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Pawar and his friend Sahebrao Chavan (36), who runs an eatery next to the dam, are present all day next to the dam reservoir during the four months of rainy season when the dam attracts tourists. They have together rescued at least 20 persons in the last six years and have pulled out over 30 bodies, many of them young boys and girls.
“We have grown up here and we know these waters. There are at least eight fixed spots in the reservoir where almost all the deaths take place. At some of these spots, the depth in rainy season is 50 to 60 feet. Most of the deaths occur here as people pay no heed to warning boards and dive to swim. Many cannot sustain the drag of the deep water and others drown as they fall short of breath. The police had even put up a board which listed the number of deaths every year for the last five years,” says Chavan.
Pawar says, “Two days ago, six-seven youths, who were in an inebriated condition, pulled down the board and threw it in the water. When we tried to stop them, they attempted to attack us. This has become a routine now. In spite of rules, hundreds of youths consume alcohol here and on weekends. We have been rescuing people and taking out bodies for the last 12 years without taking any money from anyone. We are ready to work as full-time guards here if the government pays us.”
During rainy season, at least 5,000 people visit the dam on a week day. On holidays and weekends, the number is anything between 50,000 to 60,000, clearly too large a number to be accommodated by the small-sized dam wall and its discharge area. Though many of the tourists restrict themselves to sitting on the steps of the dam wall, many others jump into the water on the other side to swim.
Built around 1860 for the Great Indian Peninsular Railway by the Britsh rulers, the dam was used as a source of water for steam engines. Now the dam is under Central Railways.
When the Newsline had written about the issue three years ago, railway authorities had promised action but nothing has happened since then.
When contacted on Wednesday, Narendra Patil, Chief PRO, Central Railway, said, “Due to the vast expanse of Bhushi dam, it’s difficult for us to control tourists from entering the water. According to my knowledge, other water bodies which are under state government jurisdiction too face a similar problem. We intend to meet state irrigation department officials to find an effective solution to stop the unfortunate deaths.”
Police inspector I S Patil, in-charge of the Lonavana town police station, said, “We put many of our personnel, both men and women, at the spot but the sheer number is unmanageable. We have observed that many of the tourists try to climb against the water flow at the water falls and small cascades. They skid due to slippery slopes or when there is sudden rise in the volume of the water and get injured and hurt. Since last year, we have stopped entry to the dam after 3 pm and the premises are evacuated by 5 pm.”
Local residents say these restrictions have helped in putting a check on the tourists, but want the number of tourists restricted.
In the past, the police had said that the Indian Navy, which has a training establishment INS Shivaji near Lonavala, had proposed to take over the dam and reservoir for their training activities.
Police feel that such moves would certainly restrict the number of tourists to the area and drowning deaths would be prevented.
What also adds to the woes of the police is that on weekends, as many 15,000 to 18,000 vehicles choke the streets of Lonavala, leading to huge traffic jams.
With inputs from Atikh Rashid