The death of two-year-old Sujith Wilson in an abandoned borewell in Tamil Nadu was part of a tragic pattern. According to the National Disaster Response Force, since 2009 over 40 children have fallen into borewells and, on average, 70% of conventional child rescue operations fail.
On October 25, two-year-old Sujith Wilson fell into a 600-foot deep abandoned borewell near his house in Nadukattupatti near Manapparai in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, while playing. The child was declared dead early Tuesday morning by officials after an over 80-hour mission to rescue him failed.
How are borewells regulated in India?
A borewell is a well whose depth varies between 100 feet and 1,500 feet, into which a PVC pipe of diameter between 6 inches and 12 inches is inserted to extract groundwater for irrigation purposes.
In February 2010, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to state governments on abandoned/under repair/newly constructed borewells/tubewells to prevent fatal accidents involving small children. The guidelines stipulate that in case a borewell is abandoned at any stage, it is necessary to procure a certificate from the concerned government department, and that the District Collector or Block Development Office should take ensure that such data are maintained. A borewell that is being dug or repaired must be fenced, the guidelines say.
After Sujith Wilson’s death, the Madras High Court on Tuesday asked the Tamil Nadu government if they needed a dead child to implement the guidelines. The court was hearing a petition seeking the implementation of the Supreme Court guidelines, and enforcement of The Tamil Nadu Panchayats (Regulations of Sinking of Wells and Safety Measures) Rules, 2015.
How common are borewell deaths?
According to a document released by the NDRF this year, India is the biggest user of groundwater in the world, and has over 27 million borewells meant to extract this water. Once the water dries up, the motor and the PVC pipe that is inserted along the depth of the well is removed, while the outer surface is not covered properly. Since 2009, over 40 children have fallen into borewells, with only a 30% success rate of rescue missions on average. Children are especially vulnerable, and 92% of the victims are under the age of 10.
A 2008 study sponsored by the Ministry of Water Resources and cited by the NDRF in its document ‘Standard Operating Procedure on Borewell Incident Response’ concluded that 85% of rural water needs, 50% of urban drinking and industrial needs, and 55% of irrigation needs were met through borewells. “Incidents of borewell deaths will stop only when consistent water supply where needed is ensured,” the NDRF document said.
Where in India do the most borewell accidents happen?
According to the NDRF document, the most vulnerable states in terms of the number of borewell accidents are Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Haryana, which account for 17.6% each of the total number of such accidents. Rajasthan (11.8%) and Karnataka (8.8%) are next. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh account for 5.9% each of the total number of accidents, according to the NDRF document.
Over 40% of borewell accidents are caused by children falling in, the document says.
NDRF has conducted 37 borewell rescue operations across the country, out of which 15 have been successful. One of the most recent successful rescue missions carried out by the NDRF took place in Bihar’s Munger district, where a three-year-old was rescued alive.
What methods of rescue are employed, and what are the challenges?
Factors such as the type of incident and its location; diameter and depth of the borehole; the availability of digging equipment, oxygen, doctors, ambulance, and lighting facilities; and the nature of the soil (rocky, sandy, soft, etc.) are crucial factors in determining the success of a rescue mission. In the absence of any one scientific or “reliable method”, the NDRF uses a variety of methods to undertake such operations.
Most commonly, a parallel hole is dug to the depth of the borewell in which the child is, and a horizontal hole is subsequently dug to connect the two vertical holes. However, this requires considerable resources in terms of rescue workers and heavy machinery. The operations are time-consuming, and are often delayed if, while digging the parallel hole, the diggers strike hard rock. Such exigencies affect the chances of rescuing the child alive.
Sujith Wilson was stuck at a depth of 88 feet, and rescue officials dug a parallel hole to reach him. While the parallel hole was being dug, oxygen was supplied to the child using cylinders. Ropes and robotic devices were also employed, but the efforts turned out to be futile.
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