A well-intentioned government plan, a dozen children deaths and little answers on how to prevent them. Jharkhand’s proactive measures to counter drought have ended up having unexpected and tragic consequences for its children. Over a dozen of them have drowned in farm ponds, locally called dobhas, that are being dug up as part of the state government’s mission to ward off the effects of deficit rainfall.
The deaths have occurred with the onset of monsoon that has led to the ponds filling up. The government, which has planned six lakh such dobhas by the year-end, of which around 1.75 lakh have already been dug up, says it has been making efforts to educate village residents to keep children away from the ponds. It, however, has also put the onus of ensuring safety on farmers on whose lands the dobhas come up.
The lack of safety has led to the deaths of children like seven-year-old Vinod Lohra, who drowned in a dobha at his village of Nihalu Bartoli, 52 kilometres from capital Ranchi. On June 14, Vinod Lohra, a Class I student at the village primary school, had gone to attend nature’s call at a dobha close to his school. While washing up, he slipped and fell in. “I was at home that day. Around 11 am, the school teacher came running to me saying that my son had drowned. When I rushed there, I could not see him. I then dived into the water and brought out his body. It must have been around 10-feet deep,” recalls Rajesh Lohra, Vinod’s father, a labourer in a stone quarry. Vinod’s grandmother, Bajo Devi, blames the teacher, Bindeshwar, for the crucial delay. “The dobha is barely 50-60 metres from the school.
hen Vinod slipped into it, his friend Suraj ran and told the teacher. Instead of taking the initiative, the teacher sent another boy to check. When that boy did not see anything, Bindeshwar then came running to my son. Had he at least raised an alarm on time, my child could have been saved,” says Bajo.
Officials arrived at the spot and Rajesh was told that there was no provision for any compensation. “They did not even allow us to call the police. I fished out the body and the boy was buried as per our rituals,” says Rajesh.
At the dobha where Vinod drowned, it is amply clear why they are such a hazard for children. There are no boundary walls and neither are there warning signs.
Loose mud, excavated when the pond was dug up, is irregularly stacked around the dobha and in the rains, it turns into slush. The dobhas themselves are deceiving: what appear like small pits are actually 10-feet deep structures, enough to drown a child. And there are four such dobhas in Nihalu Bartoli village.
Cases like that of Vinod have been reported from other districts too. In Latehar, for instance, three girls died in Jhilwahi village: eight-year-old Fudi Kumari drowned when she had gone to bathe in a dobha while two of her friends, Ruby (10) and Buchi (12), died trying to save her in June. In Garhwa, on July 8, three children died in a similar manner at Ramna village. In Patan Block of Palamu district, a youngster died after trying to stop his buffalo from entering a dobha.
The ponds have come about after Jharkhand woke up to an unprecedented water crisis three months ago. Over 130-odd small, rain-fed rivers and rivulets in the state had dried up and closer to the Capital, dams like Hatia and Kanke had run dry.
With irrigation programmes in various stages of implementation, the state government decided to fast-track the digging up of dobhas. Two departments — rural development and agriculture — were roped in and the scheme was primarily implemented under MNREGA.
As part of the scheme, farmers on whose land the dobhas were to come up were entitled to 90 per cent government funding; they had to spend the remaining 10 per cent. “It was not entirely new. Dobhas are dug up by farmers but this time, they are being built on a massive scale. There is also no set design and this part (ensuring security around the dobha) is something the farmer was supposed to take care of,” says Director (Land Conservation) Fanindra Nath Tripathi. He adds that, as per policy, the farmer is supposed to plant saplings around the dobha. “If you take a closer look, extra mud is stacked around these dobhas; so, nobody can just fall into them. We are still trying to make the villagers aware that children should be kept away from such structures. May be, they could put up a small board or something. But, it is for the farmers to take interest in,” he adds.
A senior officer in the Rural Development department says: “There are plans to improve the structures with proper bunding and planting of trees around them.”
Amid questions on children’s safety, some like Simon Oraon, the Padma Shri octogenarian who turned seven villages in Bero Block from barren fields to rich vegetable-yielding zone, say villagers and parents have to take responsibility. “I think people are making excuses if they are saying that dobhas kill children.
Parents should take responsibility. Yahaan to sadak par usse teen guna jyaada khatra hai; koi bolta hai ki sab gaadi band kar do (The road is three times more dangerous than dobhas, does anybody talk about stopping all vehicles)?” he questions.