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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Tragedy later, villagers get borewells, promises: ‘If only they did this before’

The deaths and the outrage that followed led to the administration swinging into action. Within 72 hours, the village got two hand pumps, while work is set to begin on three others. Overnight, three other defunct hand pumps in the village were also fixed.

Written by Iram Siddique | Vidisha |
Updated: July 22, 2021 7:20:19 am
Boring machines at work in Lal Pathar village. On July 15, 11 people died when they fell into a well in the village. (Express Photo)

AS THE boring machine drilled into the earth, its rumble drowned out the sobs of the people of Lal Pathar in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district on Sunday, three days after 11 people died after falling into a well, until then the only source of water in the village.

The deaths and the outrage that followed led to the administration swinging into action. Within 72 hours, the village got two hand pumps, while work is set to begin on three others. Overnight, three other defunct hand pumps in the village were also fixed.

For the villagers, however, this rare attention from the administration has come at a great human cost.

One of the last houses in Lal Pathar, a village that straddles two panchayats — Mahagaur and Swaroop Nagar — is that of the Ahirwars. It was around 6.30 pm on July 15 that 10-year-old Ravi, along with his elder brothers Sanjay, 17, and Akshay, 14, had gone to fetch water from the well, around 100 meters away from their home.

“Our mother was unwell so we went to the well. I had just turned to keep one of our water-filled pitchers away when Ravi, who was drawing water, slipped and fell into the well. I threw a rope for him to catch but he didn’t respond and I started yelling for help,” says Sanjay, sitting on a wooden cot in their one-room home.

Hearing Sanjay’s cries, a crowd gathered around the well, with many of them standing on the concrete slab that partially covered the mouth of the well.

Around 30 minutes after Ravi had fallen into the well, Sanjay dialled the police control room and two policemen arrived at the spot. The villagers also called the CM helpline. As time passed, more villagers assembled on the top of the well. All of a sudden, the concrete slab caved in and about 30 villagers fell into the well.

What followed was an overnight rescue operation by the administration. While 11 people were brought out dead, those who survived had broken or severed limbs and other injuries.

“Had a larger team of policemen been sent when Sanjay first called, the crowd would not have assembled on the well,” says Akhilesh Parihar, who lost his son Sandeep, 18, to the tragedy.

But that wasn’t the first time the villagers’ cries for help had gone unheard.

They say the accident could have been averted had the government paid heed to their appeals made over the past six months for more hand pumps in the village, and for the concrete cover on the well to be fixed.

Parihar and Omkar Ahirwar, Ravi’s father, say they were among the villagers who signed an application urging village sarpanch Raj Kumar Dangi to fix the cement cover.

When contacted, Dangi, the sarpanch of Mahagaour panchayat, said, “I have not got any request from the villagers in the past few months to repair the well. Anyway, making water available to the villagers is the responsibility of the Public Health Engineering Department.”

Of the four public hand pumps in the village, three were defunct, while the fourth in the part of the village that falls in Swaroop Nagar panchayat.

“If we go to the hand pump in Swaroop Nagar, the villagers would ask us to wait until everyone in their localities was done filing water. So all of us mostly depended on the well,” says Akshay Malviya, a villager. A fifth hand pump is on the campus of a government school.

Some months ago, a group of women from the village went to meet BJP MLA Leena Jain, urging her to make arrangements for alternative sources of water.

Mamtabai Malviya says she was part of the group that met the MLA. “We spent our own money for the auto and went to the MLA’s office and gave her our application, urging her to get the well fixed and also start some hand pumps. She assured us that work will be done within a week but nothing happened,” she said.

When contacted, Jain said, “They did not come to meet me. Only 25-odd houses depended on the well. There was adequate water arrangement with four handpumps in the village.”

On Sunday, Jain visited Lal Pathar and distributed ration kits to families, leaving them at the doorsteps of the mourning families who refused to meet her.

While addressing the media, Jain said Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has ordered an inquiry into the incident and that all those responsible for the tragedy would be punished. She reiterated that the CM has awarded a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the families of each of the dead while the Prime Minister has announced another Rs 2 lakh.

When asked about the applications and complaints made by the villagers, Commissioner of Bhopal Range, Kavindra Kiyawat, told The Indian Express, “An inquiry has been ordered and all these aspects will be thoroughly investigated and those responsible will be punished.” He, however, insisted that not all hand pumps in the village were defunct and that villagers used the well out of habit.

In 2009, a water tank with a capacity of 2 lakh litres was sanctioned under the state government’s Nal Jal Yojna to cater to Lal Pathar, but it remained defunct for over a decade with no water connections provided.

When asked why the water tank was not fixed or why the well was not repaired, K K Songariya Chief Engineer of the PHE Department said, “The water tank was set up in 2009 by the PHE Department and then handed over to the panchayat for running.”

The Jal Jeevan Mission that was rolled out in MP in June 2020 was not started in Lal Pathar either. However, following the tragedy, the district administration has now conceptualised a plan to provide tap water connection under JJM to 1,800 households of Mahagaur panchayat at a cost of Rs 1.16 crore.

“The work will be taken up on priority and through three different schemes, tap water connection will be provided to each household,” said Songariya.

For 70-year-old Sobaan Valmiki, who lost his son Sunil Valmiki and 18-year-old grandson Subham to the tragedy, the schemes, the promises and the compensation mean little. “The government is now spending Rs 55 lakh to compensate families of the 11 who died. Agar uske bajae ek lakh kharch karke kuwa banwa dete toh hamare bacche aaj zinda hote (Instead, if they had spent Rs 3 lakh and repaired the well, our children would have been alive),” says Valmiki.

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