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Unsafe waters


DEAD SEA: IIT-Madras experts and oceanographers are now being roped in to demarcate danger spots on the beach

A recent spate of drowning accidents on the Puri beach in Orissa has put the spotlight on a glaring lack of trained lifeguards in this popular tourist destination.

The undulating waves, the surf, the golden sand... the Puri beach has all ingredients to attract the fun-seeking tourist and water sport lover. But of late safety concerns have spoilt the party on the beach. As many as 11 people have drowned in the Bay of Bengal in a little more than 10 weeks.

The majority of those who drowned are students or young professionals, but the administration has seemingly not done much to prevent such deaths. On November 27, 2011, the sea swept away two engineers, Sonu Gupta (from Chhattisgarh) and Hemant Choudhury (from Maharashtra), who worked with a private firm in Bhubaneswar, forcing state home secretary U N Behera to make an on-the-spot assessment. Behera advocated for demarcation of "danger" zones on the eight-km long sprawling beach by putting red flags on poles at different locations and put in place public announcement systems to caution swimmers.
In December 2011 the beach witnessed two more deaths, including that of an 18-year-old student, by drowning. The government still had not done anything tangible to make the beach safer. Following demands from different quarters, the government sometime back agreed to identify safe bathing zones, but nothing concrete has been achieved thus far.

"There should be adequate number of mobile clinics on the beach, " suggests Ramakrushna Dasmohapatra, president of Hotel Association of Puri. "First-aid treatment facility is also missing on the beach. Many tourists rescued from drowning succumb to injuries on the way to hospital, " he says.

Over the years, various voluntary organisations and hoteliers have made fervent pleas for trained life guards, but to no avail. Instead, the administration has been engaging home guards and the youth from local fishermen community (Nolia) to double up as life guards. "We have 123 home guards, especially from Nolia community, to work as life guards, " says tourism minister Prafulla Samal. But this is of little help. "How can a home guard dressed in khaki and wearing leather shoes be expected to plunge into the sea to save lives? The home guards are supposed to prevent petty crimes on the beach. The government should have dedicated and trained life guards, who should be given proper clothes and equipment, " demands Dasmohapatra. "The government should also encourage Nolias to undergo special courses in lifesaving, " he adds.

Tourist officer, Puri, Bijay Jena, says, "We are in the process of procuring good floating ropes, tubes and life jackets for people who come to the beach. " Few months ago, a voluntary organisation started providing lifesaving jackets for free to swimmers, but there were few takers. "The administration ought to have advised the voluntary organisation to give the jackets at a crowded place, rather than at an isolated location. Awareness among tourists about safety and available facilities also needs to be generated, " says Srimanta Dash, a hotelier.

Puri, for the record, has the largest beach in eastern India and beach-goers love swimming in the Bay of Bengal. "The spurt in drowning incidents, however, is worrisome. It might adversely affect tourism, " says Dash.

Compared to seven drowning deaths in 2007, at least 25 such deaths were recorded in 2011, official sources say. "It's mostly the domestic tourists, from within Odisha and outside, who meet with drowning accidents. Foreign tourists are careful and avoid entering the turbulent waters, " says an officer. Puri, which also has the hugely popular Jagannath temple, accounts for majority of the over 50 lakh Indian and 50, 000 overseas visitors who come to Odisha every year.

In the absence of any prompt effort by the administration to make the Puri beach safer, Beach Protection Council of Orissa, an NGO, filed a PIL in the Orissa high court. Acting on the PIL, the court in December last year directed the state government to take adequate measures for safety and security of tourists during sea-bathing. But the government is yet to respond. "We want appointment of 200 trained life guards, establishment of police assistance booths on the beach, lighting and formation of quick response teams, " says Jagannath Bastia, president BPCO.

Following an order from the Odisha Human Rights Commission in 2009 the state government appointed about 100 traditional fishermen as special home guards to protect lives of tourists, but some of them are handling other duties, Bastia alleged. OHRC's direction was based on the petition of a man whose son drowned in the sea on October 31, 2009.

Official sources say public announcement systems will soon be introduced, while IIT-Madras and oceanographers are being roped in to demarcate danger spots on the beach. Meanwhile, Puri police superintendent Amitendranath Sinha has also written to the government to demarcate bathing and non-bathing zones in the hope to prevent such accidents in future.

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