Monsoon hazards
Pushpa Girimaji

Last month, a 17-year-old boy in Bangalore became a victim of the civic authorities’ callous disregard to public safety. Following a heavy downpour, the roads were inundated with water. The boy got off a bus and was slowly wading his way towards the pavement when he stepped into an open manhole which was covered with water. Apparently the gushing waters just sucked him in and he had no chance of survival. If only the municipal authorities had bothered to make a pre-monsoon check and closed open manholes that turn into death traps during the rainy season, the young man would have been alive today.

Reports of such tragic incidents come from almost every part of the country during monsoon every year. Yet civic bodies do not undertake the work of checking the pavements for open manholes, drains and pits and closing these, at least before the monsoon. Last year, during heavy rains, a 16-year-old boy drowned in an open drain in Delhi. In Ludhiana a-three-year-old boy had a narrow escape. Fortunately, he got stuck in the stairs used for cleaning the manhole and could be pulled out. But a nine-year old boy in Chandigarh was not so lucky previous year.

One can quote number of such cases. A few years ago, a Delhi doctor fell into a drain left uncovered on a busy thoroughfare. The head injury that she suffered required 10 stitches. The accident occurred when the doctor and her husband were out on an evening stroll. Apparently, the streetlight was not working and the pavement was dark. The doctor, a neurosurgeon, fell straight into the drain, lost consciousness as a result of the head injury. Two factors saved her — she was not walking alone, and her husband, also a doctor, was walking with her — and she could, therefore, get immediate medical attention. Around the same time, a 3-year-old boy drowned in an open water reservoir left uncovered in a dimly lit underground parking area in Delhi. Equally tragic was the death of a teacher in Ludhiana in 1999. As she stepped out of her car, she fell into a 49-foot deep manhole left open in the middle of the pavement. Her body was recovered after three days, 4 km from the spot.

Whenever accidents such as these happen, municipal bodies must be made to pay a heavy penalty for their negligence. Besides paying compensation, those in authority should be made to take moral responsibility, apologise publicly and resign. And for that to happen, there should be a public outcry against such disregard shown by the civic authorities to public safety. Unfortunately in our country, fighting cases such as these in regular courts is both expensive and time-consuming and most people, therefore, do not pursue them. There is no remedy under the Consumer Protection Act for services rendered free and the Supreme Court has held in several cases that the taxes paid by citizens do not constitute ‘consideration’ or fee for the services rendered by civic authorities.

Citizens therefore cannot seek compensation through the consumer court for any loss or injury caused as a result of uncovered manholes . However, in cases such as this, public pressure can force the government to pay compensation to the victims’ families.

We must force the civic authorities to constitute special roving squads, whose job is to detect and cover manholes, drains and similar open holes that could become death traps, particularly in poor light or during monsoon. The civic authorities should also give toll-free numbers on which citizens can call and inform the special squad of any uncovered manholes. Those who call should be informed within an hour’s time of the action taken. In this age of electronic communication, such work is not difficult. Similarly, citizens’ groups in every locality should become active on safety issues and pressure the local bodies to act. They must also lobby with their elected representatives for a better deal.