When safety sinks
Pushpa Girimaji

Irrespective of whether they are catering to learners or experienced swimmers, swimming pools should have basic safety measures in place. Adequate number of trained life guards, first-aid facilities, proper lighting and power back-up, arrangements for quick transportation of the victim (in case of an accident ) to a hospital. The pool should be constructed in such a way as to render it absolutely safe—there should be separation of the deep side from the shallow side. Also there should be no overcrowding of the pool and a fool-proof system should ensure that those who have gone into the pool have come out. 

Absence of any of these measures would render the pool authorities liable in case of an accident. This message comes across yet again from an order of the apex consumer court. The court has also made two points very clear in this order: that the pool authorities cannot escape liability by printing an unilateral condition that “swimmers shall swim at their own risk”. Two, whether a person is a learner or a swimmer, fully trained, adequate number of life guards have to be provided for their safety and that there can be no compromise on that. 

The main argument of the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad that ran the swimming pool was that the victim, 23-year old S. Abdul Hameed, had drowned as a consequence of a cervical spine injury (as per the post mortem report) and not on account of any negligence on the part of the civic authorities. By his own admission in the application form, Hameed was a swimmer and not a beginner. The life guards would not pay as much attention to a swimmer as a beginner, therefore the pool authorities cannot be held responsible for the tragedy. Dismissing such arguments, the apex consumer court said since even an experienced swimmer can encounter a life-threatening problem, pools have to have adequate number of life guards to take care of such emergencies. 

That Hameed’s body was not discovered till the next morning and even here, by a swimmer of the first batch that entered the pool, attracts the principle of res ipsa loquitor ( the facts speak for themselves) and there is no further need for proof of negligence, the Commission said. 

In the summer of 2000, S.Abdul Hameed, doing a postgraduate diploma in computers , joined V.Gurumurthy Memorial Swimming pool, by paying Rs 250. Twelve days hence, he met a tragic end. According to his parents, on that fateful day he left home at about 3.30pm. When he did not return, they started a search and it was only the next morning at about 11 am that they were informed of the tragedy. Alleging deficiency on the part of the swimming pool authorities, the parents said their son was learning to swim. The fact that he was found at the deep side of the pool, the next morning, showed that there weren’t enough life guards. They also contended that the boy had obviously ticked on the word swimmer and not beginner, by mistake. 

The pool authorities on the other hand showed the identity card issued by the pool, containing 13 conditions including the two that said: “beginners are prohibited from going into deep waters” and “swimmers shall swim at their own risk” and said these two conditions should protect them from such claims. On the discovery of the body only the next day, the pool authorities said due to a power failure soon after the last batch, the pool was closed without the usual check. 

Dismissing these arguments, the apex consumer court said it was immaterial whether Hameed was a beginner or an experienced swimmer. Since even swimmers can have accidents , there should have been adequate number of life guards at the pool. It is quite possible that he suffered the cervical spine injury while jumping into the pool or while swimming. Again, the pool authorities did not check whether everything was in order before closing for the day.

If there was no power at that time, they should have had a power-back up , the apex consumer court said. “The very fact that the body was not noticed for a period of 12 hours is a shocking indictment of the state of affairs at the swimming pool”, the National Commission said while dismissing the appeal of the pool authorities and upholding that of the State Commission which had awarded a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the parents. If only the civic body had bothered about safety, Azeez would be alive today