Home >Politics >News >The rising menace of open drains

New Delhi: Pedestrians in New York City may be accustomed to glancing down and seeing the “Made In India" stamps on their city’s manhole covers, but Delhiites are more worried about not seeing their drains covered at all. The last few months have seen a spate of accidents, some deadly, involving children and adults falling into open drains or abandoned illegal borewells in and around the capital.

Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Delhi does not keep specific data related to deaths involving civic infrastructure, but the ministry of home affairs records that, India-wide, the number of people killed by falling into pits and manholes has increased from 1,743 in 2010 to 1,847 in 2011—a rise of 6%. It is likely that the real number is much higher given that many such instances aren’t reported at all. The numerous anecdotes speak for themselves.

Hazardous holes

“It’s an issue of negligence," said Ashok Bhattacharjee, director of the Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning and Engineering) Centre (UTTIPEC). “There is no system of checking or monitoring of uncovered drains. The people who are constructing them should also be responsible for managing them later."

Health hazard: Experts say open drains act as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and spread diseases. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“Pavements have always been neglected," he said. “They need to be retrofitted using our guidelines. Once you start talking about street design there are so many things involved. It’s not just open drains but street lighting and women’s safety also."

The lack of adequate street lighting in many areas of Delhi seems to exacerbate the dangers of walking on the roads. On 26 June, Sardool Singh, a 72-year-old man from Rajouri Garden in west Delhi, was killed after he fell into a three-feet-deep drain near his home. According to news reports, Singh didn’t notice the open pit in the middle of the footpath as the light was fading.

And the dangers posed by open drains in Delhi are not just physical. Aidan Cronin, a specialist at UNICEF’s water, sanitation and health department, says that open drains in the city are also a serious health hazard, especially during the monsoon, when high water levels make drowning more likely and spread diseases more quickly. “Open drains are dangerous as they can act as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, but also they are a safe haven for rats and all sorts of vermin so they can be a real public health danger," Cronin said via email.

In a city that has suffered from a severe water shortage in the last few months, illegal borewells (dug without government permission by residents who often have no other access to water) are another serious hazard, judging by the number of accidents that have occurred in or near them in recent months.

And the problem is not limited to the capital. On 9 July, another four-year-old was rescued after falling into a borewell in a Maharashtra village near Aurangabad. In Bhubaneswar, in 2008, 32-year-old doctor Surya Narayan Gochhayat fell to his death down a 15-ft-deep drain onto iron construction rods.

Governance failures

In some states, efforts have been made to reduce the dangers of open drains and borewells. In 2003, responding to yet another child death, the Tamil Nadu government passed the Ground Water (Development and Management) Act, making it mandatory to get permission from the state government before sinking a borewell and for local authorities to monitor the work and to ensure that abandoned or unfinished borewells were immediately covered.

It also reduced the diameter of such wells, concluding that there was no need to dig a pit more than six inches wide to access water. That makes it difficult for anyone, even a child, to fall into a borewell.

Praveen Kumar, the Gurgaon administrator of Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), didn’t seem impressed by this fact. “In the case of Mahi, I measured that borewell myself. It was just 8 inches in diameter. The reason for her choking to death very quickly was the narrowness of the hole," he said.

In the National Capital Region, civic groups and local residential bodies have protested the alarming frequency with which accidents continue to happen. Bhawani Tripathy, president of Mission Gurgaon Development, a civic organization formed by residents of Gurgaon to promote governance and development issues, said the city government needs to be “more sensitive towards life in general".

“Human life should not be considered cheap. Gurgaon is an unsafe city, it’s often the practice to leave drains uncovered. Holes are dug up and are usually unfenced and uncovered and can be potential accidents not only for humans but for animals too," Tripathy said.

Part of the problem, according to Tripathy, is that Gurgaon is run by several different governance bodies. The HUDA, the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG) and Haryana State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (HSIIDC) all have a hand in the city’s infrastructure.

“Gurgaon is an unplanned city and many of the civic work is done in an arbitrary way and demonstrates unskilled workmanship," Tripathy said. “HUDA was in charge of everything until three years ago, but now the municipal corporation does some of the work. Sewage and water is municipal responsibility now."

Keeping the responsibility with one body would simplify matters, Tripathy said. “We want local governance to be strengthened here—HUDA is managed from Chandigarh, whereas the municipal corporation is a local body and is directly responsible to the people. A single planning and development authority would definitely help."

Kumar, the Gurgaon administrator of HUDA, denied that the multiplicity of organizations was making each inefficient. MCG has its own areas to look after and HUDA its own, he added.

At the end of June, Kumar told reporters that he would begin a drive to cover any remaining open manholes in and around Gurgaon within a week. In a subsequent interview, he said it would remain a challenge. “We have made substantial progress, but we have two problems: there is the problem of theft of these manholes, people are not stealing for the reward money but because of poverty—they can sell these manhole covers for 250 in the market. We put in place 130 new covers and many of them were stolen. It’s not possible to lock them down because of their design."

Some of HUDA’s incentives have reportedly run into difficulties. On 7 July, The Times of India reported that the district administration announced a reward of 500 to anyone who informed them about an uncovered borewell, pit or manhole. It hadn’t worked at all as people were simply removing the cover, reporting the borewell or drain, and collecting the reward.

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