Monday, September 25, 2006

Sun, sea, sand, surf… and danger

Permission to reproduce this copy has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Lifeguards risk their own lives to save others but rarely get any gratitude in return

Shevlin Sebastian

Gap-toothed Arvind Kelvekar, 54, will never forget this incident. “Two men were drowning at the same time,” he says. “I held both and was trying to bring them back to shore. But it was proving to be tough.” He realised he had to leave one man, in order to save the other. Both were over fifty years of age. When Kelvekar brought one man to the shore, the members of the other family said, “Why did you save this man? The good man died.”
Kelvekar later discovered that the man who was saved was working in a bank while the man who died was unemployed. “I had to make a split-second decision,” he says. “I do feel bad that I was unable to save both of them.”

For Manohar Keshav Patel, 55, he remembers how, some years ago, four men were drowning. Both Kelvekar and he managed to save three of them. When he went to get the fourth, a 25-year-old, the man grabbed him and did not let go. “We were going up and down,” says Patel. “I begged him to leave me and he said, ‘No, I cannot, because I will drown’. I said, ‘My job is to save you but he did not believe me.’ Patel gave up hope but when the man swallowed too much water, “he let go of me and I managed to swim around and pulled him by his hair to the surface and later to the shore. I did CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] and that revived him. Later, I gave him a cup of tea.”

Kelvekar and Patel are one of six lifeguards, employed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, who have been doing the job on the Juhu beach for the past 29 years. Six others have retired and now another four-- Anil Vasan, 20, Rohit Patil, 19, Sunil Jadhav, 27, and Dinesh Mangela--have joined the team, on a five-month contract, at a monthly salary of Rs 6000.

On a breezy Wednesday afternoon, the youngsters come into the lifeguard’s room at the YMCA building, near the Shivaji statue, in a rush for the 2 pm shift. The room has a table, which is so rusted, it is amazing it is still standing. Rust is running riot on the steel almirahs and the lockers. A clothesline runs across the room and, through a small window, the sea breeze blows in constantly. However, in a marked contrast to the gloomy surroundings, are the brightly coloured yellow buoys and red tubes placed at one corner and they look in very good condition.

Vasan puts on a blue T-shirt. This is part of the kit given by the BMC: swimming trunks; a whistle; anti-fog swimming goggles; a pair of binoculars; a life jacket and two T-shirts.

These lifeguards were selected after passing swimming tests conducted by the Fire Brigade. Thereafter, they had to undergo a course on how to rescue people, administer first aid and CPR conducted by H2O Water Sports Complex at Chowpathy.

They had barely started work when, in a joint operation, these boys saved eight men who had come to swim in the morning and suddenly a hole was formed below where they were standing and they started to sink. When there is high or low tide, holes develop because the sand is swept away. Rohit Patil and the others rushed in and threw tubes and buoys. “I felt good when we saved them,” he says. “However, the people who we saved just walked away.”

This is one of the unusual experiences of the lifeguards. Time and time again, they have saved people but the gratitude has been desultory. “They rarely give us anything,” says Kelvekar. However, there was a businessman from Khar, who had been swimming with the help of a tube but it slipped away from him and he started drowning. “I saved him and after a few days, he came and gave me a shirt and trouser length,” he says. Amazingly, this was the only gift that Kelvekar has received in 29 years on the job.

On another day, I go across to see Dr Kiran Harsora, deputy executive health officer at the BMC, at his air-conditioned office in Lower Parel. “Owing to super-annuation and retirements, a few vacancies for lifeguards have come up,” he says. “So, we decide to fill up the posts.” So far, 23 men have been appointed and they have been distributed on the beaches on Dadar and Girgaun Chowpathy, Goregaon, Andheri, Malad, Gorai and Juhu. “This is a temporary appointment for five months,” says Harsora. “The BMC has yet to decide on whether it should have regular posts.” Harsora says there is a growing awareness in the BMC and the public about the need for lifeguards.

Advice by lifeguards
The most dangerous months: May, June and July, because there are strong undercurrents.
Just go in till the water is at waist-level and remain there. Don’t go further than that, especially if you don’t know swimming. People get excited and love to go deep.
Swimming in the sea is different from in a swimming pool. There are currents and whirlpools in the sea; in the pool, the water is still.
The most deaths take place on Sundays and public holidays.

The elusive lifeguard

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I land up at Girgaum Chowpathy. There are the usual couples, snuggling with each other, families taking a walk and a group of schoolboys having a blast in the sea. But where is the lifeguard? I walk up and down the beach and he is nowhere in sight. I ask a group of fishermen who were having their lunch, sitting cross-legged on the sand and they tell me to go to the nearby H2O Water Complex run by actor Sunil Shetty. But the H2O employees say the lifeguards sometimes come for a chat but they usually stand on the beach. So I go back and notice a small shack on one side. I part the sack, which acts as a curtain, and ask the man who is sleeping there whether he has any idea of the lifeguards. He works for the BMC but says he has not seen him. He asks me to ask some workers who are cleaning up the beach. One of them says he sees a lifeguard in the early mornings and has not seen anybody now. From the beach, I call up Dr R.P. Dengle, medical officer, health, ‘D’ ward and he says, “A lifeguard, Kiran Gardhe, is supposed to join at 3 pm but he does not have a mobile phone. He is wearing a white shirt and shorts, with a BMC cap.” Unfortunately, I am unable to spot him. A day later, he tells Dengle that because it was low tide, he was hanging around the bhelpuri plaza. But I had wandered around the plaza and had not seen him. Dengle says there are two other lifeguards, Manoj Balekar and Santosh Patil on the roster.

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