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Indrajit Hazra , Hindustan Times
June 30, 2012
Let's see if this joke can get your attention on a flies-dropping-dead hot Sunday. Why are so many manholes and borewells across the country left uncovered? Answer: So that if you fall into one of them, you'll still be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
If you have any fast-curdling milk of human kindness in you, you should be dashing off a letter right now to this paper, demanding that this tasteless, offensive column be yanked off the page immediately. If the aforementioned 'joke' didn't strike you as being in exceedingly poor taste, coming as it does exactly a week after a four-year-old girl's lifeless body was pulled out of a 70-feet hole some four days after she had fallen into it while she was playing outside her house, then I'd be seriously upset.

But hold your mules for a moment and consider this: you're offended by an attention-seeking line appearing in a national paper, but you were upset - maybe for even a few days after the TV cameras stopped rolling outside a house in Koh village in Haryana - when Mahi died a long-drawn, suffocating and terrifying death inside a dry borewell that a) wasn't supposed to have been there by law b) and that should have remained covered? As my friends say in angry desperation when I refuse to pay for my drinks: kamaal hain, yaar!

I'm not one of those folks who demand that everything should be stalled until all Indians are provided basic social welfare. It was good that we spent oodles to host a Commonwealth Games; having nukes is more than just arming up; and I'll be damned if the plug is pulled on the Indian space mission. We're a giant Third World caterpillar that moves its front forward even as most of its body always lingers multiple feet behind, waiting to be dragged ahead. Despite the quality of life having improved over the last 20 years for an overwhelming number of Indians, yes, we're still a Third World country. Look around and deal with it.

But covering holes in the ground? What massive fiscal boosts are needed to put a lid on open borewells? In a society that across economic classes doesn't remotely care what 'civil' or 'civic' means - a traffic signal crossing in your city or town is one venue where this is on display - it's easy to lay all the blame at the door of 'authorities' and look to the ma-baap law to proclaim what's common sense: wear helmets while on a two-wheeler; don't drive on the wrong side of the road; have unhindered fire exits in buildings (and cinemas)... cover borewells.

After a Supreme Court order in 2009, the central government issued  guidelines for the maintenance of borewells in early 2010. This essentially was to keep tabs on every borewell being dug up. Considering that about 85% of rural and 50% of urban drinking and industrial needs - not to mention 55% of irrigation needs - are met by groundwater, doing away with borewells -  rudimentary holes dug to reach underground water - isn't an option yet. Earlier this year, rural development minister Jairam Ramesh announced government plans to provide 90% of all rural households piped water by 2022 by moving the focus (and funds) from hand pumps to surface water supplies. The unwashed masses, though, will have to wash and drink water over the next 10 years.

Laws by themselves have been as helpful as a year's supply of toilet paper in a village loo. Mahi's distraught father can cry hoarse about his landlord, on whose property the borewell is situated, and the police not responding to his frantic calls when his daughter fell into it. But it was Mahi's uncle who had moved the stone slab covering the borewell to make parking space for his auto-rickshaw.

The problems that come with bits and bobs of industrialisation being glued on to what's essentially a pre-industrialist society with post-industrialisation aspirations are many. And compared to other challenges related to the economy, social welfare and justice, and communal relations, borewell policing isn't high on anybody's list. It should. The last time anyone grappled with such banal problems on a war footing without people telling him to put his energy elsewhere was probably Mohandas Gandhi, who launched a permanent sanitation campaign. Look what happened there.

The day Mahi's lifeless body was hauled out of one borewell, Rausan Ali Mondal fell into another dry well in Eksara village in West Bengal. His lifeless body came out the next day. But by then, the national horror-show of the week was already over. 'Rausan' was a boring sequel to 'Mahi'. With 'young' Rausan's age not even mentioned in the news reports, how were we expected to break into our brand of anger-sorrow in response to another disappearance down the hatch in the Third World? Couldn't the chap, I hear both you and I think, see where he was going?