In 2017, 17-year-old Sana Jabeen, the daughter of Muhammad Jafar left her home to meet her friend. She told her mother she would return by evening. As the clock kept ticking and there was no sign of Sana or her friend, her parents slipped in a state of panic.
At 7:15, the phone rang. Sana who had gone swimming with her cousin had accidentally drowned in the Krishna River near lower Jurala dam, Jafar’s cousin informed him.
Sana is only one name among a rising number of children in the Jogulamba, Gadwal and Wanaparthy districts of Telangana, who lose their lives, drowning in major and minor water bodies in an attempt to beat the heat.
But one IPS officer’s resolve is helping curb the number of deaths in these districts.
Telangana Superintendent of Police, Rema Rajeshwari, has been going out of her way to put together a team of Village Police officers who are trained to visit water bodies particularly in rural areas to create awareness about the safety precautions to be taken to prevent drowning deaths among kids.
In an exclusive interview with the The Better India, IPS Rema Rajeshwari who heads Jogulamba Gadwal district and holds full additional charge of Wanaparthy district speaks about the initiative.
“I have been doing this quietly for about seven years now. It is only now that the initiative is getting noticed. There are two things we do every summer, creating awareness about drowning deaths and sensitising young adults and adolescent girls from running away as soon as the educational institutions are closed for vacation. In the departmental lingo its called as the ‘eloping’ season as many tend to run away, leading to a rising number of missing cases, underage pregnancy, POCSO Act cases etc.”
Until there is a major law and order issue, usually there isn’t much scope for the department personnel to visit each of these individual villages. In these cases, the concept of Village Police officers (VPOs) is very effective. They visit each village they are designated to and interact with the locals to understand the major safety issues they are facing.
The SP conducts a one-day training for the village police officers, who are essentially constables and head constables. As part of the campaign they visit every village to make a meticulous note of the number of water bodies. While Gadwal has over 200 major and minor water bodies, Wanaparthy has another 270.
The officers not only set up cautionary boards in the local language at these locations but also interact with the children who play there to check if they really know how to swim.
They also interact with elderly persons living in the vicinity of these water bodies, requesting them to lookout for these children.
“Many of these children don’t stay in the local villages. They study in residential educational institutions in cities (due to the lack of opportunities in villages) like Hyderabad, Kurnool, Vijayawada etc. and come to the village for summer vacations to spend time with their family or grandparents. Since they don’t have many avenues of entertainment, a swim in the nearest water body always seems like a great idea. At most times, the cause of the death is also the fact that many of them don’t know how to swim properly,” says Rema.
The VPOs also attend the gram sabha meetings, and interact with the village sarpanch and the village elders to speak to the children since they are considered figures of authority. Each village is also encouraged to keep one person, preferably an exceptional swimmer, in charge at the water bodies.
The mere reason being, by the time a drowning case is reported and a rescue team is sent from the department, there shouldn’t be a delay that could cost a life.
“A few weeks ago, I had a meeting where I was instructing my team about the awareness drive and the very next day we had a death. My sub-inspector alongside the rescue team was just about to reach the village but by the time the boy had drowned to death. He was a young boy from Hyderabad and had come to stay with his grandmother for his summer vacations. It was heartbreaking. The incident triggered us to cover every village in the two districts,” adds Rajeshwari.
Currently, over 224 constables are executing the awareness drive in 224 villages, and 170 constables are doing it in Gadwal’s 199 villages.
So, the idea is not only to do everything in their power to alert and rescue children, but also prepare the locals to join forces and avoid drowning deaths.
Rema also shares the shocking details that the department’s data on drowning deaths revealed.
“Despite the village facing the issue of children drowning to death for many years, the collated data in the last week reveals that many cases go unreported. One of the prime reasons being the post mortem that follows. Many of these bereaved families’ that do not favour the body being cut up for the post mortem process due to cultural beliefs. And so, the families don’t report these deaths to the police.”
This is also one of the most important reasons driving this preventive action.
Apart from curbing drowning deaths, the summers in rural Telangana are also infamous as the ‘eloping season.’
As educational institutions shut shop during summers, there are several cases of missing girls in the villages, but only a fraction of them are reported.
“Many of them fall in love with boys and men on social media through Facebook and WhatsApp and elope with them. Many of these men are either auto drivers, married men or small time labourers. While in usual cases, the parents join efforts to trace their daughters, many forget about them, since in maximum cases these couples are interfaith and intercaste. They leave their villages and hometowns to never return and struggle in big cities doing menial jobs.”
The VPOs speak to the parents to counsel their daughters, keep a lookout. In many cases, the parents are unaware that their ward has a secret mobile phone, which is gifted by the partner. And when they elope, it becomes extremely difficult to trace them. The time and resources required to follow up each of these cases are huge which is draining, since the department continues to grapple with staff shortage, adds Rajeshwari.
“We are striving to prepare the communities to deal with any such incidents, whether it is drowning deaths or missing girls, before they even take place. It makes the community stronger, aware and well-knit. Also at the same time, helps us manage law and order efficiently. It’s part of our collaborative policing to act as a force multiplier,” she says.
We salute IPS Rema Rajeshwari and her team for their commitment towards their community. We hope this inspires other officers to find innovative ways of policing.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)