Monday, May 22, 2017

"Khooni Jheel", or pinning the blame

Gory headlines sell, and sub-editors ply their trade in response.

However, the article under this Hindustan Times headline* on May 19th came my way not because of its bloody title, but because I frequent the area in which the lake is situated.

"A lake in the Aravalli Hills near Surajkund Road, which has earned notoriety for a number of deaths over the years, claimed three more lives on Wednesday. Police said the victims were among a group of eight people who visited the lake, locally known as ‘khooni jheel’."

Near Surajkund, just south of the Delhi-Haryana border, there is a large outcrop of the Aravali hills, with red, undulating soil, grey-green keekar, and 'blue bulls', or nilgai, which are neither blue nor bulls, but a species of antelope. Till the 1970s, this area was quarried for sand and rocks. Then a Supreme Court order banned quarrying in the region, and decreed that, since it was forest land, construction would not be allowed either. 

Some of the quarries had scooped out earth down to a layer of impervious soil, and over the decades, these became substantial water bodies. At least 3 make for serious swimming. The one I frequent, right in the heart of the wilderness, is called Bhardwaj lake, named for the quarry owner who once operated it. In the monsoons, when the water level is high, it runs over 400 meters from the sandy beach at its southern end, to the red cliffs in the north. For our little group of dedicated open-water swimmers, it is our training paradise. In rain or high sun, we log our weekly kilometers there; in winter, the weak of flesh sport wetsuits; my braver companions make do with a spot of cognac after. 

We approach Bhardwaj lake from the northern end, through the broad roads of Kant Enclave, where the plot lines have disappeared to keekar scrub, as the owners and the developers await yet another court decision. Where the development ends, the patchy tarmac yields to a track of dirt and rock. 

A kilometer in, two shipping containers house a liquor vend, which retails alcohol at prices dictated by Haryana state excise rates. Less than 100 meters away, across a line that exists only on bureaucratic maps, the higher Delhi excise rates prevail. "Arbitrage", I told a young friend one day, as we watched motorcycle delivery boys leave the vend, and head for the rocky tracks that lead into the densely populated settlements of Delhi's Sangam Vihar.

On the south-eastern side, closer to Faridabad, you can approach the lakes from opposite the Manav Rachna International University, and the College of Traffic Management. Bhardwaj lake is almost 5 km away, but the CITM Lake II is a lot closer, and judging by the beer bottles, cigarette packs and metallic snack wrappers that litter its shores, many student groups find their way there. Alcohol and deep water, unfortunately, do not mix well, and the false bravado of intoxication has led to many drowning in the lake. 

“Our students used to visit the lake till a few years ago. When some of our students drowned, we had to dig the road,” said Prashant Bhalla, chancellor, Manav Rachna International University. 

Someone has, indeed, carved a deep trench into the road that approaches CITM lake; however, our 2-wheeler drivers are an intrepid breed, and traverse cycle tracks, side-walks, DDA parks and the red soil of the Aravalis with equal facility. 

Deterrence is not the answer - the lakes are a gorgeous haven from the dense living of urban India. Instead, the chancellor might think about educating his young charges -  to respect nature; to enjoy it, without polluting it. Bring your namkeens, but take the packs home; drink your beer, but don't smash the bottles on the rocks. 

And above all, don't swim if you don't know how. 

Open waters, even the still waters of an abandoned quarry, are challenging. I have twice rescued talented tri-athletes much younger and fitter than I, who panicked in the middle of the lake, the depths of the water suddenly darkening the lizard brain.

Under the influence of alcohol, the emotions are even more volatile, and motor control a great deal worse. Death by drowning is a ghastly end to what could be a joyous outing in nature, a celebration of life. 

It is not the lake that is the killer - it is the alcohol, the lack of education and responsible advocacy.

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