Safety on Mumbai’s beaches: Is the city doing enough?

Six people have drowned this year, in the city. With 93 lifeguards spread across Mumbai’s beaches - what is to be done to make them safer?

As the monsoons intensify, Mumbais beaches are getting dangerous. Since June this year, they have claimed six lives, according to information from the Mumbai fire brigade. While three youngsters from Chembur drowned together on the Juhu beach on June 14th, yet another life was lost at Dadar’s Chowpatty. On July 3rd, a courier employee, Ashish Dusar lost his life at Juhu beach while trying to save the life of a ten-year-old boy. Over 27 people have been rescued and saved from drowning by lifeguards since the onset of monsoons in June this year. 

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) chief Iqbal Chahal has now ordered that all beaches will be accessible to the public only from 6 am to 10 am when red and orange alerts are declared. However, looking at the multiple agencies on the ground, it is unclear how this will get implemented. 

The Mumbai police have also ordered warning boards to be put up at the ten entry points of Juhu beach to warn citizens against going into deep waters to prevent drowning.

Those who drowned were on beaches with lifeguards present. On the six beaches in Mumbai, Girgaum and Dadar Chowpatty, Juhu, Versova, Aksa and Gorai, about 93 contracted lifeguards are on duty during day time from 8 am to 10 pm.

What leads to so many casualties on Mumbai’s beaches and what can be done about it?

Which authority handles the safety of lives on Mumbai’s beaches?

Currently, there are three agencies collectively in charge of beaches, namely the BMC, which maintains the beaches, the Mumbai Police, which handles law and order situation on the beaches including the safety of citizens, and the fire brigade which is duty-bound under Section 61 (k) of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act, 1888 to step in to save lives and property. 

On the ground, at the beach

However, the ground reality is quite different. The Maharashtra Fire Services, of which Mumbai’s Fire Brigade is a part, has outsourced the responsibility of appointing and managing lifeguards to a contractor – Drishti Life Saving Pvt Ltd. The agency has placed around 93 lifeguards spread across the six beaches of Mumbai, according to Mumbai’s Chief Fire Officer Hemant Parab. Apart from rushing in to save those drowning, their responsibilities also include preventing accidents by enforcing safety rules and warning visitors against venturing into deep unsafe waters. 

a lifeguard on one of Mumbai’s beaches
The task of lifeguards at Mumbais beaches is significant, and can change the course for many citizens. Pic: Hepzi Anthony

Though Mumbai has 35.5 km of beaches, the area that requires patrolling is quite short as it is focused on patches where the crowds throng in large numbers. For eg, while the Juhu beach is about 6 km long, the crowds throng mostly near the main beach (about a 0.5 km stretch) as also near its other entrances, explains Bunty Rao, co-founder of Baywatch Lifeguards Association, who has been volunteering on the beach for decades. Similarly, beaches like Madh Island do not require lifeguards as they are frequented by the locals from the villages around, he adds.

“On days when the high tide is above 4.3 metres and during weekends when heavy crowds throng the beaches, the disaster management team of the fire brigade, which is trained in flood relief operations, also steps in with their speed boats and jet ski,” says Parab. (The speed boat is kept packed in one corner of Juhu beach and rarely taken out). 

The BMC says that it has a very limited role to play on the beaches. Assistant Municipal Commissioner of K-W ward, Prithviraj Chauhan under whose jurisdiction Juhu beach falls, says that the local BMC administration is restricted to handling responsibilities like beach cleaning and maintenance of the beach. “Safety of lives is entirely the prerogative of the fire brigade,” Chauhan says. 

Cops manage multiple tasks on Mumbais beaches

The Mumbai Police, which has the authority to nab, detain and even initiate legal action against those refusing to obey the lifeguards or endangering their own lives on the beaches have a very different perspective.

“We are involved in various other activities. So, when the crowd increases tremendously on the beach on days like holidays and weekends, we also get involved in our allied responsibilities beyond the beach like handling excess traffic and the resultant parking mess that are equally demanding. We are involved in multiple responsibilities beyond the beach and do not have the staff and wherewithal to focus solely on patrolling the beaches. Saving lives on the beaches is essentially the work of the lifeguards,” says Balasaheb Tambe, the senior police inspector of the Santacruz police station, which has about 3.5 km of the 6 km Juhu beach under its jurisdiction and even has a local police chowky right on the beachfront. 

Read more: Explainer: The roles and responsibilities of police stations in Mumbai

The police personnel stationed at the Juhu beach police chowky serve only as a backup for the lifeguards posted there. “In case an unruly crowd refuses to listen to us, are drunk, a nuisance or simply endanger themselves in the waters, then we take such people to the police chowky to take further legal action,” says a lifeguard.

“Since most of the unruly visitors are minor boys, we are not able to arrest them. Also, since most of them are young lads, we prefer to let them off with minor warnings or by filing a bailable offence under Section 110 of the Bombay Police Act, 1951, which deals with creating a nuisance,” says Tambe.

So, what this practically means on the ground is that the entire responsibility of saving lives on the beaches rests entirely with young lifeguards hired on contract. These lifeguards, armed just with surfboards and spine boards, are spread out, whistling and warning those venturing into deep and dangerous waters and even trying to get people to stay safe.

Crowds at Mumbais beaches lack discipline and don’t follow safety warnings

In fact, the most common grouse cited is the lack of discipline – no one follows the instructions of the lifeguards. The lifeguards stationed at Juhu complain that most people refuse to heed their warnings and argue with them. Most visitors fail to grasp the deceptive nature of the beaches during monsoons when depressions develop along certain points making them more dangerous. Lifeguards have to literally drag unruly members to the police chowky in the absence of police patrolling on the beach.

Preventing drowning accidents at Mumbai’s beaches

Local resident and former Juhu corporator Adolf D’Souza suggests that people who venture into the water above their knees and refuse to heed to warnings of lifeguards should be charged under Section 268 or 290 of the IPC for creating a public nuisance for authorities by endangering their own lives by not heeding to safety instructions.

Former Juhu corporator Renu Hansraj says that like most international beaches or even like Goa, the lifeguards need to be provided with a watchtower to be able to monitor the crowds better. Since the watchtowers have not been approved citing coastal regulation zone (CRZ) restrictions, they could at least provide high stools to the lifeguards for better monitoring of the crowds, she suggests. 

Renu also suggests proper auditing of the performance of lifeguards in place to ensure that the system, like lifeguards staying on the beach during duty hours, is in place. She also suggests involving the local fishing community in the initiative as also notified spots for lifeguards. 

Bunty Rao suggests that local residents familiar with the beaches should be enlisted as lifeguards rather than outsiders. ”Locals could patrol the beaches beyond duty hours in case of emergencies unlike the hired lifeguards, who live far away,” he feels. 

Rao, who has helped out during 10-day long Ganeshotsav festivities that attract huge crowds at beaches, also suggests that each beach needs to be treated as a separate entity. Their unique issues need to be addressed with custom strategies. The problem of drowning on beaches cannot be wished away by simply signing contracts. 

He adds that lifeguards must be provided with binoculars, walkie-talkies, high mast searchlights on the beach, remote-controlled lifesaving buoys and even training of local beach vendors to get help quickly during emergencies.

Chauhan, the AMC of the K-W ward says that he has not received any proposal for setting up a watchtower for lifeguards at Juhu beach and would be happy to consider it if he gets one.

What needs to be done to make Mumbais beaches safer? 

Experts and activists say that merely placing lifeguards at Mumbais beaches isn’t enough. They need to be supported with infrastructures like building watchtowers at strategic locations on the beaches as well as supported with additional paraphernalia like buoys and binoculars. Lifeguards also need to be backed up with strong legal and administrative support apart from being provided with a base for them on the beach. Since defiance and flouting of set norms by the general public is a key concern here, a strong public awareness of the dangers of straying into deep beach waters, is also the need of the hour. 

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  1. IC Rao says:

    A thorough report covering all aspects of the issue.

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