Tamil Nadu Child Sujith Wilson is Yet Another Depressing Statistic in India’s Abysmal Public Safety Record

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Tamil Nadu Child Sujith Wilson is Yet Another Depressing Statistic in India’s Abysmal Public Safety Record

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

Sujith Wilson did not celebrate Diwali. The two-year-old toddler spent the festival of lights trapped in complete darkness; hurt, terrified, and alone. On Friday, just a day before Diwali, Sujith fell down an abandoned borewell in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirappalli while playing outdoors. For more than 80 hours, state and national rescue agencies tried to extract him from the well but were unsuccessful in their efforts. And today, as the rest of the country recalibrated after the end of the Diwali break, came the depressing news that Sujith had died inside that borewell. As soon as his decomposed body was retrieved, rescue operations which involved digging a parallel tunnel to reach him, were halted. Just last night, government officials had claimed that it would take them another 12 hours to rescue Wilson.The coverage of this rescue mission was the biggest news story over the weekend. Politicians were tweeting about it, channels provided regular updates live from the site, and commenters criticised rescuers for adopting a trial-and-error approach that cost precious time and – ultimately – Sujith his life. Even then, a majority of the people became aware of the situation only today. The holidays were presumably spent meeting loved ones, eating festive sweets, lighting diyas, praying to Lakshmi, and maybe bursting a few crackers; not in following Sujith’s harrowing ordeal as it unfolded. 

That’s because in India, life is cheap, and can be snuffed out at random. And on the happy occasion of Diwali, Sujith’s fate was an unwelcome reminder of that fact.

Naturally, #RIPSujith is trending on Twitter today – a trend that will die out by tomorrow, while the circumstances that led to Sujith’s death will continue to prevail. Many people are shocked at the haphazard manner in which the rescue was conducted and its subsequent failure, but the fact that a small child was playing next to a death-trap of an abandoned borewell is easily accepted as just another everyday occurrence in India. Public safety and regard for human life is a joke in this country, where systemic corruption, incompetence, and sub-par infrastructure endangers thousands, if not millions, of citizens every single day.

Even though Sujith’s case received high-profile media attention right up to its grim conclusion, the even grimmer reality is that at the end of the day, he will go down as nothing more than a statistic. Cases like Sujith’s dominate the news cycle, outrage inevitably follows, but somehow, things always seem to return to the status quo until the next tragedy. 

Naturally, #RIPSujith is trending on Twitter today – a trend that will die out by tomorrow, while the circumstances that led to Sujith’s death will continue to prevail.

It was less than a year ago that over a dozen miners were trapped by flash flooding inside the rat-hole mines that pocket the hilly regions of Meghalaya. The rescue operation involved the Navy, National Disaster Rescue Force, and local fire departments, and lasted over two months. As it unfolded, government apathy, institutional corruption, and frustrating red tape all combined to thwart the rescuers’ efforts. It became a national talking point – even the Supreme Court weighed in and ordered that rescue efforts continue despite the odds – but none of the miners made it out alive.

Lest you think that this disregard for human life only affects children in rural areas like Sujith, or impoverished daily-wage labourers in Meghalaya, remember that even in Mumbai, one of the most affluent and well-developed metropolises in the country, with the world’s richest municipal body, an abrupt, senseless death lurks just around the corner.

In March this year, a footbridge at CST railway station – one of the busiest in the city  – collapsed, killed six people and injured many others. Two years ago in 2017, a footbridge at Elphinstone Road station was the site of another greater tragedy when pouring rain prompted a stampede on the narrow bridge which killed 22. It’s not just the bustling, busy stations of Mumbai’s teeming railway network that witness lives lost. Even the city’s finest establishments, frequented by some of its most well-to-do citizens, are not safe. In December 2017, in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills, a fire broke out in two fancy, expensive lounges. Lack of proper firefighting equipment, an insufficient number of emergency fire exits, and a shocking amount of flammable material present in the décor caused a blaze that took 14 lives that day.

These are glaring lapses in public safety that should not be happening in Mumbai or anywhere else in India for that matter. At this point, we’ve seen too many tragedies for the state and its institutions to not be held more accountable. Contrast Sujith’s death with that of the Thailand rescue mission, where teenage football players and their assistant coach found themselves trapped in the fourth longest cave system, a mile and a half underground last year. They were eventually rescued by an experienced group of divers, assembled from across the globe, who undertook an 18-day mission to remove them from the flooded cave last year. Would the situation have panned out exactly the way it did if it unfolded in India? I’m not so sure.

Cases like Sujith’s dominate the news cycle, outrage inevitably follows, but somehow, things always seem to return to the status quo until the next tragedy.

It’s not even cynical to say that Sujith Wilson will definitely not be the last victim of the country’s abysmal public infrastructure and its blatant disinterest in improving safety standards. Until people start demanding better from public officials, and make public safety a matter of priority in elections, rather than Bharat Ratnas for deceased individuals or abrogating articles of the Constitution in faraway states, Sujith Wilson will just be another footnote in a dismal safety record.

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