Tragic death of Sujith Wilson, a technology failure

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on October 29, 2019

The TN borewell tragedy is a pointer to the skewed priorities of science research – how its advances have bypassed the poor and vulnerable

The mind-numbingly tragic death of two-year-old Sujith Wilson after he fell into an abandoned borewell and was trapped there — nearly 90 feet down — for more than three days in Tamil Nadu’s Nadukattupatti (near Trichy), highlights three important points that evidently expose the way we as a society treat the weak and vulnerable.

First, as pointed out by many in the social media and beyond, it is a failure on the part of the local authorities who wasted precious time fiddling with crude solutions, and delayed seeking professional help. Granted, such panic situations do not always elicit matured, measured responses from the civil society or the kin of the victim. But it is disappointing that the entire administrative machinery failed to rise to the challenge at hand.

Officials had earlier said that the boy was trapped at a depth of around 26 feet and slipped further after people tried to pull him up using a rope. There is no official confirmation on the depth of the well. It could be anywhere between 700-1,000 feet deep, as is the norm in parched regions. Anecdotal evidence suggests there have been several cases of small animals and rodents falling into abandoned borewells; despite the fact that local communities have raised concerns over such incidents, nothing much was done to track and level these death pits. The government must take strong initiatives to educate civil society as well as the local administration about such calamities, and help them enhance their response skills.

Not just in Tamil Nadu

Even though the Vellore District Collector on Saturday ordered the closure of all abandoned borewells, the task in all likelihood is going to be an unfinished business considering the way the State’s lands go dry and water tables plunge deeper and deeper everywhere forcing people — especially the poor — to dig deeper wells in their frantic search for water for drinking and irrigation. Tamil Nadu must keep a vigil on the spread of illegal borewells and punish the guilty. Even this seems an arduous task given the way politics and pelf play a role in the water economy of Tamil Nadu, as in every water-starved region of the country.

Sujith’s case is not an isolated one. As many as five similar accidents involving children and women were reported in Punjab and Haryana after the Supreme Court issued a comprehensive set of guidelines in February 2010 to avert such calamities. States such as Haryana, where similar events reported earlier, had issued detailed guidelines on the use of borewells. Still, such tragedies keep occurring. There must be stricter rules and controls on the use (and abuse) of borewells across the country.

Science, tech failure

This tragedy is a stark reminder that despite the impressive advancements we claim to have made in the fields of technology, communications and administrative practices, we are pathetically handicapped when it comes to the basics. Many would recall the infamous Kursk tragedy in August 2000, when the Russian nuclear-powered submarine sank, killing all 118 personnel on board. One of the major stumbling blocks before the rescue teams was the outer cover of the escape hatch which, despite all the technological might of Russia, just stayed intact; keeping all the crew shut inside.

The event, which brought mighty Russia a great deal of embarrassment, is considered an epochal one where humans’ tall claims around technological brilliance fell flat. In the case of the missing MH370, the Malaysian airline that vanished into thin air with nearly 240 people, all our planet-trotting techno-surveillance and other faculties failed in figuring out what exactly happened.

In comparison, little Sujith’s case should have been a no-brainer. Despite the advancements in nano-tech, robotics, mining tech and geological sciences, that it took our systems and sciences such a long time to understand and respond to the crisis — and fail eventually — should actually force us to introspect on the progress we have made as a society.

The issue exposes the chinks in our science research. It was gradually revealed that not many in the scientific community have a clue about the existence of tools that could come handy in such situations. This clearly shows that the vulnerable and the weak have not benefited from all the advancements we claim to make in the fields of S&T. Meanwhile, every incubating lab or every new researcher is aiming to build earth-shattering solutions that could one day fetch them gargantuan valuations in the stock markets.

Published on October 29, 2019

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