The state rowing championships will be held in Rabindra Sarobar from Wednesday, the first tournament in the south Kolkata lake since the drowning of two teenage rowers during a squall on May 21 last year.
Rowing was suspended in the 193-acre water body — its only venue in West Bengal — indefinitely immediately after the tragedy. The sport came back after five months with a detailed list of safety protocols in place.
The list of standard operating procedures (SoP) was prepared following several meetings between the police, Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), West Bengal Rowing Association and the three rowing clubs — Lake Club, Calcutta Rowing Club and Bengal Rowing Club.
The national sub-juniors (under-13 and under-15) is slated to be held in the Sarobar between June 1 and 4. Days before the state championship, The Telegraph visited the Sarobar to find out the safety measures in place.
Two petrol-powered rescue boats are now deployed in the waters to respond to any emergency.
“Two boats are deployed in the Sarobar throughout the day, from 6am to 6pm. The boats are there even during practice sessions,” said a member of Lake Club.
Each boat had a lifeguard and a boat operator, and emergency equipment like life buoys, rescue tubes, rope, shepherd's hook, whistles, flashlights and first-aid kit.The phone numbers of the operator and the lifeguard were written on boards set up in the rowing bays of the clubs.
On May 21, 2022, a ferocious storm had hit the city, drowning several boats in the Sarobar. Two teenage rowers who were on one such boat drowned.
The clubs contended that a petrol-powered rescue boat, which could have saved the lives, was not in use because of a ban by the KMDA, citing what the agency said was an order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
Kolkata police had come up with a set of SoPs after multiple meetings with the clubs’ representatives. But one thorn — use of petrol-powered rescue boats — had stalled the resumption of rowing. The clubs contended that battery-powered boats are not fast enough to respond to a crisis.
On September 5, the issue came up before a bench of the NGT. The bench said they had never restrained the agency from allowing petrol-powered boats in the lake. The bench also asked the KMDA to convene a meeting of the expert panel to decide on the issue. The NGT observations set the ball rolling for the resumption of rowing in the Sarobar.
On Sunday, an ambulance was also kept on stand-by outside Sarobar. “We have employed a safety officer to take care of the rowing-related safety measures,” said an official of the state rowing association.
Capsize drills have been conducted in the Sarobar by each club. “When a rowing boat overturns, the rowers are advised to hold on to the boat because it does not drown. Experienced rowers already have the knowledge of what to do. But for young rowers, we have organised capsize drills,” said a member of Bengal Rowing Club. The boats at the clubs are regularly checked for buoyancy, said members of the rowing fraternity.
A declaration from rowers and their parents, about being able to swim, is a must before getting on a rowing boat, said members of all three clubs. Swimming tests are also conducted by clubs before inducting rowers.
The deaths last year suggested the absence of a system to respond to weather alerts from the Met office. Now, the safety officer has been entrusted with checking updates from the India Meteorological Department regularly.
Lights and flags with a siren have now been set up on the banks of the Sarobar.
A red flag and light, accompanied by a siren, would mean inclement weather. No boat would be allowed to go into the waters then and boats already in the water would have to come back to the shore.
The state championships will have competitions in several age groups, starting from under-13. The event categories are single and double sculls, pairs and fours.
Apart from the three clubs, Kolkata police will take part in the championships.
“A coordination committee, comprising police, KMDA officials and club representatives have been meeting every month to review the safety measures. We have implemented all the safety protocols according to the guidelines. We are looking forward to hosting the tournament,” said Subhasish Dasgupta, president of the state rowing association.