|The killer eddy of Rey Khola|
Once crowded with paddy fields and surrounded by thick jungles, Rey Khola below Gangtok is now packed with parked vehicles and picnicking groups, the farmlands pushed away from the khola, the stream used for washing vehicles, quarrying and swimming. It was always popular with students playing truant from school, and now more people have discovered it. The sudden infrastructural development with huge parking spaces and a reasonably clean stream can be regarded as factors which attract substantial numbers of people here especially during summers.Given the regular flow of visitors of all kinds, from drivers to students to employees to the unemployed to politicians, as many as 11 small “hotels”, including bars, a retail liquor shop, paan shops, a few ration shops and even a hardware shop have come up in the area in the recent times. Among the regular visitors, a majority find the place perfect for a car wash while others come here to spend leisure hours and “chill”.
The increased footfall at this basti has however delivered more than just commercial action. Besides regular incidents of petty thefts and substance abuse, squabbles between visitors and sometimes even with the locals and police involvement in the resultant law & order situations have now become regular occurrences at Rey Khola. And while one may dismiss this as the price of being a popular haunt in the shadow of the capital, what cannot be ignored is how dangerous this place has become and of how more than just warning signs need to be deployed. The stream is no longer the safe rivulet that children could escape to when they did not feel like school, a section of the river is now a vortex which snuffs off lives more frequently than is normal for a “picnic spot”.
A particular spot in the river has taken more than 20 lives in less than 10 years. And while some may find nothing alarming about two lives on average being lost to drowning at Rey Khola, it is an alarming figure and the number is rising. On 20 June 2015, two youth, one a student and the other a driver by profession, drowned within an hour of each other at the same spot. A similar incident was reported around eight months ago when a youth from Burtuk had drowned at the same spot. The khola now is already past its annual average on casualties.
Speak to the residents there and they will inform that almost all the drowning victims are visitors from outside the locality. Most of the incidents take place during summers when the river is in spate and its currents strong. The killer spot mentioned earlier has a vicious whirlpool.
According to the residents of the area, the river traps visitors in larger numbers primarily because they are unaware of the currents and the dangerous sections of the river and also because in many cases, revelers jump into the khola in an inebriated state.
“Many people arrive here in half inebriated condition. They also bring additional quota from outside and go to the river,” says Diki who runs a bar and restaurant there. She further informs that despite several warnings that the river is too dangerous for swimming, most of the people still insist on swimming there.
One Kedar Subba joins the conversation, adding, “In the past, we had several misunderstandings with the visitors while requesting them not to go to the river in inebriated condition. I fail to understand why people do not appreciate the danger involved. Despite knowing that two people drowned here on Saturday, people are still swimming in the same spot”.
“We locals are now fed up or warning people and have decided to give up this social service,” he said.
There have been instances when people jumped in thinking that the fast flowing stream was too shallow to drown anyone. “Some of the people, especially students, risked drowning when they jumped in thinking that the water level was same as during winters. In summer months, the river swells, flows fast and is very deep,” adds Pratap who lives nearby and who along with his friends has saved several people from drowning in Rey Khola.
Although residents know the area well and have negotiated the river safely all these years, the people here are disturbed by the increasing number of deaths in their midst. Since visitors do not always heed to safety advice and because too many complications arise when locals are the first responders in the event of a death, the people here have been demanding a police outpost for several years. This would also address the growing incidents of petty crimes and the brawls that break out often in the area nowadays because of such diverse groups converging here in an unregulated environment.
“We had also submitted a prayer letter to the Chief Minister when he was here to lay the foundation stone of a project some years ago, but our requests have been in vain so far,” said 58-year-old KS Subba, further informing that they come under Ranipool Police Station.
Residents are also pointlessly inconvenienced in the absence of a police outpost because when they step up as good Samaritans and report cases unrelated to them to the police, they end up spending more time than they can afford in helping the cops do their job.
“During the first incident of last Saturday, I was in my hotel and when someone informed me that a person had drowned in the river and told me to call the Police. I had Ranipool PS number so I informed the police station immediately,” said Radhika, who also runs a Bar & Restaurant at Rey Khola.
The police came in and took the dead body. In the evening, she received a call from the thana directing her to report there immediately. “I closed the hotel and reached the thana where I was questioned for hours as if I had killed the drowning victim,” she said, adding that she was allowed to leave the thana only around 9 PM.
“After this experience, I will never volunteer to inform the police in future even if someone dies in front of me,” she stressed.
This is not a complaint limited to Radhika. Several other residents had faced similar problems in the past. Sharing his experience, an earth excavator driver Govind said, “It was dusk when I saw a body floating down in the river. Fearing that the body will get lost in the rapids below and out of a feeling of humanity, I pulled the body to the bank and informed the police.”
“The next day I was on duty in Pangthang where I received a call from the Police to reach the thana immediately,” he said adding that he was repeatedly called to thana for several weeks. “Since then, neither do I take part in any rescue job nor inform the police in such situations,” he said.
Not only do those who informed the police feel harassed, but even those who recovered bodies from the river have several complaints. Phurba, a resident, shares, “We have had several bad experiences for having recovered bodies before the arrival of the police, and then again sometimes they shout at us if we do not take out the bodies earlier.”
According to him he and his friends prefer to “disappear” from such scenes whenever anything untoward has happened in the khola.
Speaking to the locals, it becomes clear that no one wants what has become a thriving hub to be made out of bounds. They also realize that visitors who bring business with them do not take advise from unauthorized people. For instance, after the two drowning deaths on Saturday, the Ranipool Police put up a warning - ‘Swimming is strictly prohibited’ - but when this correspondent reached the spot, some boys were swimming at the same spot. A police outpost in the area will go a long way in not only keeping the area safe, but also keep visitors safe and away from the more dangerous pools. Police-public relations must be improved and better communication developed.