Drowning crisis in Indian community: Awareness vital

By Indira Laisram
Hemant Govekar
Hemant Govekar

It was a beautiful Christmas Day in 2017 when Amrita Jathar met her younger brother, Hemant Govekar, in Melbourne for the first time after his graduation from the University of Queensland. During a family trip to Philip Island, tragedy struck at Cape Woolamai beach when Govekar, with no intention of swimming, disappeared from view, leaving behind a family grieving his loss.

“He hadn’t ventured deep; the water only reached up to his waist. I started calling him but suddenly the waves turned too strong, and he couldn’t hear us though he was close enough,” recalls Jathar.

Days later, some of his remains were recovered, and that’s how Govekar’s last rites were performed by his family in Melbourne—a loss they are still coming to terms with.

In the past three months alone, seven people of Indian descent have tragically lost their lives in water-related incidents. According to the National Drowning Report for 2023 in partnership with Surf Life Saving Australia, 281 people drowned in Australian waterways.

In 2022, researchers from the University of New South Wales highlighted a concerning trend: migrants from South Asia, particularly those from India, are receiving insufficient information regarding beach safety. Their study revealed that individuals from India constitute the largest demographic among migrant drowning deaths at Australian beaches.

However, shedding light on the broader implications of this issue, community leader and Senior Lecturer at Federation University, Dr Harpreet Singh Kandra says this is a challenge faced by all multicultural communities, not limited to Indians alone.

He recently organised a prayer service at the Officer Gurdwara Sikh temple for the deaths of Gurjinder, 65, and Dharmvir, 38, who tragically lost their lives at a rooftop pool on the Gold Coast while attempting to rescue Dharmvir’s two-year-old daughter, using the occasion to also raise awareness.

“Individuals arriving from countries where swimming is not prevalent face comparable challenges. This issue requires a broader approach, which extends to communities from Bangladesh, Africa, Nepal, etc. In these regions, water scarcity is widespread, and swimming is not actively encouraged. Again, the poor quality of water prevents people from simply jumping into a river for swimming. These are some of the backgrounds we need to know,” says Kandra.

Amrita Jathar with her brother during his first and final visit to Melbourne
Amrita Jathar with her brother during his first and final visit to Melbourne

Still, for swimming teacher and second-generation Indian, Rajas Satija, there is no denying the fact that the drowning incidents, particularly within the Indian community, stem from a broader cultural crisis.

“By cultural crisis, I refer to the uncomfortable truth that many Indian community leaders hesitate to acknowledge: the high drowning rates stem not from a lack of emphasis on teaching swimming to children but from a broader cultural reluctance to prioritise an active lifestyle,” he says.

Satija supports this argument with a 2020 study conducted in Canada, which revealed alarmingly low rates of physical activity among South Asians in Western contexts. “Unlike their counterparts in their countries of origin, where physical activity may be more ingrained in daily life, South Asians in Western countries often adopt sedentary lifestyles due to various factors, including work demands, urbanisation, and cultural shifts.”

He notes how this cultural challenge was apparent during his time at Melbourne High, where all students had to pass a mandatory swim test. Many of his peers, born and raised as second-generation Australians of Indian heritage, struggled to meet the requirements despite receiving swimming lessons in their youth.

“This experience highlighted a broader issue within the Indian-Australian community, where despite being raised in Australia, a significant number of second-generation individuals still lacked adequate swimming skills,” says Satija.

Harpreet S Kandra
Harpreet S Kandra

As incidents continue to rise, people like Jathar, Kandra and Satija are making a concerted effort to raise awareness and address the challenges.

Jathar established the Hemant Govekar Foundation in honour of her brother in June 2018, with the primary goal of increasing water safety awareness and enhancing water survival skills, especially among students and newcomers to Australia.

Since then, the foundation has also taken several initiatives such as sponsoring swimming lessons, promoting water safety and CPR training, and offering paid volunteering services to international students. “Also, we maintain contact with life-saving organisations, which also support us in this cause.”

She adds, “With the number of incidents growing, that itself talks about how important this topic is. Tourists and immigrants are not aware. The beach here are completely different to what they are in other countries, I would say. It is important to be aware and ready to help save somebody.”

Furthermore, Kandra points out another significant issue related to migration. “We need to create a supportive environment for women to learn swimming, which is currently lacking. Trainers should also have cultural awareness, especially for those with a fear of water. Tailored programs for older migrants may be necessary. With winter approaching, now is an opportune time to start learning, ensuring safer summers ahead.”

In addition, he stresses on the importance of paying attention to signage. “Most of us do not pay attention to signage, but aside from water safety, Australia boasts many beaches and natural environments. To fully enjoy Australia, knowing how to swim is essential.”

Satija is currently liaising with surf lifesaving clubs and Indian community leaders to bring water safety awareness through workshops run in cultural spaces. “These will act as a funnel to eventually bring down more Indian families into surf lifesaving organisations, thus fostering a culture of competency in the water, within the Indian community.”

Rajas Satija
Rajas Satija

Among other suggestions, he also proposes implementing compulsory basic swimming survival courses for Indian community leaders and conducting water safety workshops in South Asian places of worship.

Satija reflects on a central concern. “At the core of our discussion lies a fundamental question: what is the most effective approach to tackle the drowning crisis within the Indian community?

“We cannot afford to overlook the importance of promoting active living as a means to combat not only drowning incidents but also the broader health issues prevalent within our community. By fostering a culture of physical activity and emphasising the benefits of swimming proficiency, we not only enhance water safety but also improve overall well-being.”

It has been almost six years since the death of her only brother Jathar. Many reflections have passed, and she says people have found that awareness is lacking. “Even local residents don’t know about rip currents, so we try to provide basic information through our flyers and media pages.”

A concerted effort—that’s the need of the hour to save more lives from the water.

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