Water warriors of Doda

A group of young men fight Chenab’s fast flowing waters for rescuing persons who fell in the river. Haroon Mirani profiles these brave-hearts.
In the mountains of Doda, whoever falls into river Chenab rarely comes out alive. Hundreds have been devoured by the most powerful river of the state.
In Doda, however, people say that some have the courage to snatch life back from the river. For the youth of Pul Doda, challenging Chenab has always been a passion. These daredevils continuously fight for life with Chenab.
Nobody knows when this volunteering started in Doda. People say it was in response to accident prone hilly roads of this region. For successive generations, youth kept plunging into Chenab to save lives.
Impressed by their skill and courage, J&K government organized these young men into the civil defence team in 2005. Now, the team has 21 members.
They are the only group of extreme swimmers in the entire state. Be it a traffic accident or a suicidal jump into the river, police control room activates these divers within minutes to start a rescue operation.
“We have saved so many lives from Chenab that we have lost count,” says Tariq Hussain, a diver who heads the group of civil defence volunteers.
On February 25, a bus on its way to Jammu from Bhaderwah, skidded off the road and rolled down into Chenab near Neeru Nallah at Galgander, killing 40 and injuring 14. The toll could have been higher, but for the rescue team.
Their jurisdiction, however, is not limited to home town Pul Doda. The entire area up to Bhaderwah, Padder and beyond finds their services necessary in case of emergencies.
While saving people from drowning is the priority, the group is also entrusted with fishing bodies out of Chenab. “Chenab is a river which doesn’t even give back dead bodies, so we have to fight for that too,” says Hussain.
Members of the team come from varied backgrounds. Hussain is a police constable by profession. Many of his team mates are students. Some are self-employed. Even others are unemployed. But their motive is one – saving lives.
With civil defence team around, the rescue operations have become swifter. Recently a Maruti Van tumbled into the Chenab. The timely action of civil defence volunteers helped in saving two lives.
Team members recall the operation that began on January 04, 2007. An SRTC bus, on its way to Doda from Kishtwar, had met an accident near Prem Nagar in Doda. Though 12 persons lost their lives in the accident, the volunteers along with locals helped in saving 45 passengers.
Volunteers say that Chenab’s water flow is not the only challenge they face during rescue. Another major hurdle is near zero water temperature. Then there are under surface water currents that challenge the swimmers’ strength.
“The cold water in Chenab will numb your body within minutes and its speed will crash you with stones,” says Shakil Ahmad, a class 11th student who participates in rescue operations.
Medical records show that most of the deaths in Chenab occur due to hypothermia, a condition where body looses entire heat to outside medium.
While cold water numbs the body, under surface water currents repeatedly tend to pull the swimmers down. “At times, the surface is calm but suddenly our feet are swept by underwater currents and it needs much effort to remain afloat,” says Shakil.
The volunteers do not just save the victims of accidents, they save people who attempt suicides as well. “Every year, there are two to three cases of suicides and we usually save them too,” says Shakil. A popular joke in Pul Doda is that “people can’t even die here.”
In 2008, the district administration recognized the services of the group and awarded them certificates and a momento for their service. There is also plan of inducting some of them in the police force.  
Volunteers not only save humans, they have been showing same kindness to animals. In March this year, an injured leopard fell into the river at Dhumail. Within minutes, a civil defence volunteer, Mohammed Ishaq, jumped into the river and rescued the beast. Though the leopard was later handed over to wildlife department, it succumbed to injuries at the ill equipped veterinary.
Over the years, the volunteers have developed skills of highest resistance. They can remain in freezing water for hours. Most of these young men can hold their breath for one and a half minute. Ishaq goes a step further. He can remain under the water for around four minutes.
Till recently, the volunteers had only their skill set to depend on for rescue missions. The government is now providing them life saving kits. Government has also sanctioned two boats to this team in Pul Doda to navigate in Chenab whose water levels have surged due to Baghlihar dam.
The rising water level poses new challenges. Chenab has become one of the deepest rivers in the state but the team does not want to give up. The team wants swimming costumes and oxygen cylinders to be used in deep water diving. They also want high speed boats that could help them reach the spot faster.  

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