Responsible Tourism
Currently ranked 3rd in Asia among para shooters, Pooja had been unable to scuba dive before because groups refused to take on persons with physical disabilities.

Para athlete Pooja Agarwal, who’s currently ranked 12th in the world and 3rd in Asia amongst para shooters, said she attempted to go scuba diving many times before she completed her first successful dive in Kerala on November28, but until then “no group agreed to do it with persons with physical disabilities.”

A trilateral amputee who lost both her legs and her arm in a train accident in 2012, 32-year-old Pooja Agarwal began shooting professionally and engaging in other sports, such as white water rafting, a few years later. But until she arrived in Kerala for the National Shooting Championship Competition in the capital Thiruvananthapuram in November, her dream of going scuba diving had remained unfulfilled.

Speaking to TNM, Pooja said, “I completed the dive on 28 November in Kovalam. I just loved it. I wanted to do it for long, but no group agreed to do it with persons with physical disabilities. That was a hindrance to my scuba diving. But Bond Safari agreed to do it, considering my disability and limitations, and they helped and supported me a lot.”

Bond Safari is a scuba diving group based out of Kovalam, which had earlier facilitated the dive of another para athlete, Neeraj George.

Jackson Peter, Managing Partner of Bond Safari, said, “Pooja came to know about Neeraj’s dive and she wanted to try it as well. She has tried pool diving in the past, but when she came to Kerala she knew we could help her do it and came to us.”

Pooja says that her 25-minute long dive was smooth and the experience of diving simply indescribable. “First they gave me the basic training, about what to expect and the diving signs, and the other training they give everyone before a dive. After getting dressed up in the diving dress, I was unable to wear my prosthetic, the artificial leg. The Bond Safari staff made me sit on a chair, two or three people lifted the chair and gradually took me into the water. Once I was comfortable, they tried a demo, to see if I could breathe through my mouth with the device. Initially I was not comfortable, but once I got used to it, they reminded me once again of the diving signs and then took me into the water.”

“When you’re underwater,” she told us dreamily, “you can’t breathe from your nose, you have to breathe from your mouth. It was like you can count every breath, you experience every breath you take. And the view was amazing. The Kovalam beach water was not so clean, but still the view was amazing. You can feel it, but you can’t express the feeling in words.”

Jackson added, “We took extra measures, we dedicated our instructors and staff exclusively to her to give her maximum comfort. This is how we want to give adventure and diving experiences to each and every one. The pride and satisfaction on Pooja’s face after the dive was one of the most rewarding experiences that we have ever felt. We were inspired by the Responsible Tourism initiative of Kerala Tourism, which aims to bring barrier-free tourism experiences for people with disabilities.”

Rupesh, a Kerala Tourism official, told TNM that it was activities like this that the Barrier-Free initiative under the Responsible Tourism programme, launched by the Government of Kerala in 2015, wanted to promote.

“Currently, the Responsible Tourism programme is in the process of undertaking an “accessibility audit” of major tourist destinations like Alappuzha, Kovalam, Varkala and others. Based on the results of this audit, we will have a clear picture of what changes are required to be made, and we will develop the necessary infrastructure accordingly. For the first stage of the programme, Rs 9 crore has been allocated, more funds will be released in the subsequent stages. The Barrier-Free initiative aims to make all tourist destinations in Kerala completely accessible to people with disabilities by the year 2021.”