Flash floods: Misery imposed by men, not nature
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Himanshu Upadhyaya  

One early morning on February 6th even as bureaucrats of Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry rushed to their office, men and women from Narmada valley had arrived to knock the gates of the ministry. Since the deadline to rehabilitate them (December 31, if the dam builders wished to raise the dam height before monsoon 2006) had passed by, the oustees were visibly angry and sought an explanation why the ministry responsible for keeping an oversight on rehabilitation progress actively encouraged the false Action Taken Reports, reportedly being sent to it by Narmada Valley Development Authority and Narmada Control Authority. Within a minutes the response of State came in form of a posse of policemen surrounding them and later their delegation was allowed to meet the minister, who could offer nothing much but a broad smile and few words of concern spoken with a heavily put on accent, as if she really cared for dalits and adivasis being uprooted in the name of national progress!

That afternoon they also captured the gates of Water Resources Ministry. Late that evening, they appeared to have also believed the assurance from the secretary of Water Resources Ministry that no action taken reports had been submitted to him as yet and there was no likelihood of clearance to raise dam height being granted soon.

They returned to their villages only to recollect a month later that the dam building corporation and state governments backing it were acting surreptitiously to manage the clearance to raise the Sardar Sarovar dam’s height to 121.92 mts. Even as the news of clearance made headlines, the union water resources minister, Prof Saifuddin Soz issued a press statement calling the said decision “premature” and asking state govts to provide him “credible assurances” on rehabilitation. But, even as the minister wrote those words, Gujarat assembly had already started celebrating with Chief Minister Modi announcing the start of construction work at the dam site.

On March 17th, people from Narmada valley once again hit the streets of the capital. Today, while writing this article two months later, one recalls how these disciplined people were routinely dragged, beaten and detained by those who supposedly keep the law and order in place. For me, these past two months resembled not just the classic David vs. Goliath myth, but also the indifference with which ruling government dealt with this twenty years old non-violent resistance.

Narmada debate has entered a decisive phase and the onset of monsoon will tell which way will people go: embracing the watery graves brought in with submergence without rehabilitation – which is almost imminent and can’t be undone by the patchwork of rehabilitation oversight within a month – or resorting to the option of armed resistance.

Let’s take a recap.

About a year ago, on March 15, 2005 the Supreme Court gave an order on the petition by oustees. The order upheld the contention of the petitioners that the rehabilitation process was reduced to a game of numbers (hyperlink article http://www.indiatogether.org/2005/apr/hrt-dampafs.htm) where the number of affected families was constantly in flux. MP government had maneuvered to diminish the number of affected persons by introducing an arbitrary distinction of permanent and temporary submergence. I had called this process “forced disappearance”, whereby the best way to rehabilitate displaced persons turned out to be a three-stage process, without venturing into submergence village at any stage.

These three stages were:
To make a list,
Then take thousands of people off the list,
Show that those to be rehabilitated have been granted cash compensation cheques by post.

People, who inhabit a river valley living a dignified life, suddenly become “Project Affected Persons”, who need to sacrifice in greater common good. The supporters of the dam naturalize this process, inventing an innocent sounding term, displacement and sing praises for the promised “land for land” rehabilitation package, and stressing its availability exclusively in this project. When critics pose questions challenging the viability (economic, ecological and social) of the project, they are asked, “what are the alternatives for quenching the thirst of drought prone Saurashtra and Kachchh”. Those of us who try to attempt answering this question need to introspect: “did we ever ask in return, what are the alternatives to displacement, is mass suicide an alternative to mass murder.”

Today, we need to interrogate why after being the much-researched mass movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan finds itself in such a shrunken space, not merely pushed to the wall, but being rolled down from the hill. We also need to re-examine our position on the uncritical acceptance of State imposed discourse, by agreeing to identify the process as displacement.

Narmada Bachao Andolan has for long believed in appealing the conscience of the nation. During early nineties, their attempts to make the people of Gujarat see reason for opposition to dam met with an aggressive slogan – imitating the one that was employed by forces that demolished Babri mosque – “baandh vahi banengaa”. A peaceful march on foot (December 1990) was identified ” by the then Gujarat CM as “an aggression on peace loving Gujarat”. After numerous attacks on its office in Baroda and murderous assault on Medha Patkar in Sabarmati Ashram during 2002, no one shall be in doubt on whose aggression it is.

When reasoned arguments are submerged in the din of propaganda excessively fuelled by fanning passions and aggression, one needs to go beyond discursive practices. Rather than getting the warring counterparts listen to our reason, we need to take them head on, by declaring war, and the first step is to question the notion of displacement as well as dam.

From Kalinga Nagar in Orissa to Khuga dam in Manipur, the State is increasingly closing the doors on dialogue. From non realization of rehabilitation promises in the Narmada valley, it has become clear that the State wants to carry out it project of dispossessing people – who are nonetheless citizens but are considers as “dispensable” – by violent occupation.

May 2006


September 2006: Update from the author
What makes submergence, water logging and flash floods so different from floods? A simple pointer that while the former results from ill-advised decisions taken by individuals, who remain shielded by a system that is shrouded under the culture of secrecy, the latter has been a natural phenomenon just like rainfall or a river is.

The debate is slowly raging that this year's flash floods flowed out of negligent dam operations, and not from incessant rainfall within a matter of few days or rivers rising suddenly and flowing in spate. A look back at similar incidents and media's role in past few years indicate that how easily it debunked critical thinking and chose to flow with official viewpoint; unless it came to a hugely populated city going under waters due to flash floods in Tapti river downstream of Ukai dam.

Last year, on August 1st, The Indian Express reported in a story an exasperated sigh voiced by P K Laheri, chairman and managing director of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam, "I am helpless, tell me what to do". The words that followed Laheri's exasperated sigh tried to make a case for taking the height of Sardar Sarovar dam higher, "All this water could have been saved. Two months of storage in the dam has been lost. If the level had been five metres higher, the curve of power generation would have been optimum. We could have filled up reservoirs in scarcity-prone areas of Surendrangar and Banaskantha, or released water into more rivers like the Sabarmati. We wanted to do all this in this monsoon. It is unfortunate ... we will have to wait for the next season".

Within two days of the report appearing on the front page, the newspaper carried an editorial on the matter. Emphasizing that "Gujarat's present dilemma goes beyond the agony of the present floods", this editorial pointed out that "all that water from the unprecedented rainfall the state has experienced over the last few days will after swirling around city streets and rural hutments flow away into the sea". And from there to the question of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, with this, "the 20-year campaign by assorted activists and busybodies has not only delayed it considerably, it has led to a scaling down of its height".

So a monsoon later, how effectively and optimally have dam operators in Gujarat utilized the impounded water in reservoir over Narmada? It was widely reported in Gujarati newspapers that Narmada Main Canal was breached at several places and since July 28th it was carrying meager 580 cubic feet water per second, even as the inflow of water at Sardar Sarovar dam was 23000 cubic feet per second. As meager flow into irrigation canals along with incessant rains upstream led to sudden rise of water levels, releases into the river through the powerhouse were just 21,000 cusecs till the dam started overflowing from August 2nd onwards. Far from taking impounded waters to other rivers through irrigation canal, Gujarat couldn't utilize the waters impounded in the reservoir, taking the water level to a high 128 meters within a matter of a week spelling doom for downstream villages and Bharuch.

And whom shall we blame for breaches in main canals? Those critics who have pointed out institutional vacuum in SSP's command area?

Rewind one more year. Two years ago, on August 3rd 2004, UNI reported that Narmada main canal collapsed at two places near Bodeli, inundating villages and rendering hundreds of villagers homeless. Within a week, on August 11th, PTI Bhasha had flashed similar news, reporting of collapse of Narmada canal in Viramgam Taluka in Ahmedabad district.

Neither of the incidents of collapse of main canal was followed with incisive and analytical follow up by mainstream media. During past two years ad hoc administration of irrigation establishment didn't come under public gaze, as media actively overflowed along with official view. Those who tried to battle against silencing of untold miseries suffered by people due to water logging, submergence and flash floods downstream were belittled by them. An overflowing dam that attracted thousands to behold it in awe didn't allow any questions on what havoc did it spell on submergence affected people, or what untold misery can it spell for people living downstream?

So the pertinent question is, why did Surat got submerged, with the backlash of high tide raising the backwater level alike the rising waters in submergence zone of dams?

Just prior to the onset of this year's monsoon, water level in Ukai dam was 21.56 % of the reservoir capacity, and by July 20th it was already 51 % (i.e. half) filled, as per Central Water Commission data.

Within next ten days, water level at dam site rose and on July 30th it stood at 322.93 feet, which is around 22 feet below the Full Reservoir Level, as per an UNI news release. The same news release had quoted floods control room sources at Surat claiming that Tapti river was flowing six meters below danger mark, clearly indicating that even as the reservoir was filing up very fast, authorities had not scheduled downstream releases in a phased manner!

While four days later, on August 3rd, reservoir was filled to 77.54% of the storage capacity, the irrigation minister was heard pressing at a press briefing on August 2nd, "till August 15th waters will not be released from Ukai dam", as revealed now by IANS correspondent. Authorities waited for three more days before hitting the panic button by hastily opening the floodgates of Ukai on August 6th, the waters started steadily rising in Tapti river downstream. Next day, by the afternoon water level in 345.6 feet high Ukai dam had risen up to 341 feet and they started releasing 7 to 8 lakh cusecs waters downstream as per news agency reports. By the night, the downstream releases went up to 10 lakh cusecs. By this time large part of Surat had already submerged under water, but on August 8th as well, dam authorities continued releasing 10 lakh cusecs water, while authorities bluffed misleading certain news agencies that "now it had decided to allow water levels to go up to 344.8 feet". On August 9th, the volume of waters release form Ukai dam had come down to 7.50 lakh cusecs, however, there was no respite for Surat, as it coincided with high tide in the sea on full moon day, not allowing the waters to recede.

And while the meager amount of statistics that are available from various news agency reports and UNDP's situation reports make out a strong case pointing a finger at negligent dam operation by Ukai dam authorities, in a statement published by The Indian Express on August 13th, S R Rao, Principal Secretary, Urban Development chose to give a clean chit to Ukai authorities; "I have checked all statistics. None including you could have prevented this" (emphasis supplied).

On August 11th, the same newspaper had carried a news story titled Don't fault nature, Surat's misery man made, in which N K Singh reported, "Gujarat government has been reluctant to disclose official data related to inflow and outflow of water. Revenue Minister Kaushik Patel refused to share the details at a press meet in Gandhinagar and walked out in a huff when media persons quizzed him on the releases of water."

Himanshu Thakkar, director of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People says, "The trouble is, so long as our water bureaucracy remains non-transparent and unaccountable, disasters like the current one won't leave us soon. The least one can demand is a credible, independent enquiry on why such a situation arose. Especially when it was one that could have been substantially avoided with more optimal operation of projects."

While S R Rao can claim to have looked at all statistics and even pronounce an opinion over it, why is it that hourly data on inflow at dam site, use of water available in reservoir for power generation and irrigation, as well as outflow and downstream releases remain away from public gaze and scrutiny and even denied when demanded by press persons? The message that this man made disaster has brought home is, don't get fooled, its flash floods flowing from dams. The least UPA government could do to emerge out of credibility crisis arisen along with the proposed bill to amend RTI Act, is to make Gujarat Irrigation Department put this data in public domain. Let all statistics that has gone under the inquisitive eyes of S R Rao, be put under scanner of public scrutiny.

First published in Ghadar [http://ghadar.insaf.net]