August 25, 2019

MAHARASHTRA FLOODS: Callous Govt Exacerbates Tragedy

Uday Narkar

WHAT the first fortnight of August this year brought to a population of over a crore of people in the three districts of Southern Maharashtra – Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara was a deadly combination of nature’s wrath and the criminally insensitive attitude of a callous state government. This area, which has to its west the Western Ghats, experienced, once again, unprecedented rains. Once again, because heavy and very heavy rains are not a novelty to this region. Also not unknown is the unprepared state of governance in the face of such natural disasters.

Very heavy rains battered these three districts continuously for ten days. Heavy rains turned into floods causing a damage of thousands of crores of rupees. This entire area is totally irrigated, as opposed to the dry lands of Marathwada, which ironically remained parched when adjacent parts of the state were inundated. Here kharif crops were getting ready to be harvested and especially lush green sugarcane fields were getting ready to supply thousands of tonnes of sugarcane for the forthcoming crushing season.

Millions of people were displaced during that nightmare (a large number are still in temporary shelters) and crops stand rotting in fields. Apart from the loss of crops worth Rs 15,000 crores, the damage to property, draught animals and dairy business will amount to about Rs 50,000 crores, some officials claim in privacy. Apart from farmers, landless agricultural labourers have lost everything and will have to brace for a life without employment for weeks to come.

1,40,000 farmers of Satara district, the least affected among the three districts, have lost 40,000 hectares of crops. Sangli, which once boasted of housing the largest farmers’ cooperative sugar mill in Asia, lost 50,000 hectares, mainly of sugarcane. Paradoxically, at the same time, about 50 per cent of the district’s 2.25 lakh hectares are reeling under a severe drought. The district’s 1.15 lakh farming families have lost their livelihood. Palus taluka of Sangli district, the hotbed of the farmers’ revolutionary movement of ‘Parallel Government’ during the 1942 anti-imperialist struggle, led by the legendary revolutionary Krantisimha (Lion of Revolution) Nana Patil, later to become the national president of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), saw 90 per cent of its very fertile land washed away by the floods of the Krishna River.

Kolhapur district, which has about two dozen sugar mills, in both cooperative and private sector, lost crops on 30 per cent of its 4 lakh hectare croplands. Almost half a million farmers, living mainly on cash crops of sugarcane, vegetables and dairy products will have to struggle to reassemble their lives devastated by these floods. More than half a million acres of standing crops remained inundated in water for half a month (thousands of acres still do) and sugarcane alone will account for a loss of about 2,000 crores to farmers, mainly small and marginal farmers, who own less than two acres on an average. This being a ryotwari area traditionally, 90 per cent of farmers are small and marginal. The most thoroughgoing devastation was wrought on the Shirol taluka of Kolhapur district, with only five of its 56 villages remaining relatively unaffected. The town of more than 25,000 population had to be entirely evacuated.

Callous Govt

True to his boss Narendra Modi, who was busy shooting for a film when our soldiers were targeted by terrorists in Pulwama, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was touring Maharashtra under the pretext of ‘Mahajanadesh Yatra’, a rathyatra to prepare for the forthcoming assembly elections. The lack of governance was reflected in the absence of any response to early warnings of very heavy rainfall and rescue operations by the government machinery. The Met Department had issued a warning of very heavy rainfall in the first week of August, which gave the administration ample time to prepare for any eventuality. Moreover, this same area had experienced heavy floods in 2005 and their memories were still fresh. By July 25, all the dams across about 24 rivers, main and their tributaries, were more than half full with 60 per cent of the monsoon still remaining. Heeding the warning and the experience of 2005, the administration should have emptied water from these dams, which it did not care to do. Water was released, for example, from the largest dam Koyna, 10 thousand cusecs a day till August 2 which jumped on the 3rd to more than a lakh cusecs per day. And Koyna was not a lone example. There were 13 more dams releasing a huge quantity of water. The government should have ensured proper coordination between water resources, urban development departments and district administrations.

After the 2005 floods, data about how much water flows, the time it takes to reach various points, the topography of those low lying areas are well documented. The information that various agencies receive regarding the volume of water arriving at various points is available. However, the officials at different levels did not bother to make proper use of the data ready at hand. This is not mere ineptitude but criminal negligence on their part which inexorably led to the loss of about 50 human lives, tens of hundreds of cattle and property of unimaginable proportions.

In spite of the irrigation officials privately expressing their fear of impending tragedy, the administration did not move an inch for days. There was no adequate manpower or machinery out to help people even when areas after areas, including the densely populated ones, were deep in waters. Rescue teams were not summoned in time. When they did finally come from outside they did not have any inkling about where to head and what is in store for them. Some of the rescue teams, mobilised by the government, returned from Lonavla near Mumbai, 300 kms away from the place of tragedy. Because by then all roads to Southern Maharashtra were closed. When the teams of the NDRF reached these parts they were not informed where they were to go.

The phones devoted to rescue operations for public contact adamantly refused to ring or respond. Thousands of people and hundreds of villages remained marooned, taking support of floating objects and treetops which fortunately managed to keep their heads above the rising water. The cattle was left to drown and were washed away wherever the water with a speed of 120 km took them. There were no boats, no helicopters, not even life jackets! Villagers themselves managed to procure private wooden, ramshackle boats; in one such risky operation 18 people with women and children drowned in a mishap.

The Government's sheer callousness is reflected in the fact that there are merely five engine run boats for five districts! After the floods of 2005 a disaster management centre was established at Sangli in 2006 for Kolhapur, Sindhudurg, Ratnagiri, Kolhapur and Satara districts. This centre is so well equipped that it has been enriched by five boats and 50 life jackets for a total population of more than one and a half crore! About 90 boats were marshalled by August 10, but it was too little too late. Those should and could have been supplied much earlier. As a matter of fact it was decided in the aftermath of the 2005 floods to supply to the areas along the banks of the rivers in the Krishna Valley state of the art rescue boats and hand them over, in ready condition, to the municipal councils and gram panchayats. It was also decided to train government employees in rescue operations. There were no sturdy boats nor were there trained personnel available at the hour of crisis. All that was given was heavy wooden leaking boats with untrained people. The engines of some of the boats lay idle without availability of fuel.

If a greater tragedy was averted it was simply due to the voluntary help and efforts of the local population. Youth in large numbers came forward in the face of surging tides and saved thousands of lives, human and animal. Teams of people across the state and even beyond collected provisions, blankets and clothes for the people who had taken shelter at common facilities like schools and community halls. Teams of youth and students galvanised to rescue people from drowning to cleaning their houses and mohallas.

CPI(M) and Mass Fronts

In the face of this grave tragedy, CPI(M)  Maharashtra state committee immediately gave a call to all its units to come forward and collect as much help as is possible in cash and kind. Similar appeals were made by the state units of the AIKS, CITU, AIAWU, AIDWA, DYFI and SFI and these appeals elicited a very positive response from their following. Party members from the flood affected districts promptly rushed to the adjoining areas and began rescue operations. DYFI state unit took the initiative in organising a rescue team and rushed to Sangli under the leadership of its state secretary Preethy Sekhar with a huge quantity of daily provisions. The Sangli distirct committee of the Party has adopted a totally devastated village for rehabilitation. Similar efforts are being made in other districts as well. Especially commendable work was done by the Maharashtra State Medical Representatives’ Association (MSMRA) affiliated to FMRAI. They collected a lot of cash and medicines and set up a number of medical camps, assisted by the doctors who are Party members and also those belonging to various mass organisations.

The RSS shouts at the top of its voice, of course amplified by the ‘Godi' Media, about its so-called selfless help in such crises. It has taken over by recourse to a series of coups numerous educational institutions. One such institution is the Deccan Education Society, established by Lokmanya BG Tilak and legendary social reformer Gopal Ganesh Agarkar. The RSS took over the famous Wellington College at Sangli run by the Deccan Education Society and established a relief centre there, actually as an extended arm of the state government. The RSS published a fake photograph of this camp in which was shown a prominent lady from the district working as a volunteer for the RSS camp. She was found to be none but the wife of Jayant Patil, president of the state NCP who is a former minister of the state! Obviously, the RSS had published a fake photograph. “I didn’t know that my wife had joined the RSS!” quipped a bemused Jayant Patil!

An Avoidable Tragedy

Observers, experts and editors of various newspapers have expressed their dissatisfaction with the state government’s ineffectual response to this grave crisis. Administration of 14 dams in the Sahyadri ranges is crucial for water supply and also for management of floods. Water is collected in these dams between June 7 and September 30 every year. Overflow from these dams provide water to the Almatti dam in Karnataka, which has the capacity of storing 124 tic water. Further these waters flow through Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, where 400 tic water is stored in the dams like the Nagarajuna Sagar.

The first ten days of August saw three times the average rainfall during the entire monsoon season. This was no doubt a very high rainfall. With the advance warning issued by the Met Department, as pointed out earlier, water should have been released in a proportionate manner before the actual rain began. There was an exact precedent to fall on in 2005. It was during July 29 and August 8 of that year that heavy rains had lashed and similarly devastated this region. This time it was much worse.

second cause is the intervention in natural water flows mainly by the profit seeking builder lobby. All the red zones, marked after earlier floods in 1953, 1983 and 2005, have been occupied by the real estate mafia and with the help of the municipal authorities they have built huge structures, apartments and even hospitals in these zones. (A number of patients from the ICUs of these hospitals had to be discharged and evacuated without due treatment!) Water logged in these areas even after the floods receded from the main course of the rivers, thus spreading it in other parts of habitations. Encroachment into river beds, aided and abetted by the corrupt government bureaucracy, has assumed menacing proportions.

Apart from these regular practices the flawed understanding of ‘development’ is taking a toll of human safety and livelihood. The third cause exacerbating the effects of the deluge is unplanned and unscientific construction of roads and bridges. Roads and bridges are elevated unnecessarily thus obstructing the natural flow of rainwater. Adjacent to bridges across rivers and rivulets roads are elevated on wall like structures thus creating a dam like edifice across long stretches of roads. Water overflowing the banks of the rivers and streams gets locked into the adjoining farmlands thus destroying hundreds of hectares of crops. Even upland habitations were inundated this time due to these unscientifically conceived and executed structures. It is the construction lobby from private firms to zilla parishads and state government departments that has benefitted from these graveyards.