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A Man-Made Tragedy
Editorial in Free Press, Indore. Dated 23 Sept 1999

Natural calamities like flash floods and earthquakes cannot be avoided. They strike anywhere, anytime, taking a heavy toll of human lives and leave a trial of damage and destruction of houses, property and standing crops. They also disrupt rail and road traffic, communication and electrical network. The Narmada which is in full fury for the last one week has submerged more than 200 villages in the three districts of Hoshangabad, Vidisha and Sagar. While thousands of people have been badly affected, more than 10,000 people from Hoshangabad, Raisen, Vidisha and Narsinghpur have been evacuated to safer places. As road links have been cut off due to surging waters thousands of people have been stranded in villages who look to the heavens for air-dropped food packets for survival.

Though incessant rains continue to lash the districts, the water level in the Narmada is 15 feet above danger mark due to the release of surplus water from the nearby Bargi, Tawa and Barna dams, making it a man-made tragedy. How could a responsible government and the authorities concerned let loose swirling waters from the dams on the human population down-stream before evacuating them to safer places. Sadly, there was not a Noah with his Ark who could carry the entire villagers with their pet animals and other living creatures to safety till the waters calmed down. The Chief Minister is busy electioneering in nearby Rajpur and Bastar, and though the Narmada has been in spate for several days, he did not have the time and heart to rush to the people in distress. We do not want to call it Nero's fiddling when Rome was burning, but would have liked the Chief Minister himself to personally monitor the grim situation.

Already there is a raging controversy and a vibrant movement against the construction of dams on Narmada especially at Maheshwar. The current floods and the misery the people are undergoing will give more credence to their agitation and pave the way for intensifying the Narmada Bachao Movement. It has been their argument that instead of doing good to the people and solving the problems of the farmers, the dams will uproot the villagers and endanger their lives. It is a criminal negligence on the part of the government that it did not take any precaution that the surplus water released from the dams do not cause flash floods as in the present case. The authorities are insensitive to the plight and suffering of a vast population which could have been easily avoided had they taken precautionary measures and given some value to human lives. Floods and droughts are annual features and no government can remain a helpless spectator when a calamity strikes. The government cannot be ignorant about the dangers when the sluice gates are opened and water flows like a deluge wiping out villages. The Chief Minister, even without assessing the damage and human suffering, has asked for Rs. 75 crores from the Centre for relief and rehabilitation work. If a government with foresight had spent at least 10% of this amount, this tragedy could have been avoided. Even if the Centre gives Rs. 75 crores, who knows how much money will go to the needy. Once the water recedes, everything will be forgotten and the poor people will be left to the vagaries of nature till another tragedy strikes.

It is not only surprising, but also shocking that Madhya Pradesh, the biggest State in the Indian Union, which takes almost 28 to 30 hours to travel from one end to the other, doesn't have even a Regional Meterological Centre to forecast the weather. The State depends on the nearest RMC at Nagpur in Maharashtra which has two other such centres in Mumbai and Pune. The farmers are at the mercy of the unpredictable nature God and it is the responsibility of the authorities to provide them with necessary information and warn the people of the impending adverse weather conditions. If the government had advance information about the heavy rains in Hoshangabad and nearby districts, the people in the low-lying areas could have been evacuated on time and the misery minimised.

Now since the tragedy has struck and taken everbody unawares, let's join the authorities in the endeavour to help relieve the pain and agony. It should be a lesson for the authorities that Nature can be ruthless if it ignores the basic minimum precautions to avoid such eventualities.