It is indeed a tragedy that 17 lives should be lost in the recent floods in West Bengal, even as the trail of death and devastation left by the mighty Cyclone Phailin was hemmed in, in a manner that has attracted wide acclaim.
It is also ironical that an organisation like the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC), described by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as one of the temples of modern India, found itself in the dock, accused of causing a disaster it was mandated to control.
Last week, just as the country heaved a sigh of relief that there was no major loss of life due to the monster cyclone, in West Bengal, people and their habitats were getting submerged under the gushing waters from the DVC and Jharkhand.
Caught unawares amid Durga Puja festivities, the West Bengal government simultaneously launched a rescue operation, and a tirade against the DVC and Jharkhand government, even shooting off a letter to the Prime Minister labelling the disaster as man-made.
The truth lies elsewhere.
The DVC came into existence in July 1948 as a multipurpose river valley project. Among its primary mandates were flood control, irrigation, and generation, transmission and distribution of power.
It controls floods mainly through four dams constructed in 1959. Their present storage capacity is 0.73 million cubic feet. All these are in Jharkhand, which had given land for these projects although it is not the targeted beneficiary.
These dams help check the mighty Damodar river which floods large parts of south Bengal when in spate during monsoon. The DVC, whose command area lies in a crescent through south Bengal and Jharkhand, is co-owned by the State governments of West Bengal and Jharkhand, and the Government of India.
The ageing DVC dams have helped moderate major and minor floods in 1959, 1961, 1973, 1978 and 1995, although their capacity has been reduced over the years.
The Durgapur Barrage, and its irrigation and navigation canals in West Bengal’s Bankura and Burdwan districts play a major role in the State’s flood control mechanism. They were built by the DVC and handed over to the State government for operation and maintenance. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s has charged the DVC and Jharkhand government with frequent discharge of water, which was flooding vast tracts of her State, adding that this was being done without adequate notice.
Experts say that the buck should stop at the door of the successive State governments in West Bengal, including the present one, which has turned a Nelson’s eye to issues like de-silting the Durgapur Barrage — whose storage capacity is vastly reduced due to lack of maintenance. A day’s notice is given by the DVC and there is a 48-hour gap between the notice and the water actually reaching the flood-prone areas in Bengal. The same cannot be said of the Jharkhand government, which often releases water without adequate notice. The quantum of the release from the DVC and Jharkhand dams is linked with the actual amount of rainfall which does not come with much advance notice.
This year, the rainfall was particularly heavy in this region, which is unusual for this time of the year. Some flooding due to release of water is unavoidable and proactive measures, rather than reactive ones are called for. But it is the West Bengal government’s duty to protect its people from a ‘routine phenomenon.’ Playing politics and a high decibel blame-game is not the best way to do that.