Who Has Heard of Morbi?

Dilip D’Souza used to write software; now he writes prose. He has won several awards for his writing and is the author of Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar
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It’s strange that one can completely forget a tragedy like the collapse of the Machhu Dam II in Gujarat, which led to the death of nearly 25,000 people
No on had a tongue to speak: The untold story of one of history’s deadliest floods | Utpal Sandesara and Tom Wooten | Rain Tree | 411 pages | Rs 495

The overwhelming impression, reading this wondrously researched book, is of deja vu. So much that’s in here, we’ve all read/heard/experienced before.

Governments appointing inquiry commissions that they delay, shut down and generally pay no attention to? Check; see the Srikrishna Commission that inquired into the massacres in Bombay, 1992-93.

Dam builders deaf to demands for critical studies to be done before building, then allowed to build anyway while the studies are done in parallel (‘pari-passu’), which means the studies never get done? Check; see environmental requirements, as well as resettlement and rehabilitation, for the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada.

Bluster about criticism of mistakes and wrongdoing being a slur on an entire fraternity, in this case engineers in Gujarat? Check; see any number of times we’ve heard about the ‘morale of the police’ that will ‘go down’ if we were to punish police misdeeds.

I could go on. But this is a review. Must talk about the book.

Though, actually, I am talking about the book. What No One Had a Tongue to Speak amounts to is a cautionary tale in so many ways, and yet I’m struck by how few lessons we’ve learned. The first, for me: I consider myself relatively well-informed about dams (I even wrote a book about them). So how is it that I’ve forgotten the tragedy of Morbi in Saurashtra, when the Machhu Dam-II collapsed in August 1979?

The other day, a friend suggested that this may be because we tend to forget disasters in which the victims are able to quickly rebuild their lives. Maybe so. Morbi itself has risen anew, much shinier and more sprawling than before, to the extent that the function on the anniversary of the disaster attracts smaller crowds every year. Those who were personally affected, like Utpal Sandesara’s grandparents, hold on to their memories. The next generations? The rest of us? Easier to forget and move on to, well, the next disaster.

That’s because with all that deja vu stuff, the next disaster is never far away, and perhaps that’s the ultimate lesson of this book. When you ignore requirements in the planning, for example, you are setting up your project to fail. When you pussy-foot around punishment for mistakes made, deliberate or not, you ensure future projects will fail too. And fail Machhu Dam-II did, in spectacular and catastrophic fashion. After several days of unprecedented rain that August, with the reservoir rising to unprecedented levels, the earthen embankments on either side of the central concrete section caved in. The flood that resulted thundered downstream, obliterated villages and towns, Morbi the biggest. It killed thousands of animals and, unofficial estimates say, 25,000 human beings.

Put that in perspective: 26/11 took 164 lives.

Sandesara and Wooten build up the suspense admirably, much as the water level behind the dam must have risen in the days before the calamity. We learn about the politicking, the building of the dam, the customs of townspeople, the sheets of rain and the evacuation warnings often ignored. Once the dam breaks, we get a flood of vivid characters, images and vignettes that immerse you in the experience.

Here’s a convict, freed from jail to save himself, who finds an old woman struggling against the water: ‘By the time he reached her, his limbs were stiff and numb from hours of swimming through the cold, muddy slurry. He could feel his strength fading as he took hold of the woman. An eddy ripped her from his arms. He flailed desperately in pursuit, but he could do no more. He watched helplessly as the woman drifted away.’

Here’s someone forced to overcome a lifetime of habit as the water rises around her loved ones: ‘The Valera family’s strict code of etiquette forbade women from speaking their husband’s names, but Khatijaben’s concern soon overwhelmed her restraint. “Bashir, the water is coming! Bashir, get up here!”’

And here’s what some who survived had to do for some who didn’t: ‘Reaching through the broken wall of a nearby shop, Parmar and his neighbours pulled out containers of vegetable oil. They collected soggy driftwood from the street, doused it with oil, and lit a pyre to perform the last rites for the deceased family.’

Of all things, a paan shop became the focus, the embodiment, of Morbi’s determination to get back on its feet. It opened for business five days after the disaster, using supplies donated by, yes, a competitor. There were long lines, and you start imagining each paan folded and eaten as one more brick in the rising edifice of a new Morbi.

But as with any disaster like this, plenty of less obvious follow-on disasters rolled along in its wake. To me, the great triumph of this book is that it reminds us not just of the overarching catastrophe, not just of heroism and determination, but of so much else that also struck hard at people in the area. In so doing, it tells us some truths about who we are.

Take the village of Lilapar, flattened by the flood. Even so, its residents decided they needed no outside help to rebuild. Thus the ‘handsome village’ of New Lilapar with its ‘large plots and wide boulevards’ quickly came up on ‘previously undeveloped land’. Commendable? Certainly, and even a generation later, one of its residents tells Wooten and Sandesara this story with obvious pride and a smile.

Thing is, nobody asked the poorer ‘lower’ castes their opinions about outside help. Lacking ‘their neighbours’ vast resources, [these people] were left to rebuild on their own … frustration filled their minds’. The authors comment: ‘Those who most needed help putting roofs over their heads found assistance most wanting.’ Not just that. Where these ‘lower castes’ settled was no neighbourhood of large plots and boulevards. Instead, it was a ‘smaller, haphazard settlement’ that came up outside the new village on land nobody wanted. That same smiling resident, no doubt proud of his magnanimity, also tells Sandesara and Wooten: “We let the backward people—the Harijans, the goatherds, that type of people—take the wasteland for free.”

Take Maliya, a town downstream from Morbi. Also hit by the flood, it had a hard time persuading the Gujarat administration—and, in fact, anyone at all, and in fact to this day— that it had suffered any hardship. This, because when officials visited over a month after the catastrophe, Maliya’s ‘inhabitants could not produce any corpses’. Is it reasonable to expect corpses to be preserved for weeks, to show off to sceptical officers if and when they condescend to visit? Is it pertinent to note that Maliya was a largely Muslim settlement, and was viewed with some suspicion even before the flood?

An admirable amount of research and hundreds of interviews have gone into the writing of this book. Almost ironically, one complaint I have about it relates to just that. Footnotes are everywhere, and most refer to one or the other of these interviews. Yet there’s no way to see, or read, or listen to these interviews. A few sample transcripts would have been instructive.

That apart. There’s much to appreciate about this book, from its careful reconstruction of all that happened in 1979 and later, to the dismal deja vu feeling, to its colourful vignettes (don’t miss the revenue minister’s daughter knitting in the midst of, presumably, a ravaged landscape).

But perhaps the book’s most telling line is tucked away on page 62. It is, I suspect, even involuntary.

Those who design dams have to allow for times of flood, which means they must estimate the ‘maximum’ possible flood that might hit the dam. The dam must be built to withstand such a flood. Seems obvious, of course. Thus when Machhu Dam-II was first planned, the Gujarat government made an estimate. Engineers at the Central Water and Power Commission (CWPC) in Delhi, who had to approve these plans for Gujarat, pointed out that this was a faulty underestimate based on incorrect methodology. Naturally, they asked for it to be redone. Naturally, it wasn’t. The CWPC folks were ‘displeased with the noncompliance’. So what happened? Displeased they might have been, but they were also ‘unwilling to hold back progress’. So they ‘allowed building [of the dam] to proceed’, on the condition that the builders ‘check up the figures’ as they had promised to do.

Naturally again, that promise remained unfulfilled. The dam, though, got built. Can’t hold back progress, you know.

Makes you wonder: does insisting on diligence in planning really amount to ‘holding back progress’? And if you allow a dam to be built based on faulty data—a dam that later collapses and kills thousands—is that really ‘progress’?

Please let this book make us think about those questions.