Editor's note: Described as one of the worst since 1924 by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the rains in Kerala have left over 350 dead and rendered thousands of people homeless. According to the latest tally, 80,000 have been rescued so far. Over 1,500 relief camps have been set up across the state that currently house at least 2,23,139 people. In a multi-part series, Firstpost will attempt to analyse the short-term and long-term impact of these unprecedented floods on the lives of the people, economy of the state, and the environment.
Even before the state has fully recovered from the worst flood seen since 1924, the government in Kerala is in the eye of a storm.
If the events running up to the calamity are taken into account, it raises one crucial question to which the Left government is unable to find answers: Did the government overlook the crucial standard operating procedures while letting out waters from the 33 odd dams in the state, and more importantly, could the impact of the floods have been lessened to a great extent if these procedures had been followed?
With 363 people having lost their lives, the lapses, if any are proved to be right, could be a huge blow to the Pinarayi Vijayan government in the state.
Cutting across political allegiance many have flagged the issue and the Congress led opposition was quick to pounce on the opportunity asking for a judicial probe.
“This is a man-made disaster in Kerala. This has happened only because (the) dams were opened without issuing the right warning at the right time. (The Kerala) government had no assessment of the impact beforehand. No clear evacuation plan was put in place. The state is completely responsible for this calamity,” Ramesh Chennithala, Opposition leader in the Kerala Assembly, told media persons at hurriedly called briefing on Wednesday.
What gives credibility to Chennithala’s words, instead of being seen as an attempt to scoring a political point, are the glaring lapses that have now come to surface in all three major dam-river systems that wreaked havoc on the lives of lakhs of citizens over the past week.
While the Idukki-Periyar system looks like a case of mismanagement, the Sabarigiri-Pampa system, and the Banasura Sagar-Kabani system’s opening did not warn the people sufficiently early.
From the timing of the opening of the big dams to the early warning system that needs to be placed everything seems to have gone for a toss.
Prima facie, the state machinery in Kerala stands accused of dereliction of duty in the anticipation of a terrible calamity and all the good work it is now doing for rehabilitation is in danger of being undone by this crucial mistake that happened at the onset. Let's takes a closer look at what went wrong at all the three places.
The Idukki Dam is certainly the life line of the state as far as electricity generation is concerned. But it's also a reservoir that feeds the Periyar River, the longest river which also has the largest discharge potential in the state.
Any mismanagement in controlling waters at the Idukki dam would spell disaster for four districts through which the Periyar meanders and that’s exactly what happened.
It was on 9 August that the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) which governs most of the dams in the state woke up to the fact that the water level at the Idukki reservoir had touched 2,399 against the total capacity of 2,403 feet.
While a number of people had been flagging the threat ever since the dam crossed 2,395 feet, the KSEB did not care. Rather it justified its reluctance to let out water at that time with an economic reason.
“If we let out water right now, the Board will be incurring a loss of Rs 10 lakh per month in terms of power generation. We are monitoring it closely and will do the needful when the time comes,’’ NS Pillai, the KSEB chairman had then told the media.
Unfortunately, either the monitoring was poor or the KSEB did not anticipate the kind of fast inflow the dam received in the next few days even after opening the Idamalayar dam too downstream.
By 13 August, the rains in Kerala picked up like never before. It's baffling that the KSEB did not read the forecast issued by the IMD and other agencies correctly because if it had done, then a controlled and enhanced outflow should have been put in place well in advance. So, by 13 August, the outflow was increased to 15 lakh litres per second, and by Independence day, the KSEB had no option but to open all the five shutters of the Idukki Dam. This along with the opening up of the Mullaperiyar dam and the Idamalayar Dam in full flow, the Idukki system sent so much waters into Periyar river suddenly that it sank everything that came in its way.
Clearly the KSEB was just reacting to the situation than take proactive regulatory steps.
“What was the Dam Safety Authority doing on all these days? What was the disaster management authority doing? Why couldn’t they anticipate the extent of damage well before the dams were to be opened? Isn’t this a multi-level failure?” asks NK Premachandran, Member of Parliament and former Water Resources Minister.
The Sabarigiri – Pampa and Banasura Sagar – Kabani system
If it was mismanagement in controlling the water that sent the Periyar into Kochi city, in Pathanamthitta and especially Pandanad which saw the deepest of the miseries, it was the sheer failure of an early warning system.
"We have seen the Pampa overflowing before also. It is nothing new for us. But how do you explain the Pampa sinking half of my house in Pullad which is a good six kilometers away from the river bank?" asks Sreedharan Nair, who lives in Pullad.
"On the night of 14 August that we woke up with water inside our houses. The government says they had warned the people. May be they said on television that those living on Pampa’s banks should take care. But how do you explain the river filing the first floor of my house which is miles away from the river?’’ asks Vijayan, another survivor in Chengannur.
Not only had the government machinery failed to inform the people well in advance with a door to door mechanism, they had also no idea of the extent to which the Pampa river would breach its banks after opening up the Sabarigiri reservoir. It was nothing but a total failure to anticipate a looming humanitarian crisis.
Joseph C Mathew an advisor to former chief minister VS Achuthananthan is a resident of Chengannur, another worst affected area in the district. He had been camping in the area throughout this time. Joseph says that it was a failure at multiple levels that saw the water literally sinking Pathanamthitta.
"There is an operational manual for every dam and when a dam is opened there is a standard operating procedure to be followed. But it is very clear that this has not happened. See, one can agree that you had no option but to open the dams. But why did you not inform the people well in advance that the water is coming, get to higher ground. Had it been, many lives could have been saved,’’ Mathew said.
If the news coming from the ground is to be believed the district collector of Pathanamthitta was not even informed when the Pampa and the Kakki Dams, two prominent dams in Sabarigiri project were opened. It would be nothing but criminal negligence, if proved right.
Though the Pathanamthitta district collector remains tight-lipped, his counterpart in Wayanad district has openly said that he was not informed when the Banasura Sagar dam was opened drowning nine panchayats in the district.
The embarrassment of the state was total when the Chief Secretary Tom Jose openly admitted that a mistake had been made in the case of Banasura Sagar and it needs to be looked into. After the Wayanad district collector throwing up his hands in despair, the chief secretary had little option but to admit the mistake.
This negligence could have turned Pathanamthitta into graveyard had it not been for a luck factor. Most of the houses there were two-storeyed. With water sinking the first floor of almost all houses, people remained on the second floors and some on the terraces till help came by.
Chief Minister rubbishes claims
Meanwhile the Chief Minister of Kerala has rubbished the allegations of negligence and has put the onus entirely on nature itself for the calamity.
“The Opposition leader is misleading the people of the state by making baseless comments. Flooding happened not because of the openings of dam alone. But the rain that Kerala received in these days also needs to be taken into consideration. Warnings were issued in advance before the dams were opened,’’ Pinarayi told media persons.
Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 17:01 PM