The Sun vs the Moon

Dam authorities don't think of those living downstream

Published: Sunday 15 May 2005

68 people dead and 40 missing, and it wasn't a natural disaster. Nor an accident. A dam released water in Madhya Pradesh, just like it used to every day. Only this time, thousands of people had gathered for a dip in the river Narmada 25 km downstream of the dam. They had gathered last year also, and the dam authorities knew that. So they didn't release water then. This time there was some miscommunication.

People have been gathering at Dharaji for decades on the same day. But then they calculate time according to a lunar calendar. The dam authorities say they work by the solar calendar and they can't keep track of such festivals as their dates keep changing. So was it a celestial error brought about by the lack of coordination between the Sun and the Moon? There was no natural phenomenon at work here. Only the district authorities and the dam administrators.

The proverbial 'human error' was far greater in this case than in any train accident. For what failed here wasn't just one human being or two. It was an entire system that failed. When a dam is built across a river, its constructors undertake the responsibility to administer the river. And a river means different things to different people, more so in a country like India. There are riverine fisherfolk. There are pilgrims. There are people who cross the river because there isn't a bridge around. Not to mention people who are displaced from their homes when dams come up.

The dam authorities at Dharaji forgot that there are people that live downstream. The district authorities forgot that there is a dam upstream that releases water daily. Educated officials trained with the taxpayer's money. And their errors showed up this time, because of the death toll. Who knows how many times such incidents occur and aren't noticed because people don't die?

The Dharaji incident has left us with a disturbing question: should rivers be administered the way they are, given the levels of incompetence? The manual of rules and regulations of the dam upstream of Dharaji is still in the draft stage, more than a year after the dam's completion. What business do we have, then, talking about interlinking rivers? The vast number of calendars and festivals in India (that vary from region to region) could also get inter-linked, raising the terrible prospect of more such 'mishaps'. The inter-linkers of Indian rivers also need to, it seems, calibrate the Sun and the Moon. That'll be some linking.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.