Turning rivers into killers

The recent tragedy in Manali caused by flash floods in river Beas raises serious questions on the management of dams and barrages in the country.

 
By Manoj Misra
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The recent tragedy in Manali caused by flash floods in river Beas raises serious  questions on the management of dams and barrages in the country

Sweeping away on June 8, 2014 evening, of twenty four engineering students from Hyderabad by flash flood in river Beas is a tragedy beyond words. The fact that the tragedy is entirely manmade sounds sickening and unpardonable.

The young boys and girls on a college excursion to Manali in Himachal Pradesh (HP) had gone by the river side to click pictures and have some fun, lured by an attractive boulder that lay inside the low flowing river, little knowing that the low flow was manmade and soon very high flow (again manmade) would come hurtling down, without any warning, on them bringing death to many and shock and misery to the survivors and the rest.
 
This happened near village Dawara Thalaut, some 40 km from Mandi town and downstream of a 123 MW run of the river (RoR) hydro-electric project (HEP) at Larji, run by the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board (HPSEB). It is one of the seven HEPs already functional in HP within the river Beas basin. Hydel engineers claim RoRs to be safe, environmentally sound and hence desirable.
 
The fact is that in India the planning of an HEP and its management rarely if ever takes into account its adverse impact/s on the downstream. How shall the downstream river dependent people and the riverine biodiversity cope with nil or low flows (and suddenly very high flows) is no one’s business, it seen as being a collateral damage and a sacrifice (sic) that some should make for the nation’s energy security.

But in the light of the tragedy that has befallen the unwitting students at the village Dawara Thalaut, when no warning reportedly preceded the sudden release of water by the HEP authorities, serious questions - in addition to exemplary punishment to the officials responsible - need to be raised on the manner in which our dams and barrages are being managed. Yes, few, engineers have been suspended, a magisterial enquiry has been instituted to go into the tragedy, High Court has used strong words while castigating the state and sought an urgent report, and the media’s full attention is on the tragedy.

But soon all may be back to business as usual. Parents and relatives would resign themselves to their ill fate; media may find another tragedy to report; some kind of a report absolving the state (CM before cameras has already claimed innocence on behalf of the state) machinery would be filed before the High Court, and presumably the enquiry report would find a malfunctioning ‘hooter’ as the culprit?

But should it end like this? In the words of Sri Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP (South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People) all our mismanaged dams are potential killers and unless people who manage them are given exemplary punishment for their lapses, the unfortunate tragedy at Dawara Thalaut, shall not be the last.
 
Such tragedies have happened before in Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Sikkim and unless the dam management is held firmly accountable, our rivers would continue to turn killers.

Manoj Misra is Convener, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.      
 

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