Edited Excerpts from an Interview
Twenty four students dead in a matter of minutes, what system should have been in place to avoid such a disaster?
Any dam creates a potential threat to people downstream. Potentially every dam is a killer. We have innumerable instances when irresponsible dam operations have killed several people. It has happened all over, in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, etc. But we haven’t learnt any lessons from those tragedies.
What could have been done?
First of all, for every dam in India, we need a clear Safe Operation Procedure and legally backed Safe Operations Management System. The environment and technical sanctioning process should include all these issues. Risk zones need to be clearly identified and the entire zone must be taken care of. In this case, water was suddenly released. This dam was not supposed to release so much water, at least not in the summer. In a lean season, a river like Beas has less water and a project like Lajri dam is expected to use all the water in the river. The water is supposed to be released from the power-house and not from the dam. Project operators at Lajri dam claim that they did not have the storage capacity in the dam and they had to release the water. They could have planned the release in gradual phases instead of releasing it suddenly. Before releasing, they should have informed the local administration and people in the downstream areas. The place where the incident took place is a tourist hangout. It is a risk zone. But all such safety measures were ignored. That is because nobody has been punished in previous instances of such disasters. The dam operators are immune from punishment.
What would entail a Safe Operations Procedure?
Firstly, planned release of water from the reservoirs. Unless there is a cloudburst, sudden release is never necessary. At the spot where the students were washed away, water rose to six feet in two minutes. Had the students seen a gradual increase in the level of water, they would have had time to escape and perhaps we could have averted this tragedy. Unfortunately, neither the administration nor the locals were aware of the release.
Such tragedies are regular. But why don’t they get reported very often?
Such tragedies are very common. Local media reports such incidents. The problem is that we do not have a mechanism under which dam officials are punished. Also, we don’t have credible inquiries. Clearly, we haven’t learned any lessons.
In 2005, 153 pilgrims were washed away in a similar incident in Madhya Pradesh. What happened after that?
There was an inquiry. The National Hydroelectricity Power Corporation operates the Indira Sagar dam in Madhya Pradesh. The officials operating the dam simply claimed that they did not know about the pilgrims gathering in the downstream area. Now, that is strange because the gathering downstream is an annual tradition. Officials from the NHPC claimed they released the water after posting a letter to the tehsildar informing him of the release. They posted a letter! The tehsildar was not responsible even though it falls under his jurisdiction. The dam operators were not guilty because they informed the tehsildar. The letter did not reach on time. As a result, 153 people lost their lives and no one was held responsible or punished. Such incidents are becoming a common feature with our dams because no heads roll. More than that, we refuse to learn lessons from such disasters.