In July, when many parts of India were bracing for yet another year of drought, the situation changed dramatically with episodes of extreme rainfall in the latter part of the month and in early August. Large areas of the country were flooded, displacing millions and killing some 1,500 people. Maharashtra was one of the states that were particularly affected by heavy downpours and debilitating floods. Some experts say dam mismanagement led to increased human misery.
The floods in Maharashtra, following torrential rains and sudden release of water from dams on the Krishna River, claimed over 50 lives, displaced half a million people and destroyed hundreds of villages in Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur districts in the western parts of the state. In August, Satara and Kolhapur received the highest rainfall in 25 years and precipitation was the highest in Sangli since 2006, according to India Meteorological Department data.
Although flooding was inevitable in the face of such extreme rainfall, experts say that lack of coordination between authorities in Maharashtra and Karnataka for simultaneous release of water from Almatti dam on the Krishna, magnified the tragedy. Almatti is the first dam on the Krishna as the river leaves Maharashtra and enters Karnataka. The Krishna river basin is the fourth-largest in India, and the 1,400 km long river runs through Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh before draining into the Bay of Bengal.
“Due to delay in discharge from Almatti, water kept coming back to upstream Krishna, which led to floods in Maharashtra villages,” said a report by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a civil society organisation. The SANDRP report said mismanagement in operation of large dams in the two states exacerbated the flood fury in Maharashtra.
The Upper Krishna sub-basin in Maharashtra has 188 large and medium dams, and plenty of small dams, according to SANDRP. Most of them were full by the first week of August. “The tragedy could have been averted had the operators of the dams in both the states acted in a judicious manner by releasing the water in July itself,” said its report, titled Aug 2019 Krishna Basin Floods in Maharashtra-Karnataka: How dams (are ) harming rather than helping.
Almatti dam on Krishna River that flows through Maharashtra and Karnataka. Adding to the heavy rainfall, experts say the mismanagement of dam water increased the impact of flooding in both states. Map made with Datawrapper.
By August 5, Koyna, the largest dam in the Krishna basin, along with the Warna, Ujani, Khadakvasla dams, among others, reached full capacity. Though rainfall was 400 percent above normal rains between August 1 and August 9, the resulting floods could have caused less havoc if the water was better managed, said the SANDRP report. “These dams should have started releasing water by 25 July, when they were half-filled. In fact, Radhanagri dam was 80 percent filled then,” its report said. “Had the release been done on time, then these dams would have easily accommodated heavy downpour and the impact of the floods would have (been) reduced.”
“There is a protocol for dam operations, but the rules are never put in public domain, and hence, accountability is not fixed,” said Himanshu Thakkar, Co-ordinator of SANDRP and lead author of the report. “The dam operators responsible for such mishaps are protected by the lobby (vested interests).” Large dams that are supposed to help moderate floods have been the major contributors to the flood disaster this time, SANDRP alleged.
The role of dams in the Krishna river basin floods is also apparent from the statements by the chief ministers of Karnataka and Maharashtra. Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa wrote to his Maharashtra counterpart that heavy discharge from the Koyna dam contributed to floods in northern Karnataka. In turn, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis requested Yediyurappa to lower the water level of Almatti dam to reduce the backwater impact in upstream Maharashtra.
In July, a breach in the Tiware dam in Ratnagiri district amid heavy downpour killed 25 people. Authorities ignored warnings about cracks in the dam, local residents alleged. The state government has constituted a special investigation team, which is yet to submit a report.
Irregularities regarding dams
These mishaps have brought the focus back on Maharashtra’s large dams, especially their maintenance, operations and quality of construction, and more importantly, political pulling of strings.
Maharashtra is home to the largest number of dams in India. Out of 5,264 large dams in the country, there are 2,069 in the western province, which is building another 285.
The number of large dams has risen gradually, with maximum additions of about 1,450 dams, between 1970 to 2000. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the government’s auditor, reveals that every fourth large dam in the state has a major defect that needs urgent attention.
The large dams also mean hefty costs to the exchequer that tend to rise significantly. For instance, two projects on Krishna River — Krishna Marathwada Irrigation Scheme and Koyna Hydro Electric Power Station IV — featured in an irrigation scam that came to light in 2012, had cost escalations of Rs 24.60 billion and Rs 11 billion, respectively. A CAG audit, which reviewed 18 irrigation projects in Maharashtra receiving central grants, found their construction cost was raised three-fold in five years.
Despite the presence of so many large dams, only 22 percent of the arable land in Maharashtra is irrigated. Only 3.95 million hectares of land is under irrigation, compared with 17.4 million hectares of cultivable land. The state is yet to utilise the full potential of its dams, despite the fact that a significant chunk of its rural community grapple with drought every year, resulting in crops losses, increased poverty and farmer suicides.
Extreme rainfall in July and August in parts of Maharashtra led to ruinous floods that killed many and displaced half a million people. Photo by Sujit Dodke.
Probes, politics and litigation
It was the Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2011-12 that opened the can of worms for the first time in regards to large dam projects in the state. It revealed that the total irrigated area of the state increased only by 1.5 percent between 2004-05 and 2010-11.
The then opposition, comprising the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena, accused the then Indian National Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance government of a scam worth Rs 700 billion in irrigation projects. Deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar and water resources minister Sunil Tatkare, both from NCP, were blamed for the scam.
Pawar faced allegations of irregularities in granting approvals to dam projects worth Rs 200 billion in eight months. He was also blamed for clearing 38 dam projects without mandatory clearances during his stint as water resources minister between 1999 and 2009. Tatkare faced charges of violation of norms and cost escalations from Rs 800 million to Rs 3.3 billion in the Kondane dam in Raigad district.
In the run up to the 2014 state legislature elections, the irrigation scam was the chief poll plank of the BJP-Shiv Sena combine, which led to the defeat of the Congress-NCP coalition government. After coming to power, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP handed over the cases to the anti-corruption bureau (ACB), which registered offences against some contractors and government officials, some of whom were arrested. But no charges have been pressed against Pawar, now a state lawmaker, or Tatkare, now a member of Parliament.
Pawar has not been named in any of the 24 criminal complaints filed in the inquiry. The ACB affidavit filed in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court in November 2018 indicted him as being part of the overall modus operandi. The modus operandi in these cases mean the way tenders for irrigation projects were rigged, cost of projects hiked, mobilisation advances were given, and forged pre-qualification documents were allowed to “favor a clutch of contractors.” Tatkare has also been indicted by the ACB and the case is in the high court.
Political power play
“The Fadnavis government’s half-hearted efforts can’t bring the issue to its logical end,” said Ashok Dhawale, national president of All Indian Kisan Sabha and a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “In fact, his government recently approved Rs 67.5 billion for 11 dams originally estimated to be over Rs 30 billion,” he alleged.
“Our leaders were accused of corruption when cost of dams escalated,” said Nawab Malik, a spokesperson for NCP spokesperson. “It must be concluded that the BJP-Sena government has also indulged in the corruption.”
“The irony of multi-crore dams is visible in the dry farms of Vidarbha and Marathwada and floods in western Maharashtra. Yet, during the Lok Sabha election campaign earlier this year, and now when state assembly elections are due in October, the issues of the much-hyped irrigation scam and persistent drought are missing from public discourse,” said social activist Tushar Jagtap.
“If you talk about drought, discussion on irrigation scam is inevitable,” said Dhawale. “Hence, all parties stress on relief measures, but skip core issues such as why drought is perennial, or what happened to the huge allocations for dams.”
Senior journalist Yadu Joshi dubs the investigations as a farce. “The probes started only after High Court orders,” Joshi said. “Had the Fadnavis government been serious about the irrigation scam, it would have brought out a white paper on the same.”
“Leaders have jumped from party to party, and now every party has leaders whose names are involved in one or the other irrigation scam,” Dhawale pointed out. “The politicians love big irrigation projects to make money and nurture their political growth. Hence, nobody talks about failure of dams.”
The large dams are neither useful for irrigation nor are they cost-effective, said an official from the Water Resources Department of Maharashtra. “Large dams have failed to deliver. Net area irrigated by them have actually fallen in the last 25 years,” he said on condition of anonymity. “The use of groundwater in agriculture is increasing at an alarming pace.”
“Political interventions for local interests during the Congress-NCP rule in past 20 years have led to the collapse of dam operation protocols,” alleged Madhav Bhandari, deputy chairman of Maharashtra Relief and Rehabilitation Authority and a BJP spokesperson. “It would take some time to restore the system and establish coordination.”
“The debate over large dams is going on since the inception of Bhakhra Nangal and Narmada dams,” Bhandari said. “People are realising that large dams cause more hazard to the environment, ecology and people compared to cumulative benefits in irrigation.”
(This story was first published on Mongabay)