September 10, 2001


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    Two Dams
Dilip D'Souza

No safety harness

Piped gas is coming to our homes. It's going to cost some 10 per cent less than cylinders, besides being a whole lot more convenient than the painful rigmarole of cylinders. So of course we all signed up. The other day, three guys arrived to make the arrangements. I watched in fascination.

One of them clambered up the side of our building, using the pipes and ledges and the rough surface of our walls themselves to make his way. He wore no safety harness of any kind. Another climbed after him. He wore no safety harness either. The third stayed on the ground, using ropes to pass hammers and drills and lengths of yellow pipe up to his comrades. At each floor -- we have seven -- the first man stopped to screw the pipe into the already installed length, fix a joint with his colleague's help, feed another length into the flat in question, and clamp the whole thing to the wall.

All done while both clung as best they could to the side of the building.

They were swift and efficient. On the other hand, I was horrified. If either spiderman lost his hold while swinging a hammer at a clamp, or while trying to position a ten-foot section of pipe, nothing would stop, or even slow, his fall to our concrete compound. Nothing would prevent his instant and bloody death.

They smiled at my worry. "We have been doing this for two years," they said. "All over Surat and Ahmedabad, and now all over Bombay. We'll be here for another two years."

And what happens after the four years are up? They will return to their homes. In Orissa. Not enough work there for these young men. So they spend years wandering our cities, putting their life on the walls each day so the rest of us can cook with the convenience of piped gas. Ten per cent cheaper than cylinders and, gosh, so much more convenient!

And after they had finished and gone, I thought the thought that haunts me every now and then. What is it about Orissa?

Someone I know there wrote to me some weeks ago. "Yesterday in Kantapada block," she wrote, "I was near the Tandikona bridge. The river is about 10 times its normal breadth."

Ten times! I sit here and I find it hard to even imagine such a thing. What does a river look like when it is ten times wider than normal? That was during the height of the recent floods -- remember them? -- in Orissa.

Not that the state is unused to natural calamities. There was a massive cyclone -- remember that? -- there two years ago, followed within days by a far more massive one. Drought in 2000. Flooding this year that swelled a river to ten times its breadth. And once the flood abated, there are deaths from starvation: people in some parts of the state are reduced to eating mango seeds to survive.

As if the flood wasn't enough by itself, it brought a strange dilemma in its wake, centred on the pride of the state, the Hirakud dam.

In 1946, when Sir Hawthorne Lewis, governor of the province, was laying the foundation stone of Hirakud, he expressed the fond hope that it would "banish" from Orissa the three perennial pestilences of "flood, drought and famine". The dam was to be Orissa's "permanent solution" to the floods on the Mahanadi river; a major reason for building Hirakud was, and explicitly, the control of floods.

In 2001, we know just how successful that planned "banishment", that "control", that "permanent solution", has been. Despite the dam, Orissa continues to suffer droughts, floods and famine, with the occasional cyclone thrown in.

And in 2001, Hirakud actually worsened the flooding. Between June 1 and July 18, the catchment areas of the dam, upstream on the Mahanadi, got 820mm of rain, twice the amount in a normal year. That raised the level in the dam's reservoir to 627 feet, dangerously close to its maximum capacity of 630 feet. The danger was to the dam itself, for such a large volume of water threatened its very survival. (A possibly relevant detail: Hirakud is an earthen dam). The water level was such a concern that the state's chief secretary, D P Bagchi, told the press that "the dam's safety is of prime importance". (A possibly relevant question: if the dam was built to take 630 feet of water, why was its safety threatened even before the water reached that level?)

On July 19, 56 of the dam's 64 gates were opened to allow water to flow out. This was when there already was severe flooding downstream anyway. The water released from Hirakud added to the crisis: some 200 villages were flooded that would have otherwise remained dry. And the timing could not have been worse. New moon was on July 20, causing particularly high tides along the coast. Where could all that released water go except where it did: out on to the flat expanse and low-lying villages of the Mahanadi delta?

If Bagchi was worried about the dam's safety, other state bureaucrats were concerned about the release of water. "The more water that has to be released from the dam," said Relief Commissioner Hrishikesh Panda, "the more dangerous the situation becomes in the coastal regions."

Think of it. Open the gates on the dam, and you compound flooding downstream. Don't open the gates, and the dam is endangered; if it breaks, you have an unimaginable catastrophe. Not a dilemma you'd wish on anyone, least of all during an already grave flood. On top of everything it's a time of extra-high tides.

And Hirakud, this enormous symbol of India's development, was supposed to "control" floods in Orissa.

The sad thing is that so few people care what happens in these backwaters of India. During the Orissa floods, front-page "news" in the venerable The Times of India was about the impending disappearance of free email, and the shining virtues therefore of Indiatimes mail, still free and, just incidentally, from the Times stable. Nothing about Orissa. In other words, calamity in Orissa rates lower on the news scale than what is no more than a too-wordy advertisement. And of course, don't calamities keep happening to Orissa? What's one more in that distant and irrelevant corner of India?

True enough. The floods killed "only" some 80 Indians. There were "only" a few cases of cholera and measles, no epidemics busting loose. As for diarrhoea, "only" 27 died, and the number of confirmed cases, the state health control room reported on July 31, was "only" 20,438. "Only" 20 deaths so far from starvation.

What's *really* newsworthy in all that? Far better to pass off hosannas to a Web-based email service as news. Won't you sign up?

I have no doubt there are other countries that get torrential rains, others that are afflicted with floods and droughts and cyclones. No, in that sense we are by no means unique. But faced with what happens every year in Orissa, and in other parts of the country, you can't help thinking that we are. (Unique). In the way that we combine natural disasters, an unshakeable faith in a "development" that often only worsens our problems, and a steady disinterest in the plight of the most vulnerable of our countrywomen: yes, we may just be unique.

So earthquakes that might take a few dozen lives elsewhere take a few thousand here. Floods that might be manageable elsewhere are fattened and compounded here, by our own doings, to the point that they leave us with no options. Like the Hirakud dilemma. And when the waters recede, there is still the problem of people who are so hungry that they gnaw at mango seeds. I don't know if they have that elsewhere.

People tire of eating mango seeds. People tire of the struggle to find jobs that will let them afford more. So they migrate out of Orissa in search of work. Which explains how two young Oriya men came to be clinging to the side of my building, seven floors up, a few days ago.

Dilip D'Souza

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