Mumbai: Sanjay Kolhe, a resident of Sangli district’s Tung village, has been saying a silent prayer of gratitude every single day for the past week.
Kolhe’s village, located at a height on the Krishna bank, is one among two hamlets that escaped the floods that ravaged most parts of Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara districts of Maharashtra last week, leaving over 40 dead and displacing nearly six lakh people.
The Devendra Fadnavis-led government in the state has faced flak over its alleged delayed response and ‘excessive’ release of water from dams that aggravated the situation.
Here’s how the disaster unfolded, how the administration responded to the brewing crisis and what went wrong.
Early signs and political response
According to state government data, Sangli district received 758 per cent of its average rainfall from 1 to 9 August, while Satara recorded 618 per cent downpour and Kolhapur 480 per cent during the same period.
The situation reminded people of the 2005 deluge, except this one was much worse in intensity and impact. The government sought Rs 6,814 crore in relief aid from the Centre, of which Rs 4,708 crore was for Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara alone.
Heavy rainfall had started in these districts even before 1 August. There were isolated incidents of flooding, road closures and rehabilitation of a handful of people, said some local residents and officials from Kolhapur and Sangli.
This was when a large amount of water from dams such as Chandoli, Koyna and Radhanagari was being released.
By 4 August, the India Meteorological Department had put Pune, Satara, Nashik, Kolhapur, Palghar and Thane districts on red alert. The swollen waters of Karnataka’s Alamatti dam further worsened the crisis in Maharashtra.
But Chief Minister Fadnavis was on his ‘Mahajanadesh yatra’ in Vidarbha to showcase the government’s achievements ahead of the upcoming state assembly polls.
It was only on 7 August that the CM finally put a stop to his campaign to come back to Mumbai and review the situation. His first visit to flood-hit areas was on 8 August, by when large parts of Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara were already devastated. Ministers in the Fadnavis government too faced flak from people for their delayed response.
Fadnavis, however, said his government had been “keeping a close watch on this entire situation since its beginning”.
“Basically, it rained a lot this time. In 2005, when there were floods in Sangli district, there was 217 per cent rain in 31 days. This time, in nine days, the rainfall was 758 per cent in Sangli and 480 per cent in Kolhapur. There was a lot of release from dams as well. The government was keeping a close watch on this entire situation since its beginning,” he told ThePrint.
No strict instructions
Local residents and district officials said warnings were issued to villagers in flood-prone areas days before the IMD red alert. But neither were residents told to strictly abide by them nor were people willing to vacate their houses.
Shital Rajoba, a farmer from Sangli’s Nandre village, which escaped the worst of the floods, told ThePrint, “There were warnings, but people had never seen or expected such a situation. For most of us, the benchmark was the 2005 flooding. We thought we could prepare ourselves accordingly rather than leaving our homes.”
Rajoba gave the example of how residents of Mauje Digraj, which lies about 6 kilometres from his village, were given warnings when excess water was discharged from the nearby Koyna dam.
“When the water level kept rising, a few of us from Nandre village went to Mauje Digraj asking residents to come with us, but many refused,” he said.
But Kolhe said the government should have apprised the villagers about the gravity of the situation — when water released from dams combine with heavy rainfall.
“I don’t think officials knew what the water level was going to be like even after it crossed the 2005 mark,” he said.
Tung village, where Kolhe lives, is about 4 kilometres from Brahmanal where an overloaded boat had capsized while trying to rescue people, killing 17.
Dhairyasheel Mane, Shiv Sena MP from Hatkanangale in Kolhapur, said the administration did not have the capacity to handle massive rescue operations by the time its seriousness was realised.
“There should have been equipment like boats and life jackets stationed in flood-prone areas. Villages should have had their own trained units for immediate rescue operations,” said Mane.
He also said how a barrage of anxious calls within a short span of time created panic.
“For the first time even highways were waterlogged and shut, unlike in 2005 when relief could reach villages. Boats and helicopters were a limited resource.”
Eventually, the National Disaster Relief Force, State Disaster Relief Force, the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and the Indian Army had to send their rescue teams.
On 8 August, the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) had released a report on how the crisis worsened when dams on the Krishna river basin released large quantities of water just when the region was receiving high rainfall.
Three big dams in the region — Koyna, Radhanagari and Warna — were filled to almost 100 per cent of their capacity by 5 August, when the region started flooding.
“Why did the dams not start releasing water from say 25 July, 2019 when Koyna and Warna dams were only around 50 per cent full. The Radhanagri dam should have started releasing water even earlier as it was already 80 per cent full by 25 July,” the report says.
A senior official from the water resources department, who did not wish to be named, said chief engineers decide how much water a dam should store at any point of time by taking an overall view of the region, average rainfall in catchment areas, the weather forecast and any other sources of water.
“It needs to be seen whether the process was followed this time,” he said.
There is also a real-time data acquisition system and a flood forecasting model with which engineers get predictions and information on how much water is going to be accumulated in the dam, explained the official.
However, a Kolhapur district official, on condition of anonymity, said many parts of the inundated districts in western Maharashtra were battling drought until recently. “If we had released water earlier and the rainfall advisory turned out to be inaccurate, there would have been criticism over letting precious dam water go,” he said.
Fadnavis Tuesday said the government is finalising an expert committee to study how such a situation can be prevented in the future.
“The committee will also take all information about why this situation arose in the first place,” Fadnavis told reporters after a cabinet meeting.
Meanwhile, water has started receding gradually as rainfall reduced in Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur. But there are still some areas where the only way to reach is by a boat, rowing over devastated fields, broken vehicles and remnants of houses.
Close to 5 lakh lives saved, says Fadnavis
CM Fadnavis told ThePrint that the state’s disaster management unit was “working day and night” and constantly communicating with the local administration. He claimed that aid was given speedily and effectively.
Fadnavis said the losses could be minimised because the Union government sent “a lot of help”. “Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made immediate help available.”
He also praised all three defence services, NDRF, SDRF and other agencies, and said they saved close to 5 lakh lives.
“The state government has requested an aid of Rs 6,800 crore from the Union government for the rehabilitation of the flood affected, and till this fund becomes available, the state will spend from its own coffers,” said the CM. “All these citizens will be rehabilitated in a timely and effective manner.”