Chamoli: Workers who survived the flash-flood last week in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district that severely damaged two hydropower plants have claimed that a lack of training, early warning systems and emergency exits were the reasons why nearly 200 workers were washed away or buried under slush and debris. So far, rescue forces have managed to recover at least 40 bodies, including 12 bodies Sunday.
The missing workers were mainly employed at the Rishi Ganga hydel project, run by Ludhiana-based Kundan Group, and Tapovan-Vishnugad, run by the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC).
“If rocks fall and a little water comes in, we have helmets, safety shoes, mask and gloves to deal with it. But we don’t know what to do when there’s a deluge like this — we don’t get any training like for swimming, there are also no such measures in which there are ladders to climb up everywhere,” said Harpal Singh, who has been working as a labourer at NTPC’s Tapovan project for six years.
However, NTPC and Kundan Group officials have denied the workers’ claims.
“At every site, we have all gadgets. The workers are called and given training on TV about the different types of accidents that can take place and how to escape them,” said R.P. Ahirwar, general manager of the NTPC project.
S.D. Kamath, CEO of the Kundan Group, also said workers are trained to deal with every likely scenario.
‘Lives could have been saved’
On 7 February, the deluge first hit the Rishi Ganga project, built along the eponymous river, and then the Tapovan-Vishnugad site that’s located 8 km downstream.
Five days later, last Thursday, an alert was put out as water levels surged again in the Rishi Ganga river. At the scene, rescue forces and workers kept their eyes peeled for any sign of a second disaster while a siren was sounded.
A few of the workers exclaimed that if such a siren had been rung on 7 February, many lives would have been saved. According to them, the siren was only being used now.
“There was a phone call from the people upstream along the Rishi Ganga project. But people thought it was a joke, thinking that how can there be a deluge without any storm clouds. Only local workers were contacted; if some authorities would have been contacted, then maybe they would have saved lives,” said Naib Singh, who works at the Tapovan project.
Harpal Singh added: “There is no training at all. If there was, a lot of people’s lives would have been saved. Even if they would have installed the alarm to indicate danger, then a lot of lives would have also been saved.”
Residents of Raini village, close to the 13.3 MW Rishi Ganga project that was completely decimated in Sunday’s deluge, also claimed that warning systems had only been installed in the last two months.
“There was nothing here before… Only when we raised concerns about it did they install such a system two-three months ago,” said Bhawan Rana, the village head.
However, both NTPC and the Kundan Group claimed the early warning systems were adequate.
“The siren was washed away in the deluge. We have replaced it. Apart from this, the only addition to the early warning system that we have implemented is that we have posted two people along both sides of the river, who will keep us updated about the water levels,” said Ahirwar.
Kamath, meanwhile, added: “We had everything there, this can just be blamed on the amount of water and glacier that fell.”
‘No way out’
The project in Tapovan, along the Dhauliganga river, is a steep zig-zag road down from National Highway 7. The road ends at the project site, where a 200 metre-long and 22 metre-high barrage is being constructed. Close to the barrage is a 2.5 km-long tunnel, where 34 workers were buried.
“There is one staircase, which everyone would use to climb,” said Harpal Singh. “So many people were waiting to climb that one staircase that day… 10-20 people were waiting to climb up and were washed away. If there would have been two or three more staircases then a lot of people would have been saved.”
Mangre, a labourer hailing from Lakhimpur, Uttar Pradesh, said he had been working on the barrage at the time and escaped by a hair’s breadth.
“We came up halfway using the stairs, then came up further with the help of cables. There was no one to throw us a rope,” Mangre said.
A worker at the Rishi Ganga project who didn’t want to give his name said: “There was just one staircase that would go down, and it would take us at least 5-10 minutes to go down, so you can imagine how much time it would take.”
However, Kundan Group’s Kamath refuted this claim. “There’s nothing like this. We only commission the powerhouse after taking the approval of the Uttarakhand government. Permissions are taken from the government about all the design and its components.”
IIT Delhi researchers’ take
A team of researchers from IIT Delhi has been doing a ‘post-geo disaster reconnaissance study’ to assess the damage and suggest mitigation measures, the results of which will be made public in a week or two.
Assistant Professor Prashant Vangala, who is leading the team, spoke to ThePrint about the initial assessment, saying: “It’s not an ideal location… There are very narrow valleys here, so the discharge velocities will be very high when a flood occurs.”
He added: “Early warning system could be some acoustic methods or maybe monitoring the water levels and periodically conducting the drone survey to determine any lake formations.”
Vangala also described the deluge as an “extreme event”, and said the disaster provided an opportunity to learn.