In full fury

Print edition : November 06, 2009

Crossing a flooded river in Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh, on October 4.-MAHESH KUMAR A./AP

FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Krishna looks forlorn as he stands amid the debris of what was once his village. He is not sure when he will go back to school.

It will start again in a few days. But I have no books or any money to buy new ones, he says. The flood destroyed everything.

Even the clothes he wears are not his. The trousers are too long and the shirt is oversized and torn at the sleeve in the scuffle for relief materials that come every day in the trucks.

Until recently, Sunkesula was a tourist spot of sorts. Lying on the banks of the Tungabhadra river in Kurnool district, next to the Sunkesula barrage, the village offered a scenic view. But now the green fields are buried under the rubble of broken embankments. The 9th century temple on the riverbank is gone. Once the floodwaters receded, dry slush filled the houses.

It was around 6-30 in the morning when we heard a deafening noise. Smoke was rising from the broken bund, said Maheshwari, whose house is at the edge of the village, close to the river. We had no time to gather any of our belongings. We left with the clothes on our backs. Many of the residents went to the neighbouring village, Rematla. When they returned three days later, they found that people from other villages had taken away whatever valuables they had left behind, including money and jewellery.

We lost Rs.20,000 and some gold jewellery, said Maheshwari. We dont mind losing any of this. Even our house, we can rebuild. But the flood has swallowed 10 acres [four hectares] of our land. We cant identify our field, with all that rubble. Will the government pay us compensation for our land?

We have three children, she added. We took a loan to buy the land so that it will stay with the family for generations. Now its all gone. Our grain, our rice. Even our cattle are dead. The house is so filthy that I cant bear to look at it.

Maheshwari and her husband had been cleaning the house for three days when this correspondent visited it. Mats, blankets, utensils, slates and all the different things that make a household were heaped together, caked in mud.

We sleep outside but the smell of slush is worse here, she said. Dead animals are still trapped under the debris and household waste has been piling up. The stench is unbearable, but Maheshwari and others in the village have no choice. They sleep outside at the mercy of mosquitoes and snakes.

The flood, which has devastated parts of Kurnool and Mahabubnagar districts, came with no warning at all. Until September 30, the Tungabhadra and Almatti dams were discharging only 40,000 cusecs of water, which explains why the Srisailam dam was not expected to receive excess inflows. But between September 27 and October 1, these two districts and Raichur district in neighbouring Karnataka recorded rainfall up to 40 centimetres.

On September 30, Central Water Commission (CWC) officials announced that water in the Tungabhadra would rise to the warning level, 310 metres, at Mantralayam, upstream of the Sunkesula barrage. Since the water did not cross the warning level, Mantralayam and surrounding villages were in no danger.

On October 1, the officials predicted that the water level would cross 315 m, the level that the Krishna river reached the last time it was in spate, in 1992. Soon water started entering villages above Mantralayam, such as Nadichagi, Melanuru and Kumbalanuru, and people started leaving them since it was still daylight.

Mantralayam was flooded that night, trapping many villagers in their homes. On the same night, a team of engineers from the Irrigation Department reached Sunkesula barrage to monitor the water level. Twenty-four gates, including the four scour gates, were opened. Six gates were inoperable and could not be opened. As a result, the discharge was reduced by 1.1 lakh cusecs.

The barrage is designed to discharge water at the rate of 5.24 lakh cusecs. According to the official report, the rate of discharge was 6.14 lakh cusecs until 2-30 a.m. Around 6 a.m., the discharge rate rose to 7.16 lakh cusecs, and the right bund flanking Sunkesula was breached. At 9-30 a.m., the left bund also breached, flooding Rajoli and other villages in Mahabubnagar district, on the other side of the river.

The villagers blame the government for building a barrage with a storage capacity of just 1.2 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft), which cannot accommodate flood waters. But, officials say, a flood like this is very rare, and the Tungabhadra has never before crossed the danger level. So there has never been the need for a bigger barrage.

Ironically, the breach at Sunkesula saved the lives of the residents of another remote village, Gundrevula. Our village curves to one side, and we thought the water would not come beyond the curve but that was how we were trapped, said Ranganna. Some of the new houses had three floors, so we climbed onto the rooftop.

Nearly 500 of them were stranded atop three houses for 36 hours. It was pitch dark and it was pouring. The water was just 1.5 feet below us. If the bund at Sunkesula hadnt broken, we would have all died.

Gundrevula lost at least 300 houses and 1,000 acres of land. The entire village has been living in makeshift tents set up in a nearby field. We are going to ask for this land to be given to us, said Ranganna.

Relief has been pouring in, particularly from private donors and organisations, including non-profit ones. But not all of it has made its way to the right hands. Most of the relief trucks are mobbed en route and many less affected villages have been benefiting.

All the badly hit villages are close to the river. To come here the trucks have to come through other villages. Now we are given tokens for daily supplies of food and water, said Ranganna. Even with the tokens, people are seen running behind relief trucks and scrambling over each other for the food packets that are thrown down. Every vehicle that passes by is surrounded by people asking for water.

Clothes are strewn on the roads in and around the villages. They are grabbed quickly and discarded even faster. Shirts, trousers and salwar kurtas are lying everywhere, rejected because they cannot be draped like saris or worn like lungis.

Even the food is wasted because each person grabs a few packets and, unable to eat it all, throws away the rest. They send food we are not used to eating, said Maheshwari. We eat rice and dal. We dont use so much oil. Some organisations have come and set up open kitchens where they cook and serve fresh food.

I owned a hotel and I feel so helpless now, said Sashipani, a resident of Alampur in Mahabubnagar district, which was submerged by the backwaters of the Srisailam reservoir. If I had a few bags of rice left, I could have fed my village people. If they want food, they have to walk for 5 km.

The signboard is the only way to tell that the slushy interiors housed a hotel until a week ago. Sashipani is busy cleaning even as Alampur is filled with police officers and district officials preparing for a visit by Chief Minister K. Rosaiah. When asked if he would attend the Chief Ministers public meeting, Sashipani smiled. What is the point of going for the meeting? He has so much security. They wont even let us close to him.

They wont let us talk at the meeting, will they? asked Divanamma, a coolie. Now that everything is gone, where do we work? How do we make ends meet? She left on October 2 when flood waters entered the village, only to return five days later and find everything either washed away or covered in slush. We have no food, no clothes. We didnt have time to take anything with us. I didnt bathe for a week because there was no water, she said.

We have to run behind trucks for food. We have to fight for the packets because that is the only way to get hold of them. And the police hit us with lathis if we dont stay in line.

Water first entered Alampur on the evening of October 2. It was flooded by the backwaters of the Srisailam reservoir and not the Tungabhadra. On October 3, the water level in the Srisailam reservoir touched 896.5 feet, 11 ft above its full reservoir level. It reached full reservoir level on September 30 itself, when water first started seeping into the villages located along the backwaters.

From September 30 to October 3, there was sufficient time for Guntur and Prakasam districts to be warned. When villages were evacuated, people could leave their homes, taking with them whatever belongings they could gather.

Time was a luxury that Gundrevula, Sunkesula, Rajoli and many other villages on the banks of the Tungabhadra did not have. They had no choice but to leave everything they owned to the river.

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