Natural Disaster

Report on 2019 Maharashtra floods: Panel member alleges cover-up

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Rescue operation by the Army and Maharshtra Police in the flooded Sangli town of Maharashtra in August 2019. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

Had the report of 2007 been implemented the severity of the 2019 floods could have been avoided.

Even in a world attuned to pictures of disasters, the floods of 2019 in Maharashtra’s Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur districts were appalling. In some pictures just the roofs of houses were visible as boats glided by. Then there were pictures of bloated human and animal corpses,and the distressing stories of people waiting to be rescued as they watched the waters rising.

A nine-member Flood Study Committee, created in August 2019 was expected to submit its report before the monsoon of 2020. It was named Wadnere Committee - 2, after the chairman Nandkumar Wadnere, a retired Principal Secretary of Water Resources. An earlier committee headed by Wadnere in 2007 for guidance on reservoir releases had submitted its report in 2011. Essentially, Wadnere - 2 had to investigate why the floods occurred and suggest preventive measures. Pradeep Purandare, a civil engineer (with a master’s degree in water management) on the committee, was to write a chapter on “flood zoning and reservoir operation system” (ROS) and also put forth a revised ROS for the Koyna dam.

Purandare says he was denied access to technical information and data that he needed to carry out his brief. The work he ultimately presented to the committee was accepted but not included in the final draft. Purandare resigned from the committee on May 14 in protest. (He says that he heard that the final draft was presented to the Chief Minister on May 28.) His point of view has been published on the guest blog of the website of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP). Commenting on it, Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP called it a “shocking saga of the dam lobby which does not want any accountability or even transparency in dam operations in India”.

Purandare says when he drew the committee chairman’s attention to his missing contribution, the chairman was candid enough to tell him that “he dropped it because some higher-ups asked him to do so”. “It was not only unfortunate but unprecedented that somebody pressurises the chairman and he meekly succumbs.”

He says he “sent an email to the chairman demanding immediate amendment in the report. The chairman as an afterthought informed that he felt very sorry and would do the needful.” Purandare, however, decided to quit as he “did not want to be a party to a hurriedly finalised report without studying it completely”.

Purandare says the draft report was not finalised in the committee because of the restrictions of the lockdown. However, despite the lockdown “the chairman discussed every chapter with the concerned members (excluding this author) and finalised the same with the help of officers. The final draft of the report was, thus, prepared without formal discussions… and sent to all members on May 12, 2020, with a message that the report would be finalised on May 14, 2020, in a zoom meeting and immediately submitted to the government”. Purandare says he “formally requested the chairman to give at least a week to study the report but the request was ignored”.

Purandare says the Wadnere -2 report repeats many of the earlier committee’s findings. He says: “Maharashtra wasted 13 years by not implementing the recommendations of Wadnere Committee -1…. [There is] total absence of flood management governance and, most importantly, the simulation study carried out by the [second] committee indicates that backwater effect of Almatti project [on River Krishna in northern Karnataka] is not responsible for the 2019 floods.”

Purandare told Frontline that “the general impression created by politicians and the irrigation bureaucracy is that Almatti is responsible for the flooding, especially in Sangli. In fact, it has become a point for political quarrels. The Wadnere - 2 report has studied this in a hydrodynamic way and states that it is not the Almatti backwater effect that caused the 2019 floods.”

Why was Wadnere -1 not implemented? With a shrug in his voice, Purandare says: “Negligence, perhaps…. I really don’t know, but if the first committee’s report had been implemented the flood situation last year would have been very different. It is a good report. It is technically very sound.” He admits that rainfall in 2019 was “definitely very heavy” but says the flooding could have been mitigated if SOPs (standard operating procedures) had been followed over the years. “I gather this was not done,” he told Frontline.

Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP vouches for Purandare’s integrity saying, “he is not an activist sort of person but must have been so disturbed by this that he decided to speak out”. Purandare’s entire career has been devoted to irrigation and water management. He retired as Associate Professor of the Water and Land Management Institute in Aurangabad. He is also a former member of committees for the formulation of rules for the Maharashtra Management of Irrigation by Farmers Act, 2005, the Marathwada Development Board, the Integrated State Water Plan and the Flood Study Committee.

Had Purandare’s contribution to the second Wadnere report been carried and not suppressed, it would have exposed what was at least a part of the reason for last year’s tragic floods. He had said in his submission that if the Wadnere -1 report had been implemented the floods would not have caused as much damage. Purandare’s stating of this undeniable fact had clearly embarrassed the powers that be. Instead of implementing the suggestions, they reacted by suppressing his contribution, thereby increasing the possibility of the tragedy recurring.

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