The catastrophe of a lifetime that hit Kerala has jolted everyone. Millions have been forced to flee to relief camps leaving behind all their savings, belongings, farmlands and cattle with their livelihood shattered to the core.As the flood waters recede, it’s time to fill the lacuna and rebuild a better Kerala. Dam safety monitoring, disaster mitigation and post flood management have to be discussed threadbare at this juncture.
Dam safety monitoring
For the purpose of flood moderation, flood control reservoirs have to maintain ‘rule curves’ containing guidelines and specifications that govern the storage and release functions of a reservoir. The authorities concerned miserably failed in adhering to the rule curves before releasing water from 34 out of the 39 major dams. Strict adherence to the rule curves would have lessened the devastation.
The Government of India has put in place strict guidelines and procedures to be followed by states to reduce the consequences of any emergency triggered by a dam incident or a dam failure. The Central Water Commission (CWC) was formed with the objective of conservation and utilisation of water resources in the respective state which includes flood management.
The National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS) has the responsibility to suggest procedures and guidelines for ensuring safety of dams. In 2016, the NCDS came up with an emergency action plan (EAP) to be followed by all states. The EAP mandates a reservoir operating manual, an inundation map, the type of warnings to be given, standard evacuation procedure, among others. The CAG report of 2017 had flagged the lack of EAPs for our dams, but the government ignored these warnings.
To predict the occurrence of floods in each state, the CWC prepares a ‘standard operating procedure (SOP) for flood forecasting’ on a yearly basis. This is prepared for each state on a request basis.
For 2018, the CWC has prepared SOP for 24 states, except Kerala as it failed to submit the request. Safety, precautions and evacuation measures to be followed while declaring different alerts (blue, orange, red) are mentioned in these guidelines. But the government relied on WhatsApp and traditional means of warnings. Had we followed an EAP and SOP before releasing water from these dams, we would have saved many lives and reduced the gravity of the devastation considerably.
As per guidelines, all major dams have to maintain a buffer to handle unexpectedly high rainfall. This basic principle was flouted by the Kerala State Electricity Department in pursuance of windfall gain from electricity generation.
All the major reservoirs in the state had reached their full level by July-end. These dams were rendered incapable of containing the unexpected water flow due to the torrential rain in their catchments in August. This failure left the government with no option but to open the shutters of all major dams simultaneously.
A closer look at the water storage level and spill data reveals gross mismanagement in the control of Lower Sholayar, Kakki and Idamalayar dams. A bit more diligence would have considerably reduced the extent of the flood and subsequent devastation in the Periyar, Pampa and Chalakkudy rivers, respectively.The government should order a judicial inquiry into the mismanagement of dams.
Separate disaster fund
Our experience in the disbursement of relief funds in the aftermath of natural calamities, including the recent Ockhi, shows a shadow has been cast on the usage of the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF).Though the government initially conceded to the Opposition demand for creating a new account for flood relief, it retracted from its commitment. This denial to form a separate account is in gross violation of the provisions of the Disaster Management Act 2005.
As per Section 46 and 48 of the Disaster Management Act 2005, the Centre and state governments have to create a separate head called Disaster Response Fund for accounting the grants received from individuals and institutions towards disaster relief. The objective of this law is to create and use a ‘tied fund’ rather than using general purpose funds, which would increase transparency and accountability.
Over 1/6th of the state’s population has been hit by the fury of nature. Thus, it is imperative to disburse compensation to the actual victims in a time-bound manner. Several anomalies and partisanship in awarding of compensation have surfaced casting apprehension over the probity of disbursement. A special tribunal to disburse the compensation akin to the one formed during the Bhopal gas tragedy would help in speedy disbursement.
Back to nature
The talk on ‘sustainable development’ has been confined to mere rhetoric over the past several decades. The general topography of the state has been severely hampered due to mushrooming real estate business.Illegal stone-quarrying activities have flourished unabated with many governmental policies serving as their catalysts. The paddy fields and wetlands have been reclaimed at a rate of knots. It’s high time we performed a reality check on the measures and laws detrimental to nature and corrected the mistakes for a better tomorrow.
(Ramesh Chennithala is the Leader Of Opposition, Kerala Legislative Assembly and former President, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee.)