The sorrow of Bengal: Why Damodar is not what it was meant to be

Around 2.2 million people in the state’s eight southern districts were affected by the deluge. The inaction would continue to trouble Bengal.

Back-to-back deluge this year affects around 2.2 million people in the state. Photo: Twitter

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s recent claim that last week’s devastating floods in the state were a “man-made” disaster caused by the Damodar Valley Corporation echoed concerns raised over seven decades ago.

Around 2.2 million people in the state’s eight southern districts were affected by the deluge within a month of similar devastation caused in July-August, once again putting a question mark on the flood-control capacity of independent India’s first multipurpose river valley project. It was hailed as one of Jawaharlal Nehru’s temples of modern India.

The DVC, a central government agency, was established in February 1948 on the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority of the USA, primarily to control regular flooding in Domodar river’s catchment area of 25,000 square kilometres running through Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The back-to-back deluge this year, and similar occurrences recently, point at the return of the age-old cycle of the flood to the valley which the DVC was supposed to prevent.

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After the latest devastation, Banerjee shot a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his intervention to find a permanent solution to the state’s problem of floods “occurring year after year”.

“I seek your kind immediate intervention so that the concerned ministry of Union government is requested to engage with the governments of West Bengal and Jharkhand and the authorities of the Damodar Valley Corporation to help to arrive at a permanent solution to this problem of our state occurring year after year,” she wrote to the Prime Minister, claiming that the discharge of excess water caused the deluge.

The DVC released more than 10 lakh cusecs of water from September 30 to October 2. The safe downstream channel carrying capacity of the Damodar river is 1.1 lakh cusecs, said an official of the corporation. However, a central panel in 1971 had found that the drainage channels in the lower valley were not even capable of discharging 60,000 cusecs of water.

The discharge of water, far above the maximum carrying capacity of the river, allegedly without informing the state government, naturally inundated hundreds of villages in the lower reaches.

The DVC, however, refuted the state government’s allegation that the water was released without informing it.

“Before the release of water, flood warning messages are communicated well in advance to Chief Engineers of Government of West Bengal, District Magistrates of Purba Bardhaman, Paschim Bardhaman, Purulia, Bankura, and Superintending Engineer and Executive Engineer, Durgapur, the government of West Bengal,” the DVC said through advertisements in major newspapers last Sunday (October 3).

“The water was released from the DVC dams for the moderation of flood as per the advice of the Damodar Valley Reservoir Regulation Committee (DVRRC),” said an official of the corporation seeking anonymity. Chief engineer-ranked officials of the West Bengal and Jharkhand governments are the members of the committee, he pointed out.

Also read: Bengal floods not DVC’s fault, but Mamata’s doing, allege BJP leaders

Even if the state government was informed, the DVC cannot wash its hands of its failure to control the flood for which it was established.

“DVC, conceived as a multi-state public organization, has completely failed to scientifically regulate the inter-state flow and discharge into Damodar and take corrective measures to either increase the water holding capacity of its dams or maintain and upgrade its existing infrastructure by way of de-siltation and dredging of the dams,” the CM said in her four-page letter.

That the DVC would fail to achieve its primary objective of flood control was predicted at its very inception by environmental activist and engineer, late Kapil Bhattacharjee. To mobilise public support against the project, he even held several meetings in the Damodar valley areas in vain.

Bhattacharjee later also wrote about what ailed the project in his book Swadhin Bharate Nad-Nadi Parikalpana (River planning in independent India). He had apprehended that the taming of the river would thwart its flow, which would lead to the deposition of silt in the dams, eventually lowering their water holding capacity. This, he had predicted, would compel the DVC to discharge excess water from the reservoirs whenever there would be heavy rainfall.

Earlier in 2013, an expert committee of the environment ministry had observed that at the pace at which the silts were accumulating in the reservoirs, the DVC dams would not be able to stop the severe floods after a decade.

The original plan envisaged the construction of seven major dams on the 592 kilometre-long Damodar river that originates in the hills of Chota Nagpur plateau in Jharkhand. In West Bengal, it joins with the Hooghly River in the Howrah district, about 50 km upstream from Kolkata.

Eventually, the DVC constructed four dams Tilaiya, Maithon, Konar and Panchet.
The construction of dams obstructed the flow of water reducing the discharge carrying capacity of the river resulting from sedimentation of its channels. This also leads to flooding.

“The drainage channels of the Damodar river flowing into the Roopnarayan start overflowing whenever there are heavy rains in the upper catchment area compelling the DVC to discharge more water,” said the DVC official.

Unless the reservoirs are de-silted and the river channels are dredged, the DVC will fail to prevent floods. But citing techno-commercial impracticality, the Central government has been ignoring the state government’s request for desiltation of DVC reservoirs.

“Dams are rarely de-silted as it is economically not viable and moreover the process can damage the structure,” the DVC official added.

For the de-siltation of just two reservoirs, Maithon and Panchet, the environment ministry’s committee had estimated that Rs 3,500 crore would be needed.

The West Bengal government, which is responsible for the maintenance of the drainage channels in the lower valley, is also not showing any urgency to dredge the channel to increase the intake capacity. The inaction of the two governments only means Damodar will continue to be the sorrow of Bengal.

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