Morbi Machchu river disasters, dam burst in 1979, bridge collapse
Gujarat reels from one of the deadliest bridge collapse incidents in India's recent history, claiming at least 134 lives | File Image

Morbi, a site of 2 major disasters: Dam burst in 1979, bridge collapse now

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The collapse of the cable suspension bridge on Sunday over Machchu river at Morbi, which claimed over 130 lives, has revived memories of a deadly dam burst 43 years ago in Morbi.

On August 11, 1979, after a week of extraordinary monsoon rains in Gujarat, the two mile-long Machchu Dam-II disintegrated — listed as ‘worst dam burst’ in The Guinness Book of Records – claiming thousands of lives.

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The Machchu II dam was constructed downstream of Machchu I dam – which was built in 1959 — in 1972. An earthfill dam, it was meant to serve as an irrigation scheme. The main consideration at the time of design was water supply, not flood control as Saurashtra region has a long history of drought.

When the dam broke

The dam broke at 3.15 pm and within 15 minutes the water of the dam had engulfed the entire city and its surrounding agricultural villages.

The estimates of the number of people killed in the unprecedented tragedy vary greatly ranging from 1,800 to 25,000. The loss of livestock too was estimated to be over 20,000.

Machchu dam-II was later rebuilt in the end of the 1980s.

“While no firm figure has ever been set on the disaster’s final death count, estimates in the flood’s wake ran as high as 25,000,” read the 2011 released book ‘No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History’s Deadliest Floods’ by Tom Wooten and Utpal Sandesara.

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The book details first-person accounts of many survivors making a harrowing read – people trying to rush to higher ground but yet losing to the rising water level, babies being swept by the surging waters as their mothers try to save themselves. Over a hundred people took shelter in Vajepar Ram Mandir but later the deluge submerged them with the temple.

Indira Gandhi’s visit

When Indira Gandhi visited Morbi a few days after this tragic accident, it was very difficult for her to conduct her tour because of the foul odour. There is a photograph of her in which she is holding a handkerchief over her nose.

Reportedly, when Indira Gandhi visited the district and other sites the area was strewn with corpses and there was stench of putrefying flesh.

The rise of RSS

The disaster helped the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) make inroads in the area, till then a Congress bastion. The RSS members came out in large numbers – it is claimed that Narendra Modi too was among them – to help in the rescue and relief work.

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The relief work that it undertook helped the saffron organisation to increase its influence in the area, so much so that Morbi is today considered to be a BJP stronghold.

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