Book on 1979 Morbi dam disaster rubbishes ‘Act of God’ theory

When the 33rd anniversary of Machhu Dam-II disaster in Morbi — a tragedy listed as the worst dam burst in the Guinness Book of Records — is less than a month away, a book by two Harvard University students released on Tuesday was not only an emotional moment for this industrial town in Rajkot district but also time to retrospect. For, the book has made controversial claims, which can stir a debate on the cause and handling of the tragedy that had killed thousands of people in 1979.

The book, No One Had A Tongue To Speak, by Tom Wooten and Utpal Sandesara — the first-ever documentation of the enormous scale of devastation — holds the design of the dam responsible for the tragedy and not "Act of God" as claimed by the then state government.

On August 11, 1979, the earthen walls of the four-kilometer long Machhu Dam-II had disintegrated after 10 days of incessant monsoon rains. The result: water of the dam's massive reservoir gushed through the heavily populated downstream areas, devastating the industrial town and its surrounding villages.

The book released by 1979 MLA Gokaldas Parmar says, "Ignoring repeated warnings from the central government, state government engineers used outdated methods to calculate the maximum potential inflow to the dam's reservoir. The dam's floodgates could pass 220,000 cubic feet per second of water, but the inflow to the reservoir during the day preceding the disaster exceeded 400,000 cubic feet per second. The collapse was neither an 'act of God' — as the government claimed — nor a failure in management by dam workers — as most citizens of Morbi believe to this day. But rather a severe failure of both engineering and oversight."

The book maintains that the death toll was phenomenally high because of systematic communication failures.

It further details the tragic tale of the commission of inquiry tasked with uncovering the truth about the flood. For 18 months in the 1980s, the commission's members collected evidence on the technical causes of the dam's failure and on the adequacy of the efforts to warn downstream citizens of the impending danger. Then, as the investigation honed in on flawed design practices in the irrigation department, engineers complained to then Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki. The CM wound up the commission before it could complete its work, claims the book.

By the late '80s, the dam was rebuilt without the survivors ever learning why their loved ones had perished.

According to the book, then District Collector A R Banerji had scrambled to coordinate immediate relief operations, only to lose his position several months later after writing a damning (and subsequently hidden) report about the government's handling of the flood.

Sandesara, an NRI who learnt about the Machhcu tragedy from her Gujarati mother in the US while watching 2004 tsunami tragedy, and Wooten had received research grants from Harvard in 2006. From June to August in 2006, they conducted research in Morbi, its surrounding villages, Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar and New Delhi.

Besides interviewing disaster survivors, government officials and relief workers, the duo collected thousands of documents, ranging from newspaper articles to relief reports to the personal journal of Babubhai Patel, who was the CM at the time of the tragedy.

The authors also met CM Narendra Modi, who had volunteered in the relief operations after the flood. They said Modi granted them unprecedented access to critical government documents, which allowed them to write a complete history of the disaster.

The book recalls experiences of those who lived the disaster. First-person accounts reveal how people reacted when a 10-metre high wall of water gushed towards them.

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