The two Harvard student-authors, Utpal Sandesara & Tom Wooten develop their account of the devastating 1979 dam collapse in Gujarat within the context of the social history of 20th century India. This book is part travelogue and part biography as well as the story of a terrible tragedy. I couldn't help comparing it to accounts of New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Politics are firmly embedded in the latter part of both tragedies in an ugly, but predictable manner.
The collapse of Machhu Dam-II looms over the narrative like the Erinyes over the hero in a Greek tragedy. It was an accident waiting to happen, rather like the collapse of the New Orleans levees during Hurricane Katrina. On an exceptionally rainy August 11, 1979, the impounded water finally overtops its earthen embankments as the 2 million+ people living below it are performing their monsoon routines and preparing for the Hindu Shravan holidays.
The dam itself was only seven years old, but the calculations for the maximum amount of water that it needed to hold were fatally flawed. The monsoon rains that precipitated the collapse dumped 28 inches of rain on the region in less than 24 hours. The two-mile-long earthen embankments that flanked either side of the concrete spillway were never meant to be overtopped. When they were, the banks quickly eroded away and the cities and villages downstream were inundated by twelve to thirty feet of raging floodwater, including Morbi (aka Morvi), which was also known as 'the Paris of India.'
The authors interviewed many citizens of Morbi and its surrounding villages, including the mayor, a principal, and a convict who was serving time for murder, all of them victims of the flood. The reader is given a solid introduction to what life for these protagonists was like before, during, and after the disaster. One of my favorite characters, other than the convict Gangaram Tapu who saved many people during the flood, is Pratapbhai Adroja, the owner of a small tobacco shop called 'Ghost Paan.' The Indian Government did finally get around to helping Morbi rebuild, but Pratapbhai's fellow-citizens pitched in and helped his Ghost Paan reopen less than a week after the floodwater almost destroyed their city.
I think Americans could learn a few lessons from the citizens of Morbi on how to get a city back up and running, with only minimal help from Big Government.
Be sure to read the thoughtful forward on 'Disasters Natural and Unnatural' by Paul Farmer, the Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. I actually came away from this book feeling proud of what the citizens of Morbi accomplished during the rebuilding of their city, in spite of a Government that seemed to be most interested in suppressing the report from the Machhu Dam-II Inquiry Commission, and elected officials who were focused on fixing blame on the 'other' political party, rather than on the rebirth of the 'Paris of India.'
Morbi was rebuilt to be bigger and wealthier than before the flood, then suffered another round of devastation during a 2001 earthquake centered just north of the Gulf of Kutch. So the authors were surprised to find that "the Machhu dam disaster remained 'the' disaster for the city's inhabitants...Although the region had transformed radically in the intervening decades, the disaster of 1979 remained a definitive event in the local consciousness."
Estimates of the number of dead from the Machhu dam break range from 1500 to 15000 people, but the focus of "No One had a Tongue to Speak" is quite rightly on the survivors.
***review copy supplied by the authors