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Gujarat Floods: 'Victims of PM Modi’s Birthday Celebrations' Struggle to Regain Footing

People affected by the floods – in which the Gujarat government's decision to release dam water on the PM's birthday allegedly played a role – spoke of how the government did not help them rebuild their homes and how compensation has not been enough.
Homes in Bharuch district's Juna Diwa village have still not been patched up as villagers say they do not have the finances for it. Photo: Tarushi Aswani.

Bharuch (Gujarat): Eight months ago, on September 17, 2023, as celebrations of the birthday of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took place, Prabhu Ahir saw waves of water reducing his home to debris in Borbhatha, a remote village in southern Gujarat’s Bharuch district.

“We didn’t even get time to pack up and move to a safer place, we were sitting on the floor and our plates started floating away because of the water,” Ahir said.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Thousands of people in various districts of Gujarat were flooded by water which flowed in from the Sardar Sarovar dam.

Locals and opposition leaders alleged that the Gujarat government had opened the floodgates of the dam in a delayed manner, despite rain, just so that the reservoir could be full on the prime minister’s birthday.

The Congress alleged that houses and properties belonging to thousands of families in the affected parts of the Bharuch and Narmada districts were damaged after “over 18 lakh cusec[s] [of] water” was released at once.

In Bharuch district alone, more than 5,800 people were affected because of the delayed water release.

Owing to the opening of floodgates and the heavy rain that followed, the National Disaster Response Force rescued scores of people trapped in the floodwaters on the September 17 and 18, 2023.

People use boats to reach to safety in Bharuch district in Gujarat after water released from Sardar Sarovar Project on Narmada river flood downstream areas. Photo: Screengrab via video on X/@KamitSolanki.

Botched warnings, faulty predictions

In Bharuch’s main market, Satishbhai Gandhi has been running his family business for three decades now.

His 100-year-old shop cupboards storing grocery products don’t have labels of the items placed inside them; rather, they bear markings of the levels of floods that inundate the district year after year.

Being near the Narmada River and the southern tip of Gujarat, the Bharuch and Narmada districts are used to floods.

In the past, the district administrations have informed residents of incessant rains that would result in flash floods and also suggested routes and dates for evacuating the area.

“For one person, they delayed the water flow; they should have levelled the water flow and then released the water. My shop is 100 years old; my ancestors have witnessed floods in 1970, 1994, 2003 and 2020, when the situation was out of control because of the rain,” Gandhi recalled.

He continued: “But last year, it was something else.” He said suffered a loss of at least Rs 3 lakh.

Sanjaybhai Gandhi’s shop in Bharuch Bazaar bears markings from previous floods. Photo: Tarushi Aswani.

Other traders who have seen how floods flatten their finances year after year agreed with Gandhi.

K.K. Trunkwala, who runs a 75-year-old business in Bharuch Bazaar, said: “Floods are not a new phenomenon here; we live in the floodplains of the Narmada River, it overflows its mark every year during monsoon. Generally, we are given a forecast and warned well ahead of time, with evacuation notices issued.

“But this time, not only was the rainfall measurement incorrect, but also there was no notice or intimation from the administration indicating such havoc. This year, unending heavy rainfall seems to have made it even worse.”

Zamzam Plastics is a narrow shop in Bharuch Bazaar. It is another business that sank because of the engineered floods and has not been able to anchor itself like it was before the prime minister’s birthday.

Amid the hundred-odd shops in the Bazaar, Aminbhai, owner of the small business, said: “We suffered a loss of Rs 2.5 lakh. The government had sent survey groups from the municipality 10 days after the floods. We openly told them how the lack of flood warnings had ruined our livelihoods,” he said.

The dam 

The Sardar Sarovar dam is an interstate project that supplies electricity to the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, as well as water for drinking and irrigation to parts of Gujarat.

Data from the government website that tracks the Sardar Sarovar dam’s reservoir capacity shows that due to the monsoon, the dam’s reservoir has filled up fully on September 17 almost every year since 2019, when the Gujarat government began an annual ritual of honouring Modi’s birthday using the dam.

The Brackish Water Research Centre, which has been operating in Gujarat since 2003, said the flood was a “man-made disaster”, the New Indian Express reported.

The Centre, which works to safeguard maritime environment for the benefit of coastal communities, had written to Gujarat chief minister Bhupendra Patel accusing the state government and “human negligence” of causing the flood in Bharuch, the report said.

Bharuch Bazaar saw massive floods with shops and homes being affected alike. Photo: Tarushi Aswani.

‘My cows drowned’

Sandip J. Patel is an animal enthusiast and farm owner. A dozen cows can be heard mooing at a distance from his farm in Bharuch’s Juna Diwa village.

“I created this space for my cows, hens, peacocks, calves and horses. I have been a poultry farm owner for nine years now,” Patel said.

The floods that occurred in September not only affected Patel’s livelihood, but also sent his family into deep trauma after 71 of his cattle drowned to death in the floods and rain.

“We cried for days on end. They were not just dairy producing animals for me – our family treated them like our children. We were broken when we lost them,” Patel told The Wire.

Patel, who is associated with the BJP, believes that the dam was heavily misused and that the government was fully responsible in this regard.

Having borne damages worth Rs 80 lakh during the floods, Patel said that this could not be undone with any amount of monetary compensation.

In Juna Diwa’s neighbouring Sarfuddin village, Manjuben Pochan was sitting in the sun with her husband Vinod, discussing the coming month’s finances and how to arrange them.

Vinod’s house looked newly-made, with fresh engravings on its outer cement wall. But he said his mind was still stuck in September 2023, when his cotton and vegetable farm was submerged because of the excess water release.

Villagers in Bharuch’s Sarfuddin village said that their homes were re-built by the Ram Sena. Photo: Tarushi Aswani.

“We spent three days sleeping on the railway track on the bridge,” Vinod said, referring to his family, including his son and his wife. “One of us would have to stay awake to alert the others about train arrivals and movements.”

Vinod’s son Nilesh faced heightened stress during the floods – with his young children sleeping on thermocol sheets to avoid water-borne infections.

For three months after the floods, Vinod and Nilesh were unemployed and in fear of contracting diseases.

“When we returned to our flooded homes, the government didn’t help us to rebuild our lives; Ram Sena volunteers helped us. They constructed the homes we have today,” Nilesh said.

Starvation also followed them to the train track where they took refuge from the floodwaters. Vinod’s wife Manjuben told The Wire: “No government teams came to provide us any ration bags or packages, it was only civil society groups that fed us”.

Counting compensation

Abrar Kapadia owns a 15-year-old grocery business in Bharuch’s Gandhi Bazaar. Kapadia, like many others, have used up all their savings to fund the loss that the flood brought with it.

Since March, Kapadia and other shopkeepers have been slowly receiving state compensation – a portion of the massive damage they bore. 

In September 2023, the Gujarat government announced a relief package for farmers affected by flooding in Bharuch, Narmada and Vadodara districts. Farmers eligible for assistance were asked to apply through the ‘Digital Gujarat Portal’ before the deadline of October 31, 2023.

An area affected by the floods in Gujarat. Photo: Special arrangement.

The government said that to be eligible for the relief package, farmers must have “incurred a loss of 33% or more” of their agricultural and horticultural crops during the 2023-24 kharif season.

Officials said this assistance will be available to farmers in villages declared as affected by the district administration and for a maximum of two hectares, the Hindustan Times reported.

For non-irrigated crops, affected farmers were to receive a relief package worth Rs 8,500 per hectare, and for irrigated agriculture and rainfed horticulture crops, they would receive Rs 8,000 in addition to Rs 17,000 per hectare as per the state disaster response force (SDRF)’s norms, HT’s report also said.

Perennial crops would receive assistance of Rs 15,000 per hectare in addition to the Rs 22,500 provided as per SDRF norms. Similarly, for perennial horticultural crops with 33% or more damage per hectare, farmers would be eligible for assistance of Rs 1,02,500, along with Rs 22,500 paid as per SDRF norms.

In a small thatched-roof hut, Kamlesh Jayantibhai Vasava, a mustard farmer, said he is now forced to drive an auto-rickshaw for several reasons triggered by the floods.

“My house was submerged. My electronics, utilities, documents – even cash – were all gone in floodwater,” Vasava told The Wire.

“We got Rs 7,000 as compensation; that can’t make up for the losses,” he added.

Though Vasava and many others received the basic compensation the government offered, for many like him, simply claiming more compensation proved to be a hurdle because important documents were washed away in the floods.

View from the Borbhatha village, on the banks of the Narmada River. Photo: Tarushi Aswani.

“Our land is owned by my father, who passed away recently. Now I cannot claim compensation for the damage to the house on this land because all documents are damaged,” he explained.

To patch up the hole that the flood made in his land, Vasava took a Rs 70,000 loan from a private bank, which levied Rs 20,000 as interest. Repayment is due in two years’ time.

“The interest is almost one-third of the loan amount. I have to drive an auto, which is also not my own. I don’t know whether I will be able to repay the loan on time,” Vasava said.

Across towns and villages, locals whom The Wire spoke to understand that the geographical placement of their region makes it prone to floods. Many noted that this was always their reality. However, they still fail to understand why a government would engineer a flood knowing well that the region had already witnessed heavier-than-usual rainfall in the same season.

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