The Konkan Railway’s route through Maharashtra, Goa, and Karnataka is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful train journeys in India. The train tracks snake along the edge of steep cliffs of the Sahyadri range, wind past lush forests, and cut across fast-flowing rivers.
Constructing the Konkan Railway was beset with challenges – torrential rain during monsoon, soft soil that led to tunnels caving in on multiple occasions, the dangers of blasting the ancient mountains of the Western Ghats. Ninety-three people lost their lives while laying this route.
Still, in just eight years, the mammoth project was completed and 31 years later, it’s still held up as a feat of Indian engineering. To quote the Konkan Railway Corporation Limited website, it “changed the lives of the engineers and other people associated with the project.”
Locals in Mahad taluka of Maharashtra’s Raigad district would perhaps agree that Konkan Railway has changed their lives, but in a very different way. The environmental impact of this project has been devastating for the region. “The Konkan Railway is 85 percent responsible for the floods,” said Prakash Pol, who retired last year after working as a junior engineer in the Raigad’s irrigation department for 25 years.
Experts agree that Konkan Railway’s decision to build a bridge at Dasgaon village has made Mahad vulnerable to floods and Pol has the statistics to prove this. In 1989, when there was heavy flooding following 732 millimetres rainfall in Mahabaleshwar, water levels in Mahad rose to 8.25 metres above sea level. In 1994, a year after the Konkan Railway was constructed, there was 400 mm of rain in Mahabaleshwar and water levels rose to 8.40 metres above sea level in Mahad. In 2005, Mahabaleshwar got 500 mm of rain and the water level in Mahad rose to 9.75 metres. In 2021, 596 mm of rain in Mahabaleshwar led to the water level in Mahad to rise to 11.75 metres.
“Now, if it rains like 1989 again,” Pol said, “nothing will be left.”
Floods have been an annual feature for Mahad taluka for as long as anyone can remember, thanks to its three rivers – Savitri, Kal, and Gandhari – but the intensity of the flooding has been increasing. Landslides have also become more frequent. In July 2021, the region was struck by the worst floods in 16 years. Over 200 people died in Maharashtra due to the floods of July 2021.
Two villages on the banks of a swollen Kal river were completely wrecked and a bridge on the river collapsed on July 22. Locals like Bayabai Waze of Laxmiwadi village lost their homes and practically all their possessions. They have chilling stories of close escapes. Waze remembers the water rose to chest level within minutes and she was barely able to make it to safety with her family and two buffaloes.
“My whole house was swept away in the flood,” she said.
Ecologist Gurudas Nulkar said that after the floods subsided this year, a thick layer of silt (measuring approximately 1.5 feet) was found in houses in Mahad.
“According to the estimates of Dr. Himanshu Kukarni, [founder-director of the think tank Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management], there have been at least 5,000-10,000 landslides in the entire Sahyadri. These have significantly added to the siltation in the river,” said Nulkar.
Around 12 km away, in the Taliye region of Mahad taluka, all that remains of Kondalkarwadi village are painful memories and wreckage. Broken televisions, cracked photo frames, teacups and other debris lie strewn across the once-bustling village that has been deserted since July 22, 2021, when a landslide wiped out much of Kondalkarwadi and killed 86 people. Many bodies couldn’t be recovered.
The events of that tragic day haunt the living. Survivors don’t want to return to the place where family members and friends lie buried under the broken homes. “A feeling of fear has seeped in and people think they hear the cries from the village at night,” said Sharad Shelar, a resident of the nearby Madhlewadi.
In the 14-km stretch between Bhivghar and Pimpalwadi in Raigad district, over 100 landslides took place on July 22, 2021. While locals are waiting for the relief they’ve been promised by the state, a key issue is the way successive administrations have neglected to address the dangers facing this region.
As far back as in July 1999, the state government had been alerted to increased flooding because of the bridge constructed by Konkan Railway in Dasgaon, Mahad. That year, a flood control committee confirmed that debris from the construction of the bridge was thrown into the river. This debris, in turn, obstructed the flow of the Savitri river, leading to heavy floods.
The report also said a large amount of deforestation had taken place near Gandhari and Savitri rivers. Deforestation weakens and degrades the soil, making the region vulnerable to landslides and floods. Back in 1999, the committee had recommended a series of measures and an estimated budget of Rs 200 crore for their implementation.
EE Dhaktode, executive engineer of Raigad’s irrigation department (which overlooks aspects of flood management), confirmed to Newslaundry that the recommendations of the report had not yet been implemented. He was unable to explain why, but said a fresh model study was being conducted after the 2021 floods.
The Uddhav Thackeray-led government in Maharashtra announced a relief package of Rs 11,500 crore in August 2021. Of this, Rs 1,500 crore is to be allocated towards ex-gratia for the flood-affected people; Rs 3,000 crore for redevelopment; and Rs 7,000 crore for various long-term, flood-mitigation schemes.
For dwellings that are completely destroyed, Rs 1.50 lakh per house will be given, and Rs 50,000 will be given in case of 50 percent destruction. For houses that have a minimum of 25 percent destruction, Rs 25,000 will be given; those with 15 percent destruction will get Rs 15,000. Each affected family is to be given Rs 10,000 towards damaged clothes, utensils, domestic apparatus, and so on.
For loss of livestock, Rs 4,000 will be given per lactating animal; Rs 30,000 per animal used in hard labour; Rs 20,000 per small animal used in hard labour; and Rs 4,000 per sheep, pig, or goat. Fishing boats and nets that are completely damaged will receive Rs 25,000 and Rs 5,000 respectively. Local residents and shopkeepers who have suffered damage are due to receive Rs 50,000 or 75 percent of their total loss.
Those affected by the landslides and floods say these amounts are inadequate. Also, the relief is yet to reach them. While several of the above relief measures for this year are yet to be implemented – according to the sub-magistrate’s office, it takes a few months for funds to reach people – Maharashtra’s track record of disaster management and relief in Mahad is poor.
Newslaundry spoke to people from Dasgaon, a village in Mahad which was ravaged by landslides in 2005 when more than 100 people died. Several promises were made to Dasgaon residents back then, most of which are yet to be fulfilled. As they await the promised compensation, many have spent more than 15 years in tin sheds that were supposed to be temporary housing. The government had promised to shift everyone to proper houses within six months.
Along with the pleas of those whose lives have been destroyed by these natural disasters, successive governments in Maharashtra have also ignored the recommendations made by various committees after surveying Mahad taluka. The 1999 report of the flood control committee – which had been set up after heavy flooding in 1994 (a year after the Konkan Railway was completed) – made the following suggestions:
Regular plantation of trees near the Gandhari and Savitri rivers, where deforestation had been noted
Removal of small islands in the rivers of Mahad which object to the flow of water
Expansion of the riverbed along Savitri river
Construction of bunds on river banks to prevent flooding
No residential construction on both sides of XX river (within a range of 8.30 metres)
Dr Sameer Butala, associate professor and head of the geography department in Sundarrao More College, Raigad, said, “The level of floods has been rising through the years. Yet none of the recommendations are being implemented. The average flood level in Mahad before 1993 was 8.25 metres – after 1993 it rose to 9.70 metres, and now it is 11.72 metres.”
The only recommendation that has been implemented to a limited extent are the bunds, some of which are under construction. Work on the bund for the hydroelectricity project on Kal river (water capacity: 94 million cubic meters; cost: Rs 1,300 crore) started in 2004 and was expected to finish by 2016. The low-level dam Sawad Dharavali, which costs Rs 12.30 crore and has a water capacity of 2.7 mcm, has been under construction since 2004-2005.
However, according to Butala’s estimates, even if all the recommended bunds were built, the impact of flooding in Mahad would have reduced only by 18-20 percent. Since water flows from the Sahyadri hills at a high velocity, dams are more likely to be effective and economical than bunds, said Butala. By way of example, he said the cost of bunds for Bhave dam would be Rs 48.02 crore and their water capacity would be 2.7 mcm.
In 2010, a committee called the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel was constituted under the chairmanship of ecologist Madhav Gadgil to conduct an in-depth survey of places around the range of Western Ghats, which included Mahad. The to the ministry of environment and forests in 2011 found 64 percent of the Western Ghats in six states, including Maharashtra, are environmentally sensitive areas.
The committee recommended no new cities be built in the environmentally sensitive areas; construction in the wetlands and river catchment areas should be prevented; new dams should be stopped; and expansion of tourism and mining should be banned.
The report was rejected by the centre as well as state governments. Instead, another committee was set up instead, which diluted these recommendations. It said only 37 percent of the Western Ghats region needs to be classified as ecologically sensitive areas.
With a decades-long history of committees being set up and their recommendations being ignored, there’s little hope pinned upon the new model study that has been commissioned to study the flood-hit areas after July 2021. Meanwhile, those living in Mahad remain vulnerable to environmental disasters.
Ecologist Gurudas Nulkar said, “Every time, after the floods, the same set of recommendations are given, almost like a copy-paste. But till today, nothing has been implemented.”
He said India needs to rethink its urban development policies in order to prevent tragedies like the ones Mahad suffered in July 2021. “It’s not about the flooding of the river. It’s about the way the city is structured,” he said. “The urban development, the urban sprawl, the way the city has expanded, the way the Mumbai-Goa highway is being built – all of it is causing huge problems, including landslides.”
He added that the excavations for the new Mumbai-Goa highway were a cause for concern. “The excavations include dynamite blasting, which is not controlled at all. None of the environment impact assessments have specified how it should be done or controlled,” he said.
As with the Konkan Railway, environmentalists and local activists have raised objections about the Mumbai-Goa highway, but these efforts have had little impact. It seems the Indian government abides by the notion that environmental damage is an inevitable and necessary price to pay for development. In the case of the Konkan Railway, one of the costs of this prestigious infrastructural project has been the increasing intensity of floods and landslides in Mahad taluka.
Of late, the situation in flood-prone areas has been serious enough for the state finance minister Ajit Pawar to acknowledge it in the legislative assembly. In February, while presenting the state’s budget, Pawar said a request had been made to the Centre for a National Disaster Response Force team that would be permanently deployed at Mahad in Raigad for “prompt and timely help” during natural disasters.
A similar request was made the year before by the Raigad collector and seconded by the director of Maharashtra’s disaster management authority, Abhay Yawalkar.
Yet when the landslides and floods struck Mahad in July 2021, no NDRF team was in place. The team that was sent reached affected areas a day late because they were delayed by landslides. In August this year, the Maharashtra government allocated a five-acre land parcel to set up a permanent base camp for NDRF in Mahad.
For those who have lost their homes, families or livelihoods in the floods and landslides of July 2021, the state’s promises of rehabilitation and relief are a more urgent and immediate concern.
“We were hoping the state government would help us, but nothing happened,” said Hirabai Shedge, a resident of Pimpalwadi whose plot of agricultural land was destroyed in a landslide. With no one to help remove the debris, Shedge’s land couldn’t be cultivated for months because it was covered with the rocks and detritus of the landslide.
She said the local legislator told her to count her blessings that the landslide hadn’t claimed her home, as it had for so many others. “I didn’t say anything,” Shedge said. “We’re poor. How can we even argue with these people?”
Update: The name Prakash Pol incorrectly appeared as Prakash Bhawakpol; this has been corrected. The error is regretted.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which our readers contributed to. It was made possible by Abhimanyu Hazarika, Sayan Trivedi, Animesh Chaudhary, Sekharbabu, Omkar, Siddhesh Salvi, Shubhada Sawant, Vaibhav V, Maverick Shrader, Natesh Iyer, Suhas, Abhinav Chakraborty, Ritesh Verma, Anirudh Chhangani, Prashant Philips, Sanjay Khandagale, Gursharan Singh, Abhimanyu Sinha, Gangadhar Hiremath, Jyotsana Jagtap, Ashish Bokey, Sunny Ashish, Abeera Dubey, Manish Raj Pradhan, Varun Kuzhikattil, Jaymin Darbari, Srishti Minz, Shankar Chandrashekar, R Siddharth, Madhurima, and other NL Sena members.
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