First-hand account: Floods in 2023 tell the same old story of devastation as in 1993

by Rajinder Singh Taggar

The devastation by floods this monsoon season in Punjab takes me back to 1993 when continuous 4-day torrential rain led to an equally bad situation in the state. Being a witness to the colossal loss of life and property 30 years ago, I realize that successive governments learned no lessons from past mistakes. It is evident from the striking similarities between the recent newspaper reports and the videos on social media and the reportage three decades ago – still fresh in my memory – of floods in 1993.

As a young journalist working with The Tribune, I was posted in Ropar, about 40 kilometers from Chandigarh. In this piece, going down memory lane, I would focus on a particular nostalgic day of torrential rain and the conditions in which reporters worked 30 years ago. In the process, the apathy of successive governments and their criminal failure in chalking out a lasting solution to the monsoon monster that swallows human and animal lives apart from destroying crops would also find mentioned.

It was around 5.30 am when a fellow reporter chugged through knee-deep rainwater to my lent-out (not rent-out) residence in officers colony, as I lay snoring over a folding-pipe bed in a typical bachelor’s room, totally oblivious of ground reality. On that day there was no ground really visible, it was water spread all over. The upward-scaling water level was only a few centimeters below my ‘charpoy’s’ resting platform, if we can really call it a platform, when my journalist friend loudly called out my name.

The district administration headed by DC Manmohan Hurria, had pressed into service small boats to evict residents to safer places on the morning of the fourth day. As young reporters armed with a Yashica camera, we decided to move out to assess the flood situation. Clicking pictures, we reached the Satluj Headworks on the Nawanshehr-Hoshiarpur-Jalandhar road. Short-statured SSP Sanjiv Gupta, wearing a T-shirt and a white nicker, was overseeing the traffic movement, marching to and fro in gumboots on the headworks road. The fury of Satluj waters was awe-inspiring. And lo a wireless message on Walkie-Talkie set informed of a major breach on Ropar-Chandigarh road.

The ‘Budki Nadi’ was in spate. Its embankments breached and the gushing waters made a large crater on the Ropar-Chandigarh highway near the Bhatha Sahib Gurdwara. On the other end of the city, another seasonal rivulet breached and washed away a part of the Ropar-Hoshiarpur highway. The third link of Ropar to the rest of Punjab passed through several ‘Choes’ (rivulet) to connect to Morinda, too became redundant as all the ‘Choes’ were in spate. There used to be no bridges in the 90s to cross over these rivulets. However, the Himachal’s Nalagarh route joining Ropar, by a narrow broken road, to the hill state remained operative.

In those days, as modern communication gadgets and devices like mobile phones, WhatsApp and email facilities did not exist, we had to travel to the state Capital by road to deliver news reports to newspaper offices. As Ropar stood disconnected from the rest of Punjab, I, along with five other newsmen all working for different newspapers published from Chandigarh or having their sub-offices in UT, travelled in a rickety Matador van of the Public Relations (PR) Department to Chandigarh. A journey from Ropar to Chandigarh took 50 minutes by road on a normal day. But on that rainy day, it took 7 hours one way via Himachal Pradesh.

I vividly remember the night scene at 2 am on a roadside ‘dhaba’ in Himachal Pradesh, where we stopped on our way back for having dinner. Those were also the days of terrorism. A PR official would always accompany journalists when they used government vehicles. Sometimes an armed cop would also be in tow.

It was raining heavily and the tin roof sheets under which the eatery functioned generated music akin to playing of ‘Jaltrang’ instrument as part of an orchestra. It was time for beverages. The commonly available ‘dal makhani’ had a smoky flavour, as the food was cooked on earthen ‘Chullahs’ by burning small pieces of dry wood. The liquified petroleum gas (LPG) was used only in big hotels and ‘dhabas’ in urban areas.

When the monsoon receded, the administration analysed the devastation to send a report to the Chief Secretary. It concluded: The main reason adding to the severity of flood fury was choking of water channels meant to carry the rainwater. They all stood clean – on paper – but the reality was the opposite. The wild growth, encroachments and plantation of fast-growing varieties of trees on the rivulet beds were identified as other causes of devastation. The drainage department did not strengthen the embankments of seasonal rivulets resulting in breaches. The raising and re-carpeting of roads unscientifically blocked the natural flow of rainwater. In many places, farmers whose fields got filled with rainwater deliberately introduced cuts into embankments of seasonal rivers adding to the misery.

As I Googled today, I found reasons behind the present-day flood situation remaining the same as in 1993. Just like the late CM Beant Singh, the current CM Bhagwant Mann was seen visiting flood-affected areas and conferring with officers. He was telling them to clean waterways, remove encroachments etc. News reports narrate the same old story of 1993.

Rajinder Singh Taggar

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