Monday, November 19, 2007

State capacity in 1893

I came across a fascinating story of public administration in the colonial era:

Gohna village is located on the true right bank of the Birahi Ganga, not far from Chamoli town. The nearest road head is Nijmula village, 2 kms down the true left of the river. A further 9 kms by road from there is Birahi town, where the river merges with the Alaknanda. Chamoli town is a 7 km drive from Birahi.

A massive landslip in September, 1893 created a natural dam across the Birahi Ganga near Gohna village, 900 ft high, 11000 ft wide at the base, and 2000 ft high at the apex. The trapped waters of the river collected upstream of the dam, forming a lake that came to be known as Gohna Tal, although several locals seem to refer to it as Durmi Tal, after the village of Durmi 3 kms upstream the Birahi Ganga.

The first intimation that the world received of this catastrophe was a message from the patwari (local administrative official) to the Deputy Commissioner of the district, in which he merely reported that a mountain had fallen. This unlikely news was ignored by the DC. Fortunately, the district surveyor and the executive engineer were touring in the area, and gave a detailed report to the administration. This resulted in a visit by a brilliant army engineer, Lt. Col. Pulford, who gave the opinion that there was no danger until the accumulated waters topped the dam, at which time there would be an enormous flood down the Alaknanda valley. Pulford's view was contested by other experts, some saying that the dam will burst due to pressure well before the waters flow over the top, and some others saying that nothing will happen at all because the waters would top the dam and flow peacefully downstream. Fortunately, again, the Government listened to Pulford.

An Assistant Engineer from the army, Lt. Crookshank, was sent to Gohna, with the task of watching the lake, and sounding the alarm when it was about to top the dam. A telegraph cable was installed for this purpose. Observation posts to monitor the levels of the Alaknanda and the Ganga were established in various places, from Chamoli town all the way downstream to Haridwar. Pillars were erected in many places in the Alaknanda and Ganga valleys to mark the danger limits of the expected deluge, and the inhabitants were directed to evacuate as soon as the water crossed these levels. The pilgrim routes were diverted, and suspension bridges across the Alaknanda were dismantled.

Based on Lt. Crookshank's data, the army engineers very accurately predicted the date when the overflow would occur. On 22 August, 1894, nearly one year after the formation of the lake, Lt. Crookshank declared that the flood would start in the next two days. Quite creditable, since the river topped the dam in the wee hours of the 25th August, the barrier collapsed with a bang at about midnight, and the flood ended early in the morning on the 26th August. It was found that over 10000 million cubic feet of water had escaped, and that the level of the lake had descended by 390 ft. Srinagar was completely swept away, and there was extensive loss of property everywhere. However, there was almost no loss of human lives, the only exception being the rather foolhardy family of a mendicant who returned to their home near the downstream face of the dam after being evacuated from there. I find it an amazingly successful case of disaster management.

It made me wonder how State effectiveness in India today compares against this.

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