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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

twitter: @SahajSankaran, email: sahaj [at] honestyisbest [dot] com.


July 13, 2020

The Panshet Dam Bursts, Flooding the City of Pune

On 12 July, 1961, following a night of heavy rainfall around the city of Pune, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, the Panshet Dam burst. The resulting flood killed around 1,000 people, led to the displacement and relocation of tens of thousands more, and brought the bustling city to a complete halt.

The control of India’s waters through dams and irrigation projects had become a symbol of independent India’s development for the government of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who famously referred to dams as ‘modern temples’ in a speech in 1954. All across the country, large dams would become central to the development rhetoric of the administration - and become the focus of many and varied protests throughout modern India’s history. The Panshet Dam, nearing the end of its construction in 1961, joined the existing colonial-era Khadakwasla Dam, and would be joined over the following decades by dams at Varasgaon and Temghar. Unfortunately, the dam fell victim to the materials shortages that plagued Nehru’s projects. In particular, reinforced steel was in short supply. The dam was supposed to have been girded with steel by 1961, but the shortages meant it remained a construction of concrete blocks. Nevertheless, the decision was made to fill up its reservoir and bring it to functionality. This construction flaw was soon to have unfortunate consequences.

It rained heavily on the night before 12 July. The water in the reservoir swelled and strained against the dam’s walls. Cracks appeared quickly. The dam would have burst that night were it not for the efforts of a group of Indian Army engineers, who covered the expanding cracks with cement and sandbags, buying the dam several hours. In the early hours of 12 July, though, the dam gave way, shattering along a fault line dozens of feet long. The rushing waters flooded the rivers nearby and burts the much older Khadakwasla dam as well, adding to the torrent. Residents of Pune climbed to their roofs or ran for higher ground as low-lying areas flooded. Though a precise casualty count does not exist, nearly a thousand people are believed to have died in the floods. It took several for the local government to restore order, during which the supply of electricity to most of the city remained erratic, and the water supply was inoperable.

The dam disaster in Pune in 1961 should have taught Indian planners valuable lessons about dealing with extreme weather. Those lessons were quickly forgotten. On 26 July, 2005, the city of Mumbai flooded after days of heavy rainfall, killing around 1,000 people and causing immense damage. The city’s overtaxed drainage system, a relic of the colonial era, had not been comprehensively updated in decades; a 1990 proposal to overhaul the system and double its capacity was rejected by the city’s municipal corporation due to reasons of cost; a version of the plan was ultimately approved under pressure in the aftermath of the flood. The corner-cutting tendencies that led to the 1961 Pune floods continue to rule Indian infrastructure today, to the detriment of India’s cities, projects, and people.

Sahaj Sankaran

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