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Narmada pilgrims ignored warning on water release; invited disaster

Lalit Shastri

Sixty-five bodies recovered; many still missing

BHOPAL: The disaster at Dharaji village in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh where a large number of pilgrims were swept away by the Narmada on April 7 could have been averted if the victims had not ignored the warning that water was being released for four hours every evening by the Indira Sagar dam to generate electricity.

Investigations have revealed that water was being released from the Indira Sagar dam from April 1 onwards daily between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Since water was being released at a velocity of 600 cubic meters per second from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. for running 3 turbines, it would have taken one hour for the water to reach the ill-fated spot at Dharaji, where the water level of Narmada would have risen by about 4 feet around 8 p.m. that day. After 9 p.m. when only one turbine was being run, the water level must have receded by about 2 feet and would have receded further to the normal level by midnight.

Last Thursday, it is estimated that about 1.5 lakh pilgrims had reached Dharaji for taking the sacred dip in Narmada on the occasion of Bhutadi Amavasya. At any given time on that day there were about 40,000 pilgrims scattered all over the place -- on the slopes near the river bank, at nearby shops and over the stairs and the river ghat. Eye witnesses and local villagers have informed that loudspeakers were used to warn the pilgrims from entering the river but about 100 to 150 "hardened" devotees, in groups of four or five, defied these warnings and crossed over to a rocky central point in the river that was higher than the rocks near the bank.

When the water level rose by about 8 p.m., the rocks on the side were the first to submerge and even before they could realize that they had been cut off from the bank nearly hundred pilgrims were swept away. Downstream there was a fall where the river flows into a "kund" (deep bowl in the river bed) with great velocity. The hapless pilgrims, who were virtually in a trance, dancing and reciting mantras to exorcise the "evil spirits", were swept into the Kund, where the whirls and sharp rocks proved fatal for most of them.

During monsoon or when water is released from the Indira Sagar dam, Narmada flows with awesome velocity at this spot. The stones carried from the rocky river side get rounded and smooth in this whirlpool. Some villagers even dive at this spot when water recedes to make a living by collecting these stones that are worshipped as Bana-linga or Narmada linga. Sixty-five bodies have been recovered till now and 58 of them identified. Still more than two dozen persons are said to be missing.

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