At heart of Maharashtra floods, a Konkan river that can ‘drown the world’. But there’s more

Last week, Jagbudi river, along with Vashishti and Kodavali, crossed danger level and submerged large parts of coastal Konkon due to heavy rains and discharge from Koyna dam. 

NDRF team carries out rescue and relief operations in a flood-affected area in the Konkan division on 24 July 2021 | ANI
An NDRF team carries out rescue and relief operations in a flood-affected area in the Konkan division on 24 July 2021 | ANI

Mumbai: As lore goes, most rivers in the Konkan region got their names because of some characteristic of the water body that stands out. There’s the Vashishti, which originates from a mountain believed to have once held the ashram of Vashishth, the revered Vedic sage. The Kurli is named thus because it hosts a generous population of crabs (‘kurli’ is crab in Konkani), a delicacy in the Konkan region.

Similarly, there’s Jagbudi, which gets its name from the destruction it is capable of causing. ‘Jag-budi’, which literally means ‘the world drowns’, is a tributary of the Vashishti, and, together with its parent river, is famously known to swell during the rains and flood the areas around it. 

The river had made global headlines in 2013 when a Goa-Mumbai private bus, also carrying some foreign tourists, ran off a bridge and plunged into the Jagbudi. The accident killed at least 37 people and left 15 more injured. 

“Back in the day, many years ago, every year, the Jagbudi river would overflow and completely flood the local markets,” Dadajirao Jadhav, a farmer who lives about 6 km from the Khed town, where the Jagbudi flows, told ThePrint. “People’s livelihoods would drown. For them, their world would drown, so the river came to be known as Jagbudi.”

In light of recent rains, Jagbudi is once again in spate. And the destruction caused this time is rare in scale, said Jadhav.

“I don’t remember something like this having happened since the 2005 deluge,” he added. 

Last week, the Jagbudi, along with the Vashishti and the Kodavali, crossed the danger level and submerged large parts of the coastal region due to heavy rains, along with discharge from the local Koyna dam. 

In Ratnagiri’s Khed and Chiplun, where the Jagbudi and the Vashishti flow, villages and towns were under 10-12 feet water. The water level rose as high as 20 feet in a few places, causing widespread loss to life and livelihood. 

Heavy rains have caused landslides and floods across nine districts of western Maharashtra and the Konkan region — Ratnagiri, Raigad, Sindhudurg, Kolhapur, Sangli, Satara, Pune, Thane and Mumbai Suburban. According to state government data, at least 112 people had died and 53 were injured as of Saturday night. Ratnagiri and Raigad have been hit particularly hard.

The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), and the Maharashtra Police have been deployed for relief work, and over 1.35 lakh people have had to be evacuated. 

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray visited Chiplun Sunday to assess the losses, a day after he visited Raigad district. 

Despite the known potential for devastation that has earned the Jagbudi its name, environmental activists blame the intensity of this year’s flooding on what they describe as serial abuse flung on the local ecology for industrialisation. This, they say, includes large-scale deforestation — a factor known to aid erosion and flooding.

Also Read: How Hyderabad went from ‘flood-proof’ to frequently submerged in a century

‘The joy and tears of local residents’ 

Vinod Phanse, who retired as principal of a junior college at Chiplun, said Jagbudi and Vashishti are the “joy and tears of the residents who live close to it”.

“The water levels of the two rivers rise every year, causing localised isolated flooding, at least 2-3 times every monsoon. If, in a particular year, the rivers don’t cause a little water-logging, people feel there’s something amiss,” he added. 

Phanse said people who live close to the river love the presence of the water body. “It gives them water for their daily non-drinking requirements. It helps their farming. Some are even dependent on it for fishing, a profession that has over the years become less feasible in the area due to the heavy industrialisation and pollution around it,” he added. 

Local residents, by and large, know what level the water might rise to every year. So, every time the local municipal councils of Khed and Chiplun sound the bugle, which indicates that the rivers are close to crossing their danger mark, people get into action. 

They temporarily shift to their “malaas”, which are open terraces atop roofs of clay bricks, quintessential to houses in the Konkan region, or the first floor of their houses. 

Khed-based Vishwas Patne, a functionary in a local traders’ body, said shop owners like him sense the imminent danger and shift their wares high up in their shops or to warehouses. Usually, the water on the roads rises to about one or two feet and recedes within a couple of hours. 

“There have been four major floods in my life time. The first was in 1982, then in 2005, in 2019 and 2021. This year’s flood was by far the most damaging,” said Phanse. 

When the rivers swelled this year 

It was around 12.30 am Thursday that the bugle was sounded, residents of Khed and Chiplun told ThePrint. Within the next 2-3 hours, they added, water rose swiftly, giving people no time to react.

The goods stocked high up in shops — at 10-12 ft, a height that experience had proved safe in the past — were all destroyed as the shops themselves went under. Scared residents sat on the roofs or the top floors of their houses, anxious that the water may gush in any time. 

Nitin Patne, a shop owner who was the president of Khed municipal council in 2001, said: “People are usually alert and take precautions, but this time, we had no reaction time.” 

He added: “My own shop, which never gets water-logged because it is at a height, had 3-4 feet of water. We all would have been better prepared if we were informed about the discharge from the Koyna dam at a time when heavy rains were expected.”

In a statement issued Saturday, the state government said “the towns of Chiplun and Khed were completely inundated due to discharge from the Koyna dam and subsequently the Koltewadi dam leading to the rise in the levels of the Vashishti river”.

“The contact from the town was completely cut off due to land routes being inundated. The bridge over the Vashishti river on the Mumbai Chiplun route was washed off. Thousands of people were stranded on rooftops and upper floors of houses as the water levels rose to over 15 to 20 feet in many places,” it added.

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Abused rivers 

According to a 2016 research report by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), an informal network of organisations working on water-related issues, the natural character of the Vashishti, and therefore of the Jagbudi, has been vastly altered by the Konya hydroelectric project and the Lote Parshuram industrial area of the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC). 

“Vashishti has a narrow basin and excess water from Koyna adds to floods in the rainy season for Chiplun city,” the report by Parineeta Dandekar of SANDRP says. 

On the Lote Parshuram industrial area, which was set up in 1978 and grew over the next three decades, Dandekar writes: “One of the important criteria for selecting the Lote Parshuram site was also the proximity of the region with Vashishti to ease the disposal of effluents.” 

The constant release of effluents in the river and its tributaries, the report says, has changed the sociology, ecology and economy of the water bodies and its surrounding areas, and fishing as an industry is finished in this area. 

Pankaj Dalvi, an environmental activist in the Khed-Chiplun belt of Ratnagiri, told ThePrint, “Over the last few years, there’s been rampant tree cutting in the Sahyadris, both Vashishti and Jagbudi, along with other rivers of Konkan, have suffered erosion from both sides. There’s haphazard infrastructure development along the water bodies. Growth of industries in the area has also polluted the rivers.”

He added: “The river is called Jagbudi, but clearly no one fears what it is capable of doing. Otherwise, we would have never reached this stage.”

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

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