The Teesta Floods of 1968
The Teesta Barrage
Yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of the Teesta flood of 1968 which caused untold devastation and changed the landscape of North Bengal to some extent.
In one of my earlier posts ,I had carried a scholarly contribution By Mr Swapan Sen, who was the Assistant Engineer of the Irrigation and Waterways Directorate of the West Bengal Government and was posted in the area at that fateful time.
In today's post he recounts the horrors of that day and recreates the memories of many brave men(including, I must add, himself) who fought against the elements, albeit unsuccessfully to save the people of North Bengal from the calamity. Without their efforts, the death toll and the scale of devastation would probably have been much greater than it actually was.While the Teesta is in the news nowadays for political reasons, nobody really remembers those terrible days. This is an important memoir of the floods of 1968. .
The Teesta Flood 1968- a real life story ( Part 1) By Mr Swapan Sen
It was 2nd of October, 1968. This being Gandhiji’s birthday was a holiday for all but not for me. My colleague Dipankar Chakraborty, who was the Assistant Engineer of the Moinaguri Subdivision of the Irrigation & Waterways Directorate’s Jalpaiguri Division, had gone on leave and I was to look after his work in addition to my own at Jalpaiguri. Rain was pouring down incessantly from the previous evening and at about 8 AM that day, I received a telephone call from our Executive Engineer, Kamakshya Prasad Chowdhury (Kamakshyada to all his junior colleagues) asking me to go to Moinaguri and take a look at the Domohani embankment. So I was on my way to Moinaguri in my Jeep not knowing what to expect.
Reaching our office at Moinaguri, I called for Sri Monoranjan Adhikary, the senior-most and the most experienced Sub-Assistant Engineer of the Sub-division. Together we set out for an inspection of the Domohani embankment which was crossing the Railway Bridge on the Teesta. I had little experience with the behavior of the mighty Teesta. So at the Domohani gauge-site, the spectacle seemed quite frightening. The river water was nearly touching the danger-mark and the river seemed to be endless between the two embankments of Jalpaiguri and Moinaguri. The country-side slope of the Domohani embankment, protecting Moinaguri, had slipped away at places. But these slippages were visibly old. Mr. Adhikary and I called up local men for covering the countryside slopes with gunny bags filled with earth with the hope that this would slow down the seepage of river-water through the embankment soil and prevent further slippage.
The water level of the river kept on rising and towards the evening it went beyond the danger-mark. As dusk set in, it became practically impossible to do any fruitful work amidst incessant rains and darkness. I decided to stay on at Moinaguri and went back to the office. I rang up Kamakshyada and narrated what I had seen at the embankment-site and the fact that it was impossible to work with a handful of local labour during the night and continuing heavy rains. Sensing fear in my voice, he told me not to panic, as the embankments, as experienced by him, are never breached by mere seepage unless the river-water itself flows over the top of the embankment.
I spent a very restless night in Dipankar’s living quarters. In the morning, I set out again with Mr. Adhikary, for the embankment. As I reached the embankment, what I saw was simply appalling. The river water had crossed the extreme danger level and there appeared to be, as we had been taught at our Engineering College, “sand-boiling” along the toe-line of the embankment on the country-side. Seeping across the embankment, the river-water was coming out with sand taken from the embankment along the toe-line through numerous holes. The sand coming out appeared to boil in the river water at the exits. It looked as if there were numerous pipes in the embankment through which the river-water was finding way to the other side. Evidently, if allowed to continue, this would eventually cause sinking of the crest of the embankment. We gathered the village people available nearby and sought for their help in covering the embankment toe with gunny bags filled with earth taken from wherever this was available. Soon other problems surfaced. There were large-scale slippages on the country-side slope of the embankment and the top of the embankment, as apprehended, started sinking at places. As our brave men kept on collecting and depositing earth in their bid to repair the damages, I went down to the village and managed to phone Kamakshyada from the phone of a log-yard owner. He told me, he would try to come to the site but the condition of the protection embankment on the Jalpaiguri-side too was no better and he and other colleagues of mine were busy in protecting that embankment. He also told me to keep in touch with Utpal Bhadra, the Assistant engineer at the Head Office, who had been deputed by him especially to monitor the situation, maintain liaison with the District Administration and the Army for help.
It was clearly a losing battle we were fighting. We neither had the man-power, nor enough useable earth or sand nearby to cover the leaking toes and depressions of the crest of the embankment, that had started appearing in the upstream reaches of the embankment. The top of the embankment had also narrowed down in places due to slippages and it was hardly possible to access the upper reaches of the embankment in our Jeep any more. The rains were not also showing any signs of letting up. I conveyed to Utpal from the log-yard owner’s phone that we had to somehow save the people as a breach in the embankment seemed imminent. He said the Army has been asked to help and I should remain at the site till they arrive.
At about 12 Noon, Government Officials, including the Sub-divisional Officer, Jalpaiguri, arrived on the spot to ascertain the situation. Asked what I thought about the condition of the embankment, I told them that the prognosis was bad as the water was still rising and the embankment could give way; the people in nearby villages should therefore, be alerted and evacuated. I made the same request to a local political leader, Mr. Chikur Chanda, who had also arrived at the spot around the same time. I told him the village folks were not ready to leave their homes in the incessant rain and that they were to be convinced.
At about 3PM, the rise in the water-level seemed to slow down and the water-level, apparently reached a peak. This brought some solace to our anxious minds but little did we know what was lying in wait. With the dusk setting in, we had to return to our office. I was in rain-soaked clothes throughout the day and needed a change of clothes. I slipped into my nightdress, which was the only dry apparel then available with me. Mr. Adhikari too, went home for a change of clothes but came back to the office in an hour’s time. Just then, a radiogram message arrived from Teesta Bazaar and we learnt that the level of water at the Teesta Bazaar (Anderson Bridge) gauge site was rising rapidly, more than 6 inches in 30 minutes. The status reported was that of about 6 PM. We consulted our gauge-records and previous history of time taken by the river-water to reach Domohani from the Teesta Bazar. What we found, took our breath away. The water level at Teesta Bazaar had reached an all-time unbelievably high peak (20.4 m above the extreme danger level*). The time the river water takes to reach Domohani from the Teesta Bazaar gauge site, we found, was 6 to 8 hours. This meant the water level at the Domohani gauge site would reach its peak between 12-00 hours that night and 2 AM, the next morning.
We set out again for the embankment. As we reached the gauge-site of the embankment at about 12-00 hours, we found that the water level was just about a foot below the top of the embankment. It was dangerous to proceed further upstream along the embankment in our Jeep. To reach the log-yard owner’s place we had to pass below a Banyan tree, which had, by that time, started leaning on the embankment partially blocking our path. We managed to reach the log-yard in the village along the side-road leading off from the embankment. I could call up Utpal over the log-yard phone and he told me to stick to the site as the Army was to arrive to take charge of the embankment. Before I left, I told the owner of the Log-Yard to call up his neighbors and move to safe zones as quickly as possible. Apparently he was unwilling to leave his home and said he had no place to go amidst such incessant rain.
I had no alternative but to go back to the gauge-site and wait for the Army to arrive. This was a relatively safer zone as the gauge-site was close to the crossing of the Railway embankment and our protection embankment and this crossing was at a level several feet higher than the top of the embankment. On the way to this crossing I summoned my gauge-readers from their camp, rigged-up on a wooden-platform, by flashing the headlights of my Jeep and told them to be alert and stick close to the water-gauge and the Railway line. We turned our Jeep focusing the headlights on the water-gauge, very little of which was sticking out above the river water by then. We kept on waiting in our Jeep and trying to read the water-gauge with the Jeep’s headlight from time to time. (to be continued)