At the outset, Deepak Bache-Patil was not into any activism. As a youngster, he was an avid trekker, trudging along historic forts and nature trails of the Sahyadri mountains and water bodies. However, on one such trail along the Pawna dam near the industrial belt of Pimpri-Chinchwad, he encountered a scenario that changed his life from a nature-lover to a truth-seeker.
He and his friends saw some drunken youths beating up the lone security guard who was manning the Pawna dam and looked helpless at the violent assault on him. Mr Bache-Patil says that, although he and his friends rescued the guard, it automatically led him to ponder as to why an important dam, which is termed as a ‘vital installation’, could have such low capability security as to employ just one guard. That was over a decade ago.
Since then, Mr Bache-Patil’s mission has been to find out the quality of security and maintenance of each and every dam not only in Maharashtra but across other states. He used to read in the newspapers about the right to information (RTI) act and so decided to use it for his knowledge which has turned into his magnificent obsession. To date, he has filed over 3,000 RTI applications and has gathered around 12,500 documents, which include his grievances to various waterworks and irrigation departments, the Mantralaya in Mumbai, and chief ministers (CMs) of various states.
Mr Bache-Patil reveals some shocking details, culled out of the RTI replies which reveal that the security and maintenance of the dams, which are crucial to their efficacy and safety in terms of their structural stability, are compromised.
As per the Dam Safety Act 2021, “in the absence of a proper dam safety framework, shortcomings in the investigation, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of dams might lead to serious incidents and sometimes dam failure.”
According to information sought under RTI by Mr Bache-Patil, 42% or 2,394 dams are in Maharashtra. He says, “Maharashtra has 250-300 large-sized dams and all of them have depositions of silt, sand and all kinds of garbage thus reducing their bearing capacity by 50%-60%. The age of most of the dams in Maharashtra is between 50 years to 160 years and thus regular maintenance by removal of depositions is critical to the life of the dams and of citizens living near it."
However, Mr Bache-Patil rues, “Due to a lack of funds and lack of human resources, my continuous petitions and appeals to the Maharashtra government to have them de-silted, have hardly borne fruit.”
He believes such negligence can be catastrophic in the future. Worse, his information reveals that no survey—barring a handful—of how much silt and debris have accumulated, has been done for most of the dams.
Mr Bache-Patil has made it his mission to sound out the authorities time and again, as he has assessed that most of the dams would burst in the next 25-50 years if maintenance operations are not carried out well in time—which is now. He has divided the dams into categories of various stages of cancer.
Besides maintenance, he claims that due to his sensitisation to the authorities about the safety of the dam which is equally vital, an integrated dam safety plan (IDSP) has been adopted by the Pune region which encompasses Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur, and Solapur. These include the installation of CCTV cameras, safety components, and electronic instrument machines.
However, he says, on his regular inspections, he finds that the safety plan is not 100% adhered to and in many dams they don’t exist at all. He says safety audits, which are mandatory, are taken casually by the authorities.
He proudly states that a paragraph of his recommendation has been included in the Dam Safety Bill 2020, which has become an Act in 2021.
Mr Bache-Patil filed his first RTI about the security details of the Pawna dam and was made to run from pillar to post to the offices of the chief engineer, the water resource department (WRD), the police, then the Pune collector, and finally once again to the chief engineer (WRD) from whom he received his reply. That opened his eyes to the gravity of the situation. Thus, from running his small-time enterprise, he is now deep into raising social and political awareness on this issue.
Terming dams as ‘vital installations’, Mr Bache-Patil says that he cannot reveal much about the information on micro details of the safety aspect of the dams as it is sensitive information. He says he has been appreciated by the chief ministers of 16 states for his thorough research and recommendations.
Last week, Mr Bache-Patil received the Conscious Citizen Right to Information award at the hands of Rahul Singh, information commissioner of Madhya Pradesh. This annual award is given to grassroots RTI activists or users by the Sajag Nagrik Manch, a platform that propagates RTI by using it for various issues and advocating it through regular Sunday meetings. RTI activists Vivek Velankar and Jugal Rathi run this non-government organisation (NGO) and have completed 199 meetings which they hold every Sunday.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
Environment ministry, crpf, forest dept etc need to come up on one page. Great work indeed, so much of investment, so much of sacrifice