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Current Issue: Fall 2011

Providing a Voice for Victims of Disaster

A Penn medical student and his writing partner tell the story of a flood that ravaged a city in India.

By Gregory Richter

No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History’s Deadliest Floods, front cover

On August 11, 1979, a two-mile-long dam in India’s Machhu River Valley could no longer hold back the pressure of an eleven-day onslaught of monsoon rain. The result: a flash flood that engulfed thousands in Morbi, a municipality located in the state of Gujarat. In their book No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History’s Deadliest Floods, Utpal Sandesara, a medical student in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Tom Wooten share insight from 148 interviews and thousands of pages of never-before-released government documents to tell the story of the flood and what it shows about human resilience in time of overwhelming crisis.

“We tried to tell the story of the Machhu dam disaster through the voices of those who lived it – government officials, relief workers, and survivors,” said Sandesara. The text weaves accounts from people in vastly differently walks of life to show their experience in the tragedy. Among those anecdotes are ones about a paraplegic woman who rode a washbasin to safety and a priestess who was the only survivor among more than one hundred people who sought refuge inside a temple.

In addition to the stories of trials and triumph, despair and distress, the authors bolster their reporting with masses of government documents to substantiate and complement the survivors’ first-hand stories. While researching in India for the book, Sandesara met with the man who served as mayor of Morbi when the disaster struck. The former mayor lent enthusiastic support to the project, in part because he lost his son in the flood and then spent years attempting to hold the government accountable for its mistakes that led to the tragic event.

Forcing Government Transparency

According to No One Has a Tongue to Speak, the Gujarat state government engaged in an extensive cover-up of the poor preparation that led to the bursting of the dam. The Machhu Dam-II Inquiry Commission, which was charged with investigating causes of the dam’s failures, faced many obstacles from the state government; as a result, the group dissolved 18 months later, before it could effectively complete its study.

By 2006, when the authors visited India, few government representatives knew about the Machhu dam disaster and none would disclose any documents regarding the event or the commission. Sandesara then contacted the chief minister of Gujarat and managed to obtain two minutes with him to discuss what Sandesara framed as “an important matter.” The chief minister discussed his own work as a relief volunteer in the wake of the flood and gave Sandesara and Wooten full access to the state’s archives.

For residents who lost loved ones in the flood, this book provides a partial answer from a government that did not provide one for more than 30 years. For those not directly affected by the tragedy, the book illustrates how disastrous poor planning can be and of how important a government’s response is. Sandesara and Wooten do not cite a specific figure, but estimates are that up to 25,000 people died in the flood.

No One Had a Tongue to Speak arrives from Prometheus Books with a foreword by one of medicine’s most admired practitioners, Paul Farmer, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard University and cofounder of Partners in Health. The non-profit health-care organization strives to provide an alternative to the conventional treatment for the poor and sick and tries to prevent diseases before they occur. Farmer writes that “I was lucky enough to teach Sandesara during his first year at Harvard and to serve as a mentor to him in the years since.” For Farmer, one of the important points underscored throughout the book is that “The obvious distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ disasters, between events like the 2004 tsunami, say, and Chernobyl, is not so obvious at all upon closer inspection.” Human agency often plays an important part. He cites “the arrogance of some in charge of designing and implementing large infrastructure projects,” as in the case of the builders of the Machhu dam. “The destruction of the city of Morbi . . . was not a freak accident so much as an accident waiting to happen.”

Bridging Medicine and Anthropology

The authors: Tom Wooten, left, and Utpal Sandersara

At Penn, Sandesara is currently combining his passion for research and medicine by also pursuing a Ph.D. degree in anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences. He concedes that writing a book while working toward two degrees was a challenge, but he was well motivated for the task. “The people we met were entrusting us with something very important to them,” said Sandesara. “The completion of this project was a moral imperative. They would say to us, ‘You go back to America and write this, and then maybe someone will listen.’ It was a story that simply had to be told.”

For Sandesara, there is a similarity between pursuing a medical career and writing a book filled with people’s stories. As he explains, “The skills of a qualitative researcher – listening carefully, processing facts on the fly, and empathizing while maintaining objectivity – are precisely those of a good medical history-taker.”

A Family Affair

Sandesara and Wooten met as freshmen at Harvard and soon, they report, they had “hatched the plan” for the book. Sandesara’s family had emigrated from the Morbi area to the United States.  “I grew up hearing about the Machhu dam disaster from my mother and grandparents,” says Sandesara, “and it was my mother’s emotional reaction to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that prompted me to begin looking for more information.” His first interview for the book was with his grandparents, who provided many of the photos used in No One Had a Tongue to Speak. In fact, his grandfather, T. R. Shukla, appears in the book as the principal of Morbi’s arts college.

During the research in India, Sandesara’s mother and sister served as interpreters when Wooten spoke to local residents, translating between English and Gujarati. In addition, Wooten’s father used his experience as a geotechnical engineer to outline the technicalities of dam failures, and his mother drew maps and diagrams for the book. Sandesara’s parents are currently developing a Gujarati translation to bring the text to many of those who were directly affected by the flood.

Human Courage in Time of Crisis

Throughout the numerous stories assembled in No One, many show a will to survive and the impulse to help others. One involves Gangaram Tapu, who at the time of the flood was a 24-year-old father of five, serving a life sentence for murder in the subdistrict prison. Tapu, a Hindu, had killed a Muslim in what Tapu characterized as an act of vigilante justice. As the flood bore down on the prison, Tapu helped other inmates move to the roof to avoid the rising level of water. A wave knocked Tapu over, and he struggled to stay afloat as it carried him out of the prison. Even while attempting to save his own life, he managed to save dozens of others from drowning before he collapsed. He turned himself in to the police days a few days later. His heroic behavior weighed heavily in his favor, and many weeks later, he was pardoned.

At the other end of the social spectrum are the stories of those like Kanubhai Kubavat, a Brahmin who taught at a teachers’ college during the day but also officiated at a small temple near his house in the Tiger Quarter of Morbi. After the flood, all that was left of his house was a pile of debris, despite its location in one of the areas of higher elevation and a raised foundation. Later, after sending his family off to other parts, Kubavat spent his days clearing away debris from his plot: “At night, he slept in the lobby of a local cinema. He did not obtain a clean set of clothes until four or five days after the flood, when he visited a friend in Rajkot.” At one point after the flood, Sandesara’s relatives, the Shukla family, delivered food and drink to faculty and staff families of a local engineering college whose riverside homes had sustained severe damage.

In his foreword, Farmer emphasizes the importance of investigating disasters – especially an “unnatural disaster,” such as the Indian flood and Chernobyl – and discovering their causes. But he also notes that No One “is also a social history” in which the authors confront the social complexities more boldly than in many other comparable books. The range of real-life characters and the vividness with which they are portrayed support Farmer’s view.

Recent tragedies in Haiti, Japan, New Orleans, and elsewhere throw light on the crucial need for strong infrastructures in case of environmental disasters and for an equally strong response to aid those afflicted by such disasters. Sandesara and Wooten’s account reminds readers of what can go wrong – but also of what communities in crisis can sometimes accomplish.

Leaving the Unlivable

Everyone was leaving Morbi. By early evening, the roads leading out of the city, cleared of debris by the army, had grown thick with knots of people, cars, trucks, and buses. Patriarchs and matriarchs herded children along, driving them gently forward and leading some by the hand. Young men and women guided wizened elders, pausing every few hundred feet to rest. Haggard men with unshaven, dirty faces and torn pants carried soggy white bundles – repositories of all their remaining possessions – on their stooped backs as their sandals shuffled through the grime. Dozens of survivors hung off the backs of trucks that chugged slowly through the mud. Periodic bursts of discordant honking punctuated the funerary silence of the exodus.

Much of Morbi’s population exited the city by the night of August 12. With foodstuffs ruined, homes destroyed, utilities obliterated, and bodies decaying at every street corner, the city had become, as many survivors would recall, “unlivable.”

No One Had a Tongue to Speak, p. 171

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