14/08/2019 12:53 PM IST | Updated 14/08/2019 1:01 PM IST

'Help Yourself': How Maharashtra Admin Failed Sangli Boat Accident Victims

17 people drowned when a boat capsized in floodwaters in Maharashtra's Sangli district last week. Villagers say the accident could have been avoided.

Getty Images/ Representative photo
People walk through flooded streets of Sangli on 9 August 2019 in Maharashtra. 

SANGLI, Maharashtra — Seventeen people drowned to death on 8 August 2019 in Sangli district’s Bramhanal village when their boat capsized in swirling floodwaters.

These deaths, which included 12 women, four children, and a man, could have been averted if the local administration had listened to villagers who had asked for two boats to evacuate the village two days prior to the tragedy. 

Their pleas, villagers said, fell on deaf ears.

“Help yourself. Don’t expect a boat. Do whatever you want. These were Tehsildar’s precise words,” said Bramhanal resident Siddhakumar Vader, who told HuffPost India he had called Tehsildar Rajendra Pol on 6 August and alerted him to the impending disaster, two days before the tragedy.

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With the administration unresponsive, over 1000 people from the village were forced to use a single 20-seater boat to escape to safety. The boat was carrying more than 40 people when it capsized. Vader lost four members of his family, including his sister-in-law and a small child. 

“Even now nobody from the administration has turned up. You are the first person to visit my place. Look at the apathy. I will kill the tehsildar if I see him,” a grieving Vader told HuffPost India. “He could have easily saved all the lives which were lost that day. But his arrogance killed them.”

Pavan Dahat/HuffPost India
Siddhakumar Vader (in white shirt) at his home with his family members.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Maharashtra has launched a public-relations blitz in a bid to blunt criticism of his handling of this year’s floods. A grainy video clip, widely circulated by the government, claims to show a state minister swimming to a flood-ravaged village. 

Yet the testimonies of the villagers of Bramhanal reveal that the government, and the local administration, were caught unawares by the deluge. Nearly 50 people have died in the floods, and if the events leading up to the tragedy in Bramhanal are any indication, many of these lives could have been saved. The floods, in a nutshell, sum up the BJP’s governance strategy in the state and centre, where structural inadequacies and plain incompetence are masked by rhetoric and PR. 

Chronicle Of Deaths Foretold

Bramhanal village is nestled between two rivers — the Krishna river and its tributary, the Yerala.

On 4 August, four days before the tragedy, both rivers breached their banks, turning the village into an island. As the water levels continued to rise, the villagers began to panic, said Uttam Badgare, the village headman.

The village had only two boats: a rickety fifteen-year-old motorboat, donated to the village in 2004 by the then minister, the late Patangrao Kadam of the Congress party, and a row-boat that, Badgare quickly realised, was useless in the strong currents of the floodwaters.

Pavan Dahat/HuffPost India
The boat that capsized.

The villagers initially thought to wait for help from the administration, but as the water continued to rise through the day, they decided to start evacuating themselves.

The next day, on 5 August, the village panchayat began to rescue residents — but everyone wanted to be the first to leave.

“There was no order. Everyone wanted to leave the village as even the houses situated at the tallest part of the village had begun to get submerged,” said Sayaji Mohite, a gram panchayat worker who piloting the boat from 5 August to 8 August, the day it finally capsized. “We were requesting people to maintain order but it was tough to control them as everyone was worried for their lives.”

On 6 August, Siddhakumar Vader said he called the local tehsildar of Palus Taluka and asked for more boats, only to be told that no boat would be sent. 

“I told them that the village had two boats already so try to adjust,” Pol told HuffPost India. “There was no question of negligence or lethargy.” Pol said there were bigger and needy villages than Bramhanal in the area. 

At 9 am on 8 August, three days into the village’s heroic quest to self-evacuate, the desperation in Bramhanal was evident. At least 42 people piled into the boat, which was designed to ferry a maximum of 20. While the administration has claimed that there were only 25 people on board at the time, several survivors told HuffPost India that there were 42 people on board.

“Even if they had sent one police constable or a peon to bring order when people were getting inside the boat, this incident could have been averted. But the administration was absolutely missing,” said resident Sagar Vader, who lost his mother in the 8 August tragedy.

“The boat was nearly drowning even before we began the journey,” said Pramod Jagdale who was also among the 42 onboard. Mohite led the boat out into the waters, but the over-burdened craft flipped 200 metres short of safety. 

Once the boat flipped, it was the people from the neighbouring villages of Khatav and Wasagade who helped rescue survivors.

“The administration came hours after the incident,” Vader added.

Sangli district collector Abhijit Choudhari said he has ordered an inquiry into the tragedy.

“That incident was actually an accident. An unfortunate one. We will have to inquire if the villagers had alerted the Tehsildar or not. The exact issue will come out only after an inquiry,” the collector maintained.