No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History's Deadliest Floods

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9781616144319: No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History's Deadliest Floods

Foreword by Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Social Medicine and Chair, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Cofounder of Partners In Health
On the rainy night of August 11, 1979, a mud-splattered jeep slowed to a halt by the shores of a vast man-made lake in western India. Stepping from the vehicle, an exhausted government engineer was shocked to find the lake empty after ten days of torrential monsoon showers. The two-mile-long Machhu Dam-II had washed away, sending its reservoir careening toward the industrial city of Morbi. One of history's deadliest flash floods had just taken place.

No One Had a Tongue to Speak tells, for the first time, the epic and heartrending story of the Machhu dam disaster. The seeds of the tragedy are planted as Indian politicians, swept up in the heady optimism of their country's newfound independence, mandate a slew of dam-construction projects. Massive earthworks rise and vast reservoirs accumulate, but the rapid clip of development outpaces the skill of the engineers behind it. When the Machhu Dam-II gives way after days of incessant rains, residents of the downstream river valley are plunged into a watery hell. Their lives are torn to pieces in an instant. Up to 25,000 perish, though the disaster's true human toll is not known. As survivors grapple with the flood's aftereffects, a long and fateful quest to determine responsibility for the dam's failure ensues.

In the three decades since muddy floodwaters surged through the Machhu River Valley, the disaster has faded from collective memory. No One Had a Tongue to Speak revives it in striking form, weaving together stories from 148 interviews and extensive archival research. From the rooftops where survivors struggled amid the raging floodwaters to the courthouse chambers where lawyers searched for answers in the flood's aftermath, this book presents the disaster in the words of those who lived through it.

Grounded in meticulous historical research, this eye-opening account of the Machhu dam disaster nonetheless unfolds like a novel as it recounts a historic human tragedy and paints a vivid portrait of an India torn between its feudal past and its industrial future. No One Had a Tongue to Speak attests not only to human error and neglect, but also to the compelling urge to survive, rebuild, and fight for justice.

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About the Author:

The authors graduated from Harvard University in 2008 with degrees in social studies.
Utpal Sandesara, the son of a Machhu flood survivor, is pursuing doctoral degrees in medicine and social anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tom Wooten lives in New Orleans, where he teaches writing and researches the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Review:

"What is it about dams that inspire fatal dreams of grandeur? Utpal Sandesara and Tom Wooten have done a great service by vividly reconstructing one of the greatest and least known dam disasters in history—although it is anything but unknown, of course, to the largely voiceless people who were its major victims. This is an absorbing story not just about bureaucratic ambition and folly, but about power and powerlessness." --Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars, King Leopold's Ghost, and other books.

"Written with a sympathy as deep as its research, this is the story of a deadly environmental disaster that sprang from hubris and miscalculation. Like any sudden disaster, the floods that destroyed Morbi burst upon the everyday lives of people unaware of what was about to befall them. Sandesara and Wooten skillfully capture both the commonplace and the extraordinary, and in doing so reveal what sometimes seems to be the near universal failures that lay behind so many environmental disasters and the quite specific particulars of Indian history and development." -- Richard White, professor of American History at Stanford University

"The anatomy of a perfect storm: not just a South Asian monsoon-driven tragedy killing thousands, but an overall portrait of social, political, historical, and moral corruption and dysfunction. Inspections are missed, planning is chaotic, and disempowered find themselves squarely in the path of an epic disaster." --Clark Blaise, co-author (with Bharati Mukherjee) of Days and Nights in Calcutta and The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of Air-India 182.

"This memorable account of an epic flood is all the more impressive because its authors, one of them the son of a survivor, are so young. Their reporting is painstaking, their stories heartbreaking." --Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

"It is one thing for 25,000 people to perish all at once; it is another to completely forget about them. Utpal Sandesara and Tom Wooten's fascinating story about an Indian dam disaster should be required reading for anyone interested in modern India, the environment, or narrative nonfiction. 'No one had a tongue to speak'—until these two young writers came along to listen. One of the most important books about India in recent years." --Suketu Mehta, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

"Sandesara and Wooten paint a vivid peoples' portrait of the human impact of a top-down development project gone wrong. Though the Machhu Dam disaster occurred nearly thirty years ago, the themes explored in No One Had a Tongue to Speak are as relevant today as they have ever been. With developing nations racing to catch up, the world simply must get better at contending with the humanitarian and environmental consequences of rapid growth. As such, this is a book for our time." --William Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at Harvard University, and a 1983 MacArthur Fellow

"Sandesara and Wooten provide a fresh, engaging account of a horrendous, man-made flood in Gujarat, India. The tale of the Machhu dam disaster highlights the pitfalls of a top-down approach to development, risk mitigation, and long-term recovery, using the words of those who have experienced it. As a globally surgent India marches ahead with its economic growth and comes to terms with its prospects and limitations in the realm of development, these two researchers offer a refreshing, comprehensive, painstaking, and lively account of a defining moment in India's past. From policymakers to common citizens, readers will relish this book's narration and ponder its implications for future disasters." --Mihir Bhatt, founder of the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute

"The break of the Machhu Dam-II, which killed thousands of people on India's Saurashtra peninsula in 1979, must rank as one of the world's great engineering disasters. In their book, No One Had a Tongue to Speak, Utpal Sandesara and Tom Wooten recall in painstaking detail the secrecy and arrogance that led to the disaster. They also recount the tragedy that struck unsuspecting farmers and townspeople one fateful monsoon afternoon, the courage with which survivors rebuilt their lives and homes, the generous support that many officials and citizens lent to their task, and the shameful deceit by which a government bureaucracy refused to be held to account. All who read this important book will gain great respect for the good people from northern Saurashtra. Readers will understand that the dam disaster can repeat itself as long as the lessons from a flawed planning process have not been learned." --Peter Bosshard, Policy Director of International Rivers

"The book addresses with rigor and compassion the devastating effect of floods in the Machhu River Valley in Gujarat, India, in 1979 caused by the unintended consequences of a development project. The two researchers have documented its impact and the inadequate response on a forgotten community. The book's social significance and important findings will appeal to all those interested in issues of development in India and elsewhere." --Jerome Sauvage, former deputy director of the United Nations Development Program in India

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