A dam is filled, the dream is unfulfilled

The Sardar Sarovar project has created lakhs of 'development martyrs' for derisory irrigation benefits.


Himanshu Upadhyaya | September 7, 2010

Imagine a farmer in Kutch. Let's call him Kisanbhai. Imagine a tribal farmer living on banks of the river Narmada in a village called Mokhadi. Let's call him Devilal.

The two of them have never met but their fates have been intertwined ever since Jawaharlal Nehru landed at Navagam village in Rajpipla district of Gujarat on April 4, 1961. Our protagonists, let's imagine, were quite young then to figure out that it was a momentous day in their lives.

Initially, nothing happened on the ground. For the first eight years, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh bickered over the sharing of resources. From 1969 to 1979, Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) heard the parties before deciding on the height of the dam (138.64 metres) and the rehabilitation conditionality.

It is called ‘conditionality’ and not merely ‘package’, since NWDT laid down in unambiguous terms that rehabilitation must precede the construction and submergence. During these years, Kisanbhai started to get an idea that Gujarat was demanding a higher dam on Narmada to bring irrigation canal to his village. Devilal’s family knew nothing about the gigantic dam and drowning of their farmlands. He didn’t know if his name appeared on the list of 6,417 ‘project affected families’.

Now the project entered the state of planning and impact assessment studies. A detailed project report was ready in January 1980. In the second half of the 1980s, Devilal’s family received land acquisition notice. The land of their forefathers for centuries was taken away from them without so much as any talks about ‘consent’ or ‘participation’.

Thus, land was acquired from Mokhadi and other villages, people were displaced, tenders for dam construction called and opened, and a few hundred crores spent. All this, before the grant of even a conditional environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests! The ministry, of course, did the formality in June 1987 by granting a conditional clearance – two months after construction had started, but before all the environmental impact studies were in. That was the beginning of a trend: repeated non-compliance and construction outpacing environmental safeguards and rehabilitation of the displaced.

Time for one more clearance, albeit conditional. In October 1988, The Planning Commission granted a conditional clearance to the cost estimates for the project at Rs 6,406.04 crore (at 1986-87 prices). Cost estimates had presumed that dam would be built in 17 years and canal network in 22 years.

Kisanbhai told his teenaged son that Narmada waters would come through canals and he would not have to rely on rain and groundwater then. His son, a maps enthusiast, would listen to his geography teacher attentively. So next day he asked his teacher if the canal would indeed be of the size of a runway and would pass through his village. He looked several times at the map that his teacher said showed “command area of the Sardar Sarovar” and the figure of cultivable land that it encompassed. He even asked his teacher if the epithet “lifeline of Gujarat” was an honest expression, since the canals would just irrigate 1.94 percent of cultivable land in Kutch.

Kisanbhai had read that the Gujarat government argued for a dam of 455 ft height, stating that they needed to take irrigation water to Kutch. However, now that the command area map and intra-state water allocation were out, he noticed that the water that was allocated to Kutch out of Gujarat’s share didn’t tally with those projections. 

Then came those three years of drought: 1987-1989. Suddenly, Sardar Sarovar started getting projected as if it was primarily a dam to meet drinking water demands. The number of villages that were promised Narmada waters started to rise mysteriously. In 1979 it was 0, in 1983-‘84 it was 4,720, in 1990 it was 7,235, and in 1991 it rose to 8,215 villages and 135 towns. Throughout the 1990s, while the successive governments kept on using ‘drinking water from Narmada Dam’ as rhetoric and propaganda, the pipeline project kept getting proposed and scrapped with the change of political regime.

Meanwhile, Devilal’s family heard about other displaced families challenging the dam construction, but the dam height kept scaling up and now they started laying even the main canal. His village soon became ‘out of bounds’ for him and dam site had been declared to be a place under the Official Secrets Act (OSA). He wondered if Nehru would have approved of lathicharge on protesting oustees who came to challenge OSA. This non-violent resistance inspired him to think that rehabilitation would not be an elusive dream. A few years later, in 1994, even as the dam height was nearing 80 metres, his son shared with him news he had heard on radio. The Supreme Court had asked to stop the dam construction. There was a hope for justice.

One morning in October 2000, Devilal’s teenaged grandson brought home shattering news. The apex court had permitted dam to be built to its full height. Kisanbhai’s son had just finished building one more checkdam when the news came in. No doubt, his village had received scanty rainfall in the drought year of 1999. But decade long efforts on harnessing what lay at hand provided his village drinking water security. Kisanbhai’s grandson whispered in his ears, “Will the CM stop selling grand dreams of Kalpsar (an ambitious project that envisaged damming the Gulf of Cambay) and start building canals to bring Narmada waters now?”

Two years later, in August 2002, the dam height had reached 100 metres, main canal was built up to Ahmedabad and the chief minister was seen boating. However, branch canals, minors and sub minors that will bring irrigation water to Kutch progressed sluggishly. Earlier that year Kisanbhai’s grandson read in newspapers that Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd, the dam building corporation, had spent 22 percent of total expenditure on repayment of debt due to its indiscriminate market borrowing prior to the Supreme Court stay. He had also read that the money that it got from the central government for the specific purpose of building canals, were spent on other components of the project.

In May 2003, Kisanbhai’s grandson heard about Narmada waters reaching Kutch through pipeline, but the euphoria didn’t last long. The supply turned out to be erratic and irregular. First the officials tried to explain away the stoppage of water supply, stating that the Saurashtra branch canal needed to be cement lined to prevent the seepage. Next time the Kutch farmers had to take their grievance to Gandhinagar and seek a political intervention to curb farmers in Surendranagar district from lifting water en route from the branch canal through diesel pumps. Sometimes breaches in canal also endangered their drinking water supply.

Narmada Canal Network: Tracking mileposts

As on March 31, 2008 SSNNL claims to have developed 2.98 lakh hectares of command area (Narmada Control Authority or NCA status report April 2008). The latest figure quoted in the CAG audit report puts it at 3.41 lakh hectares as on March 31, 2009. CAG’s detailed scrutiny of the irrigation component reveals 669 and 130 numbers of missing links in Phase I and II A of command area (i.e. districts in central Gujarat) respectively.

Increased allocation for ‘domestic and industrial use’

NWDT envisaged providing 1.06 million acre feet (MAF) water for domestic (0.86 MAF) and industrial use (0.20 MAF). But capacity that is created towards this purpose as on March 31, 2009 (1.29 MAF), under progress (0.09 MAF) and planned for (1.63 MAF) totals up to 3.01 MAF. That is to say a threefold rise from what was proposed before the Tribunal. So, what impact would this increased allocation for domestic and industrial use have on the command area of 18 lakh hectares that was envisaged to be irrigated from 7.92 MAF (i.e. 88 percent of Gujarat’s share of Narmada waters estimated at 9 MAF)? Kisanbhai’s son fears that ‘reliable and regular drinking water and irrigation from Narmada’ may remain elusive for many more years. His fears are neither imaginary nor ideological. The proportion of domestic use (0.22 MAF) and industrial use (1.07 MAF) within the capacity already created brings home the warped priorities.

Kisanbhai’s son has lately earned much respect in his village because of his work on harnessing rainwater. One fine morning in April this year, he read in newspapers that the dam would be finally built to its full height, since the Environment Sub Group of Narmada Control Authority chaired by the secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, has cleared installation of gates. The clearance, yet again, is a conditional one.

In third week of May this year, the father-son duo kept reading in one newspaper after another that the Planning Commission has approved the revised cost estimates for the project at Rs 39,240 crores and SSNNL now hopes to get Rs 7,000 crore from the centre under 'Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme' (AIBP). Kisanbhai’s grandson laughs sardonically at the use of the adjective 'Accelerated' in that terminology.

Continued disregard for accountability

The question that shall puzzle economists is “what SSNNL did with finances received under AIBP so far?” Has AIBP funds – meant for the construction of the canal network – been spent on other components of project in violation of norms? A CAG audit report that was tabled in assembly in 2002 stated, “The funds released under AIBP were specifically meant for the construction of canal and distributaries. However, no such segregation of funds was made from 1998-99 to 2000-01. Entire amount (Rs 1,077 crores) was provided for SSP inter alia also for construction of dam, hydroelectric facilities, establishment charges etc.” Eight years from that observation, a recent CAG audit report stated yet again, “SSNNL diverted Rs 1,833.12 crore from AIBP funds, meant for the development of main canal and distribution network to other areas of the project which led to the delay in creation of irrigation potential.”

The question that remains unanswered is: can better performance on canal construction be expected with scant regard for accountability? What is needed on the Narmada front at this moment is a substantive regard for accountability and environmental compliance, not clearances granted under political expediency ensured by remarkable cooperation between the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress in Gujarat. Meanwhile, Devilal’s son toils as a migrant labourer in Surat and Kisanbhai’s son stares at the map that shows a sub minor canal bringing irrigation water to his village.

Crores have been spent, rhetoric on Narmada and political manipulations are still around. Kisanbhai’s grandson also hears much talk on unfinished canal network these days. However, his father has shown him that Gandhi’s ‘Gram Swarajya’ is better than Nehru’s ‘Developmental Raj’. Let’s wish Kisanbhai’s grandson meets Devilal’s grandson soon. For, we are told that Devilal’s son is trying hard to encourage his son to study economics and probe what NREGA entails for him.




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