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Why this unwarranted raising of Narmada dam height? Why submerge tribals, farmers?

By Himanshu Thakkar, Rohit Prajapati*
In a shocking decision on June 12, 2014, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA), headed by the secretary, Union ministry of water resources (MoWR), and which includes secretary of Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and senior officials of four states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, have sanctioned installation of 17 metre high gates on the Sardar Sarovar Dam on Narmada river in Gujarat, taking the effective current height of the dam from 121.92 m to 138.68 m. This has been done after the rehabilitation sub-group (RSG) of the NCA, chaired by secretary, Union ministry of social justice and empowerment (MoSJE) has also cleared this decision. This decision implies submergence of thousands of hectares (ha) of land and displacement of lakhs of tribals and farmers in three states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, when their rehabilitation, as legally required, has not been done.
More importantly, Gujarat and Rajasthan can get their share of water from Narmada river without this height increase and are not able to use even 20% of the water already available to them at the current height. This is clearly unnecessary, unjust and unwarranted decision that is not likely to have even legal sanction. Only additional benefit that increase in height can provide is about 10-20% additional power generation, in which Gujarat’s share is only 16%; 57% share goes to Madhya Pradesh and 27% share goes to Maharashtra.
There is some misinformation that this height increase is required to take the water to Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat. This is completely wrong. The full supply level of the Narmada main canal is 110 m and once water enters this level in the dam, water can be taken to the canals. Once water enters the main canal, it can be taken to the Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat. Based on information we have obtained from the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) under right to information (RTI), we have seen that Gujarat can get its full share of 9 million acre feet (MAF) of water at current height and no height increase is necessary. Had Gujarat built the necessary canal distribution system with branch canals, distributary canals, minors, sub-minors and field canals to fields in Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat, it could have taken Narmada water to these regions even eight years ago. To suggest that height increase will achieve this is clearly spreading misinformation.
It is shocking that all the officials of the Central and state governments and all the concerned ministers (including Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti, Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar, Social Justice Minister Thaawar Chand Gehlot, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, in addition to Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh Chief Ministers) have towed the line dictated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gujarat Government in this regard, within two weeks of new government taking over. No additional rehabilitation could have been accomplished in these two weeks, which seems to indicate that a political decision has been taken, without considering the ground realities, merits or justification of the decision or necessity of the decision. This does not abode good for the functioning of the new government.
It should be noted here that the installation of gates will take three years, and in any case, for closing the gates, the project will need clearance from environmental sub-group (ESG), RSG and NCA again. Secondly, the gates have been lying in the yard of the SSNNL for many years and a question mark has been raised about the safety of the gates in a recent meeting of the Sardar Sarovar Construction Advisory Committee. In view of all this, it may have been better, as Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has suggested, for the government to first take proper stock of the situation rather than rush into this decision on the eve of the monsoon, when no work is in any case possible in monsoon.
It is also shocking that even before the RSG and the NCA were to take the decision, Gujarat Government was already busy preparing for celebratory meeting at the dam site. This shows that the functioning of the statutory bodies has been taken for granted and their decision was pre-determined, as directed by higher authorities.
Gujarat can get its water share without increase in height. The new government wants to take the SSP Dam from its current height of 121.92 metres to its final design height of 138.68 metres. First, there are serious doubts if this height increase is required since it can be shown that Gujarat and Rajasthan can get their share of water from Narmada without this increase in height. Secondly, Gujarat is not even in a position to use more than 20% of the water it already gets from the river at current height of the dam for the purposes for which the project was designed — providing water for the drought affected regions in Kutch, Saurashtra & North Gujarat. On the other hand, urban centres, industrials areas, SEZs, cosmetic river beautification schemes have appropriated a large chunk of SSP waters without legal, democratic sanction or justification. Gujarat really does not have a case for increasing the height of SSP Dam.
Moreover, this will also entail such massive additional submergence, displacement and disruption of lives of tribals and farmers that it is sure to create huge opposition. The NBA estimates that an additional 2.5 lakh people will face unjust submergence in three states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The just rehabilitation of already affected people is far from complete, in fact, most of the affected population has not been given minimum 2 ha of land required under the Narmada Tribunal award and subsequent accepted policies.
Modi during his tenure of 13 years as Chief Minister of Gujarat failed to complete the canal network of SSP in the drought prone areas in whose name the project has always been justified. It needs to be noted that the agitation against SSP did not stop Gujarat government from going ahead with construction of canal network. It was not for lack of finances that SSP could not complete the canal network. SSP has been getting largest quantum of money from the Government of India’s Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBP) ever since the AIBP scheme started in 1996. This support to SSP from AIBP was clearly wrong since SSP was never the last mile project for which AIBP was meant, but the big dam lobby in the Union water resources ministry and the Gujarat government were hand-in-glove in this misallocation of AIBP money for SSP. In fact, Modi arm-twisted the Planning Commission in 2011-12 to sanction the escalated costs for SSP even when the issues raised by Planning Commission officers remained unanswered.
It is the ineptitude of the Gujarat government under Modi that is on show as to why it could not complete the canal network on drought prone areas in Gujarat. Modi would do well to remember the reasons for that failure before he considers the mega projects agenda as Prime Minister.
Moreover, on SSP, the issues of completing repairs of the damages the Sardar Sarovar dam structure suffered four years ago and related issue of safety of the dam are yet to be resolved and Gujarat has embarked on building another Garudeshwar Dam in immediate downstream without any impact assessments, participatory democratic process or required sanctions. The legality of the Garudeshwar Dam work stands challenged in the National Green Tribunal by the affected tribals.
Indeed, this unnecessary, unwarranted and unjust decision is not going to go down well with any right thinking person. The new government at the center is clearly treading a path that is bound to raise huge uproar and make the common person on street question: for whom and for what purpose is this government working. It would be in best interest of everyone if the government was so confident, to get this debated in the Parliament.

*Thakkar is with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, and Prajapati is a senior environmental activist based in Vadodara, Gujarat

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