Not so well-informed on Narmada

By Rajiv Shah
I have in my hand yet another book on advantages of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). “Supported” by the Gujarat government, and seemingly well researched on a quick scan, what intrigued me after going through it was, it seemed to fail to answer some of contentious questions that remain unanswered ever since the SSP was initiated full-scale in late 1980s. A closer look at the book, which has just been published by Sage, suggests that it fails to address critical issues affecting the project despite its declared aim to have a “well-informed debate” on the project. The term “well-informed”, quoted by the authors, also seemed intriguing — especially because it heavily relies on official sources of information, without referring even once to the sources which have questioned the some of the SSP’s benchmarks.
In fact, the reliance on official information is so high that the final manuscript became “ready for publication” only after the managing-director of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), the state-implementing agency for SSP, approved it! The book has been jointly authored by S Jagadeesan, retired IAS officer, who headed the SSNNL till about two years ago, and whom I have known well as a frank bureaucrat, and M Dinesh Kumar, executive director, Institute for Resource Analysis and Policy (IRAP), Hyderabad. Interestingly, it is the same Kumar who wrote, along with a group of other IRAP scholars, a controversial article in 2010 “exploding” what he called the “myth” of Gujarat agricultural growth story.
Now about the book’s contents. In sharp contrast to several water resources experts, such as Dr Tushaar Shah, who have long held that increase in groundwater levels witnessed in some parts of Gujarat has been mainly caused by tens of thousands of checkdams built in the late 1990s, and SSP had no role play, the book, titled “The Sardar Sarovar Project: Assessing Economic and Social Impacts”, insists that this has taken place because of the availability of the Sardar Sarovar-supported canal network.
In a well-researched paper Dr Shah wrote in association with Ashok Gulati, Hemant P, Ganga Shreedhar, and RC Jain, “Secret of Gujarat’s Agrarian Miracle after 2000” (“Economic and Political Weekly”, December 26, 2009), he stated: “Several exogenous factors have helped Gujarat’s exceptional agricultural growth performance after 1999-2000. Much of Gujarat – especially the drought-prone regions of Saurashtra, Kachchh and North Gujarat – have received above-normal rainfall during all these years.” This, the paper suggests, helped replenish checkdams across Gujarat, and positively impacted agricultural.
In fact, the paper laments that the SSP, “called the lifeline of Gujarat… has been mired in controversies and disputes”, insisting, Gujarat may have raised the Narmada dam height to 121.64 metres, and there is “enough water in the dam to irrigate 18 lakh hectares (ha) as originally planned”, yet “SSP irrigation development is stuck because of the slow pace of command area development.” It adds, while the main and branch canals were nearly complete, “the government is facing major road blocks in acquiring land for creating the network of distributaries, minors and sub-minors.”
Despite this clearcut view expressed by the group headed by Dr Shah, the new book is singularly quiet about this controversial remark. This despite the fact that the authors claim that the book is the “first attempt (sic!) to mainly highlight the positive side of the SSP in order to generate a more informed debate”. There is reason to wonder why it does not bother even once to recall what Dr Shah’s view. Worse, the years of study the authors of the book have chosen, from 2004 to 2009, for justifying sharp replenishment of groundwater levels were also the years when Gujarat received excellent rainfall. What was the impact of rainfall on groundwater levels, on one hand, and Gujarat agriculture, on the other, has also not been discussed in the book at all.
Based on the choice of the years, the authors of the book say, “There has been significant difference in groundwater behaviour in the designated command areas of the SSP between the two time periods, that is, pre-command and post-command.” The districts covered for this analysis are Banaskantha, Mehsana, Ahmedabad, Surendranagar, Vadodra, Bharuch and Kheda. They add, “Season-wise analysis shows that everywhere water level either started rising at a faster rate or got reversed from the lower trend (pre-Narmada) to the rising trend (post-Narmada).”
At the same time, the authors admit, at least in Kheda, which was a recipient of Narmada waters during this period, while in the pre-Narmada period water levels showed “significant rise at the rate of 4.34 metres per year”, in the post-Narmada period they “dropped significantly … to 1.53 metres per year”, suggesting Narmada had no impact in this Central Gujarat region. However, the authors give no reason as to why this happened. Yet, at one place, they go far as to declare that total dissolved solids (TDS) in Kheda district, despite groundwater levels falling, showed a positive, “sliding trend”!
Notably, the authors give SSP full mark to groundwater recharge for the period 2004-09, when most of the Narmada command area development had not even begun! Yet they declare that, thanks to the waters available from Narmada, agriculture boomed, leading to a situation when the “net income increase” rose for such cash crops like cotton across all the locations taken up for analysis. The incomes, they say, relying on official sources, increased to Rs 49,586 per hectare (ha) in the Panchmahals, lowest among the districts chosen, to Rs 94,279 per ha in Bharuch district. Is all this because of the SSP? One can just read this in the backdrop of what Dr Shah had to say in 2009; he said, as “against a target of 18 lakh ha”, the SSP was then being “irrigating only 80-100 thousand ha mostly in the Narmada, Bharuch and Vadodara districts”!
Despite this, the authors seek to insist, “Area under irrigation has increased substantially in all the selected locations after the introduction (sic!) of water by gravity through the Narmada canal system.” In fact, contradicting Dr Shah without naming him (as also government’s own admissions of those days), the book says, “With the introduction of water from the Narmada canal, farmers’ dependence on wells and water purchase has reduced. Well-irrigation has become non-existent in all the four selected locations which are receiving canal water by gravity.” Even here, interestingly, the authors of the book do not even seek to examine whether this could also be due to good rainfall!
What is even more shocking is, while the authors devote one full chapter on what they call “environmental externalities of the SSP”, pointing to huge “ecological benefits of introducing Narmada water”, at another point in the same chapter (“Social Benefits and Impact”), they declare rather loudly, that the book “does not attempt to relook at the ecological damage (loss of forest, wildlife, and biodiversity) due to reservoir submergence and canal work”! The strange declaration has been made even as pointing towards the need to “examine” whether there were any “negative impacts”, as anticipated, in the Narmada command area.
The refusal to even examine the allegation of “ecological damage” because of the SSP comes even though sharp questions continue to be raised by social activists and experts like Medha Patkar, Shripad Dharmadhikari, and Himanshu Thakkar and others on the destruction of environment because of the Narmada reservoir at the dam site, and sharp increase in salinity levels along the riverbed downstream of the Narmada river, right up to the Gulf of Khambhat, making agricultural lands arid, indeed unirrigable.
The authors further refuse to compare the districts they have chosen for their study with other districts which do not fall under the Narmada command, but where because of rainfall water levels went up in the second half of the 2000s. In fact, they happily proclaim, “The study did not intend to capture changes in the dynamics of farm economy in the neighbouring areas/ regions due to due to changes in agricultural practices.”
And last but not the least, the study – despite its loud-mouthed intention to “generate a more informed debate” – is quiet about the noise being made by many social activists on the basis of some media reports about reported “efforts” by the Gujarat officialdom to decommand whopping 4 lakh ha of land out of 18 lakh ha of Narmada command area in anticipation of industrialization and urbanization in the Narmada command area. Interestingly, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), whose more than 40 per cent the area falls in Gujarat, is all set to overlap the 458-km-long Narmada main canal. There is reason to believe that the DMIC will have an impact on the Narmada command. Without going into its pluses and minuses, the authors haven’t even touched upon this aspect – even though the title of the book seeks to assess “economic and impacts” of the SSP.



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