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“Wasted” waters of two re-profiled rivers — Narmada and Sabarmati

I have in my hand a new book, “Business Interests and the Environmental Crisis”, edited by two scholar-activists whom I have known for a little while for their insightful reports on ground-level environmental issues and their implications – Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon.
While I found most of the papers published in the book (published by Sage) too theoretical, hence would possibly require expert reaction, two of them interesting me. The first one is a paper by Shripad Dharmadhikary, a passionate expert on river systems, once associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan. What interested me in Dharmadhikary’s paper is his strong, perhaps unique, argument on how the Narmada project was conceived to put into practice the “flawed” notion that water should not be allowed to go waste into the sea, and how this concept has ruined ecological systems.
The second paper that interested me is by Himanshu Burte, faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Burte deals with Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Riverfront Development project, noting how it “re-profiled” the river as a “simplified geometry”, only to create a real estate hub. The riverfront interested me, because I live in Ahmedabad, and despite its ecological havoc, the middle and lower middle class families find it a spot where they can take a leisurely stroll, indeed free of cost.
But first Narmada, which has excited me ever since I settled down in Gujarat in 1993. The first time I actually “saw” Narmada project was in late 1990s, when, apart from the dam and the incomplete powerhouse, I took a peep into Narmada outees’ resettlement colonies. I saw them, accompanied by one of the finest Gujarat cadre IAS bureaucrats, Vinod Babbar, who knew many of the oustees personally, named their children, and cracked jokes with them. It is quite another thing that, back to Gandhinagar following his seven-year stint in Vadodara, he would often complain to me about “lack of progress in resettling Narmada oustees”, something which is becoming a reality now. There have been reports that the resettled oustees are now being sought to be evicted!
During another visit, I went from the dam right up to Aliabet, a former island situated on the mouth of river Narmada. I could see the destruction caused by the dam all through: The sea waters had made their way into the river, travelling tens of kilometres towards the dam. At village Mangrol, I met Arch Vahini’s Dr Anil Patel, a physician, who showed me how, just about 50 kilometres from the Narmada dam, the river was “filled” with sea water because of the high tide. “This happens quite often”, he told me, “Especially when they don’t release waters from the dam.”
Local officials confirmed, the sea water ingress is a problem; it has “virtually destroyed” agricultural land on large stretches on both sides of the river.
I was reminded of this (and much more) as I was reading through Dharmadhikary’s paper. The paper quotes from the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) Award on the distribution of Narmada river waters between Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra: “In many years, there will be surplus water in the filling period after meeting the storage requirements (of the dam)… This will flow down to sea. Only portion of it will be utilizable for generating power… the rest will go waste. It is desirable that water which would go waste … should be allowed to be utilized by the party states to the extent they can…”
Currently coordinator at the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Badwani, Madhya Pradesh, Dharmadhikary comments, “The use of the water for irrigation is certainly an important and valued use. This not being disputed. What is disputed is the notion that if the flowing water was not being used for irrigation (or some other specific uses like hydropower), then it was being wasted. This notion ignored the many other uses of water – some, like fisheries which benefited humans, and others which served the purposes of other life forms and maintaining ecology.”
It is this same notion of “water going waste” that is behind the latest interlinking of rivers project, too, says the scholar. He quotes from a National Water Development Agency (NWDA): “The monsoon flood waters which otherwise run waste into the sea should be conserved in various storage reservoirs, big and small. The water so conserved could then be utilized for irrigation, power generation, etc.… Only surplus flood water, after meeting all in-basin requirements for foreseeable future, has been planned for transfer of water to deficit areas.”
Disputing the notion of “surplus water”, Dharmadhikary argues, “The ecology of the river (and the basin) has evolved based on its historic natural flows, and this includes the seasonal pattern of high and low flows. Thus, any part of the flow, including the floods, can be considered surplus only by discounting the ecological functions… In the discounting ecological functions, often even the benefits accruing to the large human communities are discounted.”
He believes, “In this manner, we see the notion of surplus … can operate only by privileging certain uses of the river flow over others.” He quotes top Gujarat-based academic Prof Yoginder Alagh, a well-known Narmada dam protagonist, as admitting, “The modelling (of Narmada waters) was so good that we very accurately used up all the water for the crops, the trees, and for drinking. We all forgot the obvious. Rivers also need water.”
And, prey, where is this wasted water being used up in Gujarat?
This takes me to the other paper in the book – by Himanshu Burte. Burte points to how – quite like the Narmada project – an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 families were “displaced” and this was “replaced by an artificial river body, a sort of aqueous spatial product” called Sabarmati riverfront. He rightly insists, “The river that we see today is not, strictly speaking, the river that was, if you consider river as necessary integrated into a larger riverine process. Today, water from feeder canal of the Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada river is artificially fed into the new Sabarmati channel to keep water in the river all the year round.”
The result is, he adds, an “invaluable real estate” has been produced “to the extent of 28 hectares (or over 30 lakh sq ft which would give a gross total built-up area multiple times that number, depending on the floor space index that will be allocated to the special project) at 15 per cent of the total reclaimed land of 185 hectares (ha)”.
What Burte’s paper, however, misses is the context: How Dharoi dam, built in 1960s, stopped any flow of water into Sabarmati that would be there earlier. Indeed, I remember, as do all old timers like me, having taken bath in whatever little water that would remain in Sabarmati during summer when I was a little child – that was late 1950s or early 1960s.
“Concentrating” on a theoretical premise of Henri Lefebvre, a Marxist theorist, who pointed towards how abstract spaces are sought to be projected as real in order to “enable capital accumulation”, Burte, however, does not say how the 10.5 km stretch of Sabarmati riverfront project has meant environmental destruction of a riverine system. Perhaps the limitation of the theoretical framework he chose?
Indeed, those who have seen the river upstream and downstream of the riverfront know: Sabarmati in the downstream of the riverfront, beyond Vasna barrage, turns into drainage line, an open gutter, of industrial and other wastewater. Anyone who has crossed the river at Vautha would confirm how badly it stinks. There is, in fact, no river here. As for the river upstream, it’s all dry.
Also, I wondered: Shouldn’t Burte find a sociological answer to the riverfront? Despite this ecological destruction, about which little has been said, majority of Ahmedabad believes it as a great Narendra Modi success story, opening up a recreational space, which wasn’t there in till earlier.


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