Politics of development over Sardar Sarovar Dam has put environmental concerns in the back seat

Nivedita Khandekar
Nivedita KhandekarSep 20, 2017 | 14:55

Politics of development over Sardar Sarovar Dam has put environmental concerns in the back seat

On September 17, 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated to the nation the Sardar Sarovar Dam on Narmada river, 56 years after its foundation stone was laid by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Amid chanting of Narmadashtak (an eight-stanza ode to River Narmada, fondly called Narmada Maiyya along its banks both in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat), Modi unveiled a plaque to mark the occasion.


Later, at a public meeting at Dabhoi, while addressing the closing ceremony of the Narmada Mahotsav Yatras, he recalled visiting border areas in the past, where BSF jawans did not have enough water. “Lack of water resources has been a major impediment to development. We brought Narmada waters to the border areas for jawans.”

Indeed, in 1961, when the foundation stone was laid, the dam was pitched as a boon to the remote citizens, especially the parched Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat areas, and Rajasthan’s bordering areas. Numerous reasons delayed the construction over the years. The World Bank had agreed to aid the project, but withdrew later when Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) drew its attention to environmental and rehabilitation issues.

The Medha Patkar-led NBA also dragged the Centre and the state governments to the court over the same in 1996, effectively stalling all construction till 2000.

The Narmada Control Authority (NCA) had earlier in June cleared the final raising of the Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSD) by lowering of the gates and impounding waters in the reservoir up to its full reservoir level (FRL) of 138.68 metres from its earlier 121.92 metres.


“With lowering of gates of SSD, the live storage capacity would increase from 1565 to 5740 MCM, that is by 4175 MCM (267 per cent). The clean (hydro-power generation) would increase by present 1300MW to 1450MW with increase in annual generation by about 1100 Million Units (that is, about Rs 400 crore per annum). In addition, this additional storage would irrigate about 8 lakh hectares. Additionally, about one crore population would get assured drinking water. The Sardar Sarovar Project would primarily meet the water requirement of drought prone and desert areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan,” a PIB release had said on June 17, 2017.

And ironically, it also claimed: “The Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) sub-group chaired by Smt G Latha Krishna Rao, Secretary (MoSJ&E) reviewed the progress of R&R and the opinions received from Grievance Redressal Authorities (GRAs) of the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra on June 16, 2017. The state governments have assured to address all issues of Project Affected Families (PAFs) on priority basis in accordance with Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) Award, liberalised policies of the state governments and the Supreme Court Order dated February 8, 2017.”


narmada-reuters_092017014816.jpgThe World Bank had agreed to aid the project, but withdrew later when Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) drew its attention to environmental and rehabilitation issues. Photo: Reuters

Proof enough that the government knows and admits that rehabilitation and resettlement is not yet complete and yet the permission to raise the height to its FRL was given.

This was, of course, missing from the glorified speeches on Sunday.

There was no mention of the environmental damage wrought by the dam, both upstream and downstream. A major problem is the salinity ingress in villages along the Narmada in Gujarat as not enough water is released into the Narmada to prevent sea water from entering it. Dug wells and borewell are yielding saline water, agriculture has faced problems and marine life in the downstream of the dam site is severely affected due to lack of adequate waters.

Upstream the dam, the environmental problems are more pronounced. Hundreds and thousands of acres of fertile land, scores of villages and pristine green forests have been submerged under the dam reservoir. For more than two decades now, people along these submerged villages have been fighting for proper rehabilitation and resettlement, a task that the government of Madhya Pradesh has never taken seriously.

Exploiting the Narmada for political gains

But then, it is not just the environmental and R&R related issues that are a cause of worry. It is the political exploitation of a river that is appalling. The Narmada Mahotsav Yatra, ahead of the inauguration, was one attempt. No wonder Modi was quickly criticised by the Congress for the hype. In a strongly-worded statement, the Congress said: "The last couple of decades of BJP rule in Gujarat is replete with symbolic rath yatras and political gimmicks. At a time when the project is not even complete, keeping in mind the upcoming elections, the BJP has launched another yatra – Narmada Mahotsav Yatra – covering 10,000 villages in 24 districts."

It did admit the initial years of delay till "90 per cent work was given successive nods for completion" under then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. "Controversies surrounding the Narmada project have kept the political circles engaged in a war of words for nearly half a century — right from the laying of the foundation stone by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961, till 1987, when its construction work was stalled for the lack of environmental clearances. But it was under the leadership of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, that all stumbling blocks were cleared and 90 percent of the work was given successive nods for completion."

"After that, although the BJP was in power for nearly 22 years, the construction work remains incomplete till date. 43,000km of the proposed canal networks are not completed. Further, the Narmada Dam project was intended to provide irrigation facilities for nearly 19 lakh hectares of land. But in real terms, as far as the project’s status is concerned, it can only irrigate 3.70 lakh hectares of agricultural lands. The dam water has reached less than 12 percent of the total 17.92 lakh hectares of land," the Congress statement said.

sardar-sarovar-pti_092017014847.jpgOne of most popular meanings of Narmada is 'giver of joy'. Photo: PTI

And, it is not just Modi who is looking at the political exploitation of one of India’s relatively clean rivers. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has recently completed his Narmada Seva Yatra and Digvijaya Singh, Congress leader and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister, has already declared that he will start Narmada Parikrama (clockwise circumambulation of the entire Narmada river on foot).

Not just Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh too is poll-bound state (Assembly elections in 2018) and Digvijaya Singh is also out of his self-imposed 10-year exile from state politics. Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been facing a volley of allegations — from Vyapam scam to sand mining scam, to name two of the most important. Both are looking for political redemption. One of most popular meanings of Narmada is "giver of joy".

It will be clear whether the river Narmada brings joy to Digvijaya Singh or Shivraj Singh Chouhan, or for that matter, to BJP or the Congress in Gujarat. But till then, the multitudes of ordinary men and women along the Narmada banks await their joy — small little things as land for land, job assurance to adult sons and daughters, water and power in relocation villages and, most important, a free-flowing Narmada.

Pari Passu

Along with the free-flowing Narmada, another common complaint is the lack of necessary rehabilitation and resettlement. The cascade of dams along the length of the Narmada – upstream of the Sardar Sarovar Dam are Maheshwar, Omkareshwar, Indira Sagar and Bargi – have meant huge, bulging reservoirs that submerge large areas of village, agriculture and forest lands. In the '90s and the 2000s, the term pari passu had gained currency; unfortunately, it has not been given its due importance now.

Explaining the import of "Pari Passu", Ramaswamy Iyer, water activist and former secretary, water resources ministry, had written in his piece in The Hindu way back in 2006: “In 1985-86, the ministry of water resources and the ministry of environment and forests (TN Seshan as secretary, MoEF, and myself as secretary, WR) were discussing whether the SSP was ripe for a clearance. The ministry of water resources was arguing for a strictly conditional clearance to the project, but the MoEF felt that once a conditional clearance was given, construction would proceed apace and other things such as environmental and rehabilitation measures would become secondary and be neglected.”

“It was in that context that I suggested that such a possibility could be prevented by stipulating a strict pari passu condition such that construction is not allowed to outpace environmental and rehabilitation work. The idea was that the pace of work on environmental and rehabilitation measures would determine the pace of work on construction,” he had rightly argued.

Unfortunately, more than a decade later, no such thing has happened. On June 17, 2017, when the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) cleared the final raising of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, Narmada Bachao Andolan had lodged a protest at the dam site and claimed that deputy chief minister of Gujarat Nitin Patel very well knows that his government has been filing false affidavits before the court, showing that complete rehabilitation has been achieved. Demanding right to protest anywhere, the NBA claimed that although Gujarat government had taken care of much of the R&R on its side, those on the other side — in Madhya Pradesh, upstream of the dam — had much at stake. Criticising the Gujarat government, which had resorted to lathi-charging the protestors, NBA had alleged that the Gujarat government was known for its "distorted propaganda since years" and that it was at it again since the authorities were in a hurry to close the gates.

“All Supreme Court judgments, including of February 8, 2017, have endorsed people’s right to rehabilitation as part of their Right to Life. Huge salinity ingress due to Sardar Sarovar and farmers’ struggle again water diversion to the Corporates is a reality now,” the NBA said. Follow this Twitter thread for more details. 

The NBA has been agitating over what it terms the "doob kshetra" — the villages that have now been submerged.Cost escalation is often quoted by the authorities as the reason for rushing and expediting the construction, and violation of the pari passi principle is a given. There was no withdrawal of conditions even when scores of people remained unsettled, there was no stopping of work once the Supreme Court had given the go-ahead. Hurdles and clearances were never in sync with the project affected people’s (PAPs) conditions.

As the dam has been “dedicated to the nation” by the PM, it is clearly the time to look back.

It is high time that a cost-benefit assessment of the project is undertaken. It is not too late to course-correct if the three state governments and the Centre have not been able to do justice to the rehabilitation and resettlement of the people of the Narmada Valley. It is a call we must take. Now. For the future.

Last updated: September 20, 2017 | 18:20
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