NBA vs the People of Gujarat ? Deconstructing the Myth

As the movement to scrap the decision to raise the height of the Dam until rehabilitation was complete gathered steam, national dailies carried a full page ad with a large photograph of parched land, calling for quick construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The ad was sponsored by an entire galaxy of Hindu godmen and heads of leading corporations. We examine the reality behind the Sardar Sarovar's claims of quenching Gujarat 's thirst.

 The government of Gujarat and the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd. (SSNNL), builders of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), have always projected the dam as the “only hope” of providing drinking water and irrigation to the water starved regions of Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat. 1 This oft-repeated argument unfortunately often succeeds in what it is primarily meant to do – to pit the NBA and other opponents of the SSP against the people of Gujarat, to pit the tribals of Madhya Pradesh devastated by displacement against the villagers in Gujarat struggling under extremely arid conditions. The truth of the matter is - this argument is a deliberate attempt to divide people and public opinion, an attempt to hide the real motivation behind the dam.

In the midst of the media hype surrounding CM Modi's fast, ostensibly to “quench the thirst of his people”, let us examine the facts. 2 Drinking water was not one of the benefits originally envisaged in the project – it was added later on in an attempt to provide some justification for the SSP when criticism of the social and environmental impacts of the dam became too embarrassing for the proponents of the dam. The SSNNL now claims that 0.86 MAF (million acre feet) from the project will be exclusively used for providing drinking water to 135 urban centres and 8215 villages and estimates that 18-40 million people will get drinking water from the dam by 2021. 3

The first question of course is – was bringing water all the way from the Narmada through long distribution canals the only option available? It obviously promises to be a hugely expensive exercise, even if it were to be successful. Had planners really worried about providing water to Kutch and Saurashtra, they would have used the waters of the Sabarmati and Mahi, both of which are much closer than the Narmada to these drought prone areas. Instead, water from both the rivers is being used in Ahmedabad, Mehsana and Kheda – home to sugar mills, golf courses and water parks!

Secondly, the 0.86 MAF allotted for drinking water, which is the less than 10 per cent of the total water allotted to Gujarat (9 MAF), could have been made available with a much smaller dam. Engineers Suhas Paranjape and K J Joy came up with an alternative restructuring of the SSP way back in 1995. Essentially, this proposal envisaged the SSP as a dam just 107 meters high, compared to the present design of nearly 140 metres. They suggested many technical adjustments (mainly that the distribution system would be built around natural water storages and not on holding water year-round in the SSP reservoir), by which Gujarat would continue to get 9 MAF of water, and Kutch , Saurashtra and North Gujarat would get water on a priority basis. The proposal also promised to irrigate 4 million hectares of land compared to the 1.8 million hectares in the current design. 78 per cent of the proposed land to be irrigated would be in the critically dry areas of Kutch , Saurashtra and North Gujarat , as opposed to the 41 per cent in the present design. This proposal incidentally reduced the submergence zone of the dam by 70 per cent (thus drastically reducing the number of people displaced). This alternative proposal was definitely no less viable than the present design, and was most definitely not against the people of Gujarat . However, the Gujarat government consistently refused to allow a review of the SSP, and the original design was followed.

Coming to the benefits that the SSP is supposed to bring to the dry regions of Gujarat . The benefits are hugely debatable. For one, there is 15-17 per cent lesser water in the Narmada than at the time of design 4 – which means lesser water in the distribution canals. The biggest sufferers will be Kutch and Saurashtra, which lie in the fag end of the distribution network. Also, the benefits of irrigation have been calculated assuming an irrigation efficiency of 60 per cent – while the maximum recorded efficiency in India is around 40 per cent! Obviously, the benefits will reduce by almost half, and equally obviously, far-off Kutch and Saurashtra will again be the prime sufferers. However, the biggest obstacle for water reaching drought prone areas is that many sugar mills, water parks, golf courses and hotels have come up all along the canal network, like vultures waiting around a kill. Industries, large cities and rich farmers growing cash crops are demanding their share. How much water will reach the far end of the canal network after these water guzzlers have their fill?

Viable Alternatives: Changing profile of Thunthi Kankasiya in Dahod, Gujarat , after soil-water conservation measures in 1994

Thunthi Kankasiya village

Status in 1991 Status in 1999

Perennial drinking water wells

Nil 23

River dams

Nil 1

availability (months)

4 12

Irrigation coverage (hectares)

Nil 135

Land under coverage (hectares)

85 153

Number of crops per year

0-1 2-3

Annual agricultural production (quintal/hectare)

900 4,000

Migration rate

78 per cent 5 per cent

Average duration of migration

period (months)

10 2

Income per household (in Rs/year)

8590 35,620

Source: On Water, Down to Earth, Centre for Science and Environment, p 64, New Delhi

Coming to the current debate of whether the dam height should be raised or not. If Mr. Modi were to be believed, the NBA is stalling drinking water from reaching Gujarat by opposing the raise in height of the dam. What is the ground reality? According to a report recently released by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), just 29 per cent of the installed capacity currently available is being utilised, and only 31 per cent of the targeted villages are getting water because of the delay in construction of the distribution network (a completely separate issue from raising the height of the dam, which NBA is opposing)! If drinking water is not reaching drought prone areas, who is responsible? NBA or the government of Gujarat ? Similarly, just 10 per cent of the land that was supposed to be irrigated by a previous phase of the project has actually received water for irrigation, because the distribution network has not been built ! Obviously, the anti-NBA rhetoric is aimed at hiding the failures of the Gujarat government and the SSP project itself.

L.K.Advani has gone to town with reports of farmers in Saurashtra already getting water from the Narmada. 5 Just how many people have benefited? According to a study recently conducted, just 15 per cent of Kutch and Saurashtra has got any water at all. Out of the households which did receive water, less than a fourth received water on a daily basis, and 43 per cent received water for less than an hour a day.

The drought-like situation in Kutch and Saurashtra is a reality. However, the idea that only the SSP can solve the water scarcity problems of the region is patently false. It's the ultimate developmental red herring. There is enough documented evidence of how localized solutions involving harvesting water through check dams, through recharging groundwater aquifers and a host of other tried and tested, time-honoured techniques, can actually meet the drinking water and irrigation requirements of villages in India (see table: Viable Alternatives ). In Kutch and Saurashtra, people know that even if the SSP is built, they are unlikely to get the waters of the Narmada – thanks to the water guzzlers enroute - and some villages are responding by creating water harvesting structures to sustain themselves.

It isn't as if the official machinery doesn't admit the possibilities of alternatives to dams. Water harvesting has many people rooting for it – prominent among them being the former Water Resources Secretary, Ramaswamy Iyer. Writing in 2005 for the Tribune, on the tasks ahead of India to ensure a sustained supply of water, Iyer comments, “ Promote rainwater-harvesting and micro-watershed development throughout the country to the maximum extent technically feasible without adverse effects and subject large projects, where these are found necessary , to a stringent evaluation procedure”.

Many officials have witnessed the benefits in areas where they have worked – like Rajesh Rajora, District Magistrate in Dhar and R C Trivedi, former chairperson of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board. Says Trivedi, “Water harvesting systems have certainly benefited a large section of society in the Saurashtra and Kutch regions. There is no way better than such systems to optimally tap water sources.”

Ignoring evidence of successful water harvesting efforts in many parts of the country, policy makers in India are busy planning ecological disaster by actually thinking of throwing the precious waters of the Narmada into the saline Little Rann of Kutch in the hope of converting it into a sweet water lake! Instead of spending most of its water budget on the SSP ( which, even by official estimates, will irrigate only 1.6 per cent of Kutch and 9.2 per cent of Saurashtra ), the Gujarat government could concentrate its efforts on alternatives. Moreover, we need to understand the sham behind the argument being imposed on us by the likes of Modi and Ahmed Patel, we need to understand that the SSP is important not for the farmers of Kutch and Saurashtra, but for the cities of Baroda and Ahmedabad, for the sugar mills and for the rich farmers growing cash crops.

Radhika Krishnan