Sardar Sarovar Dam
There's hole in the flag that
It's a sad thing to have to say,
but as long as we have faith-we have no hope. To hope, we have to break the faith. We have
to fight specific wars in specific ways and we have to fight to win.
Listen then, to the story of the Narmada Valley. Understand it. And, if you wish, enlist.
Who knows, it may lead to magic.
The Narmada wells up on the plateau of Amarkantak in the Shahdol district of Madhya
Pradesh, then winds its way through 1,300 kilometres of beautiful broad-leaved forest and
perhaps the most fertile agricultural land in
India. Twenty five million people live in the river valley, linked to the ecosystem and to
each other by an ancient, intricate web of interdependence (and, no doubt, exploitation).
Though the Narmada has been targeted for "water resource development" for more
than 50 years now, the reason it has, until recently, evaded being captured and
dismembered is because it flows through three states-Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and
Gujarat. (Ninety per cent of the river flows through Madhya Pradesh; it merely skirts the
northern border of Maharashtra, then flows through Gujarat for about 180 km before
emptying into the Arabian sea at Bharuch).
As early as 1946, plans had been afoot to dam the river at Gora in Gujarat. In 1961, Nehru
laid the foundation stone for a 49.8 metre high dam-the midget progenitor of the Sardar
Sarovar. Around the same time, the Survey of India drew up new, modernised topographical
maps of the river basin. The dam planners in Gujarat studied the new maps and decided that
it would be more profitable to build a much bigger dam. But this meant hammering out an
agreement first with neighbouring states.
The three states bickered and balked but failed to agree on a water-sharing formula.
Eventually, in 1969, the Central Government set up the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. It
took the Tribunal 10 years to announce its Award. The people whose lives were going to be
devastated were neither informed nor consulted nor heard.
To apportion shares in the waters, the first, most basic thing the Tribunal had to do, was
to find out how much water there was in the river. Usually this can only be estimated
accurately if there is at least 40 years of recorded data on the volume of actual flow in
the river. Since this was not available, they decided to extrapolate from rainfall data.
They arrived at a figure of 27.22 maf (million acre feet). This figure is the statistical
bedrock of the Narmada Valley Projects. We are still living with its legacy. It more or
less determines the overall design of the Projects-the height, location and number of
dams. By inference, it determines the cost of the Projects, how much area will be
submerged, how many people will be displaced and what the benefits will be. In 1992 actual
observed flow data for the Narmada which was now available for 44 years (1948-1992) showed
that the yield from the river was only 22.69 maf-18 per cent less! The Central Water
Commission admits that there is less water in the Narmada than had previously been
Government of India says: It may be noted that clause II (of the Decision of the Tribunal)
relating to determination of dependable flow as 28 maf is non-reviewable. (!)
In other words, the Narmada is legally bound by human decree to produce as much water as
the Government of India commands it to produce.
Its proponents boast that the Narmada Valley Project is the most ambitious river valley
project ever conceived in human history. They plan to build 3,200 dams that will
reconstitute the Narmada and her 41 tributaries into a series of step reservoirs-an
immense staircase of amenable water. Of these, 30 will be major dams, 135 medium and the
rest small. Two of the major dams will be multi-purpose mega dams. The Sardar Sarovar in
Gujarat and the Narmada Sagar in Madhya Pradesh will, between them, hold more water than
any other reservoir on the Indian subcontinent.
Whichever way you look at it, the Narmada Valley Development Project is Big. It will alter
the ecology of the entire river basin of one of India's biggest rivers. For better or for
worse, it will affect the lives of 25 million people who live in the valley. Yet, even
before the Ministry of Environment cleared the project, the World Bank offered to finance
the lynchpin of the project-the Sardar Sarovar dam (whose reservoir displaces people in
Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, but whose benefits go to Gujarat). The Bank was ready with
its cheque-book before any costs were computed, before any studies had been done, before
anybody had any idea of what the human cost or the environmental impact of the dam would
The $450-million loan for the Sardar Sarovar Projects was sanctioned and in place in 1985.
The Ministry of Environment clearance for the project came only in 1987! Talk about
enthusiasm. It fairly borders on evangelism. Can anybody care so much?
Why were they so keen