Post independent India suffered with multitudinous problems; hunger being the most pressing issue. Mass dislocation of people from their homes and farmlands caused high poverty and starvation in both the newly independent lands
Owing to this, most of the post independent reforms were focussed on improving the primary sector of the nation, with maximum attention being reverted to agriculture.
One of the most prominent reforms involved the channelisation of river water, which led to the construction of dams and canals meant for the improvement of irrigation patterns.
Big dams could, for instance, generate electricity; provide water for irrigation industrial use and domestic use; store water for use in dry seasons or for transport to water scarce areas; and contribute to flood prevention. All these perceived benefits led to a construction boom that lasted for several decades. (THE SARDAR SAROVAR DAM PROJECT – AN OVERVIEW: PHILIPPE CULLET)
This boom saw the introduction of Bhakra Nangal Project on the Sutlej in North, Damodar River Valley Project and Hirakud Dam on Mahanadi in the east and Nagarjunasagar Project on Krishna in the south. Loudly proclaimed as the temples of modern India, by the then Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, these projects continue to be one of the largest and highest in the world. Along the same lines, the west saw the proposal of the Sardar Sarovar Project on Narmada in the early 60s.
However, the priority of dam construction as a means if infrastructure development has been continuously dropping in the views of policy makers – this being the consequence of the dire side effects dam construction brings along with it; the most prominent ones being high scale environment damage and destruction of natural and man-made habitats.
This has been one of the main reasons behind the Sardar Sarovar Project being engulfed in a plethora of controversies ever since the beginning.
The following article discusses the initiation of the project, its development over six decades and the major debates that have surrounded the same.
The Sardar Sarovar Project is one of the largest water resources projects in India – part of a gigantic scheme which is aimed at building more than 3000 dams, which comprises of 30 big dams, on the river Narmada – a 1312 km long watercourse flowing westwards from Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh, touching Maharashtra and finally ending its course in Gujarat.
With and approximate construction cost of Rs. 25 billion, the multipurpose project stands with the primary rationale of providing irrigation and drinking water facilities in three states – Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Emerging as the brainchild of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, the plan for harnessing the river for irrigation and power generation was first formulated in 1946, with the foundation stone being laid down by Nehru 15 years later, in 1961.
3. SSP – COMPONENTS
The project is characterized by six components, beginning with:
3A. SARDAR SAROVAR RESERVOIR
The 214 km long and 1.77 km wide reservoir has been fixed at a Full Reservoir Level (FRL) of 138.68 m (455 ft). the reservoir occupies an area of 37,000 Ha, with submergence at FRL equal to 37,533 Ha. This encompasses of 11,279 Ha agricultural land, 13,385 Ha Forest land and 1,12,869 Ha River bed and waste land.
Overall, the reservoir affects around 230 villages from all the three states, the habitants of which are claimed to have been resettled.
3B. SARDAR SAROVAR DAM
Inaugurated by the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 17 September 2017, the Sardar Sarovar Dam is a concrete gravity dam, extending to a height of 163 m above the deepest foundation level, making it the third highest in the country after Bhakra Nangal and Lakhwar dams.
The dam ranks at world no. 3 in terms of spillway discharge capacity, with the latter being equal to 85,000 cumecs. The dam has also become the second largest in the world in terms of volume of concrete used for construction, seconding the Grand Coule Dam in the USA. (SARDAR SAROVAR NARMADA NIGAM LTD, - OFFICIAL SITE)
3C. POWER INFRASTRUCTURE
The project involves two power houses, with benefits being shared among Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra in a ratio of 57:27:16.
The River Bed Power House (RBPH) is an underground power house stationed on the right bank of Narmada, about 165 metres downstream; while the Canal Head Power House (CHPH) is a surface power station in a saddle dam on the right bank of the reservoir.
Apart from these, the SSP also comprises of small hydropower, solar power and pumping stations projects on the Narmada Branch Canals.
3D. MAIN CANAL
Proclaimed to be the biggest lined irrigation canal in the world, the Narmada Main Canal stretches up to a distance of 458.318 km, up to the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. This further extends to the state of Rajasthan, to irrigate the water scarce areas of Barmer and Jhalore.
The other two components include the canal distribution system and irrigation water operations which essentially deals with the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal and its clause on water sharing among the three beneficiary states; as well as the Command Area Development which comprises of development plans for the lands that would be covered in the SSP. This shall be further discussed in detail in the upcoming sections.
4. BUDGET OUTLAY
The Sardar Sarovar Project was initially supposed to be funded by the World Bank, with a commitment amount equal to US Dollars 300 million. However, the conflicts between the governments of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh over the displacement and resettlement of the rural population; as well as the slow progress of the project forced the institution to conduct an independent enquiry and progress check of the project. The conclusion that came out of the same made the Bank rather apprehensive about the returns the project would be able to provide. Owing to all these reasons, the fund sanction was repealed in the year 1995.
After the World Bank backed out, the Temples of Gujarat are claimed to have donated for the construction of the project.
As far as the present situation is concerned, for the financial year 2018-2019, the cost sanctioned for the project (including the Government of Gujarat Budget as well as the Non-Borrowed Reserves) was equal to an amount of Rs. 10,581 Crores.
5. SSP – ADVANTAGES
Reiterating the advantages of the project, the following points have been enlisted:
a) The SSP will be a major improvement in the irrigation and potable water infrastructure which will be directly benefitting the three states.
b) The project will boost power generation, the benefits of which will ultimately reach the people of the beneficiary states.
c) It will provide a breakthrough in irrigation facilities in water scarce districts of Rajasthan.
d) Ever since the opening of the dam in 2017, tourists have flocked in large numbers to the dam site. The construction of the Statue of Unity and the Tent City around the same area has given tourism and revenue generated from the same a huge boost, which has led to increased employment opportunities and overall benefit of the state of Gujarat.
e) The project will, on an overall scale, help in improving the country’s infrastructure and GDP.
6. SSP – CONTROVERSIES
Launched loudly as the Prime Minister’s greatest gift to the nation, the Sardar Sarovar Dam, and the other components of the Sardar Sarovar Project, have stirred up more problems than opportunities.
SSP gained momentum when big dams began to lose their appeal, owing to the impact they had on natural and built-up environment. However, the controversies surrounding SSP began from the very initial stage, with disputes among the beneficiary states that led to formation of new organizations.
6A. KHOSLA COMMITTEE AND NARMADA WATER DISPUTES TRIBUNAL (NWDT)
1964 saw the formulation of a high-level committee of engineers, headed by A.N. Khosla, the then governor of Odisha, to draw up a master plan for optimum and integrated development of Narmada water resources. (THE TROUBLED COURSE – V. VENKATESAN, FRONTLINE 2000)
The report submitted by this committee recommended Navagam site in Gujarat for the construction of the dam and provided a draft master plan for water resources projects in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. While Gujarat endorsed these recommendations, the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra rejected the same.
The disagreement coerced the Centre to constitute the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (Under Section-4 of the Inter State Water Disputes Act 1956), under the chairmanship of Justice V. Ramaswami.
The Tribunal’s award was notified by the GOI in 1979, whereupon it became the final and binding on the parties of dispute. The Tribunal determined the share of water for each state at 75% dependability on utilizable water as under:
FLOW (Million Acre Feet)
SOURCE: NARMADA WATER DISPUTES TRIBUNAL (OCTOBER, 1969)
The Narmada Control Authority (NCA) – an Inter State Administrative Authority was created by the Tribunal to ensure compliance and implementation of decisions and directions from the latter.
6B. NARMADA BACHAO ANDOLAN
What started as a small protest against the construction of dams on river Narmada back in 1985, has now become the most powerful mass movement of India, with international bodies backing the same.
Narmada Bachao Andolan is essentially a protest against the Narmada Valley Development Project (NVDP) – the gigantic parent scheme behind the SSP and Narmada Sagar Project. The main objectives of the Andolan lie in ensuring dignified livelihoods, social justice and ecological sustainability.
Narmada is India’s largest west flowing river, which supports a variety of people with distinguished cultures and traditions, ranging from indigenous (tribal) population to a large number of rural inhabitants. (NARMADA BACHAO ANDOLAN – ECO INDIA)
The dams under NVDP will directly affect around 2,50,000 people, uprooting them off their homelands, with little permanent resettlement benefits.
The huge fight between the government and NGOs over NVDP is precisely over the mass dislocation of people and the dire climatic adversities the proposed dams will bring; and is still going on 33 years later.
The government has repeatedly pressed on the importance of dams for national development. However, what is often forgotten or ignored is the fact that this “development” is reaching only few influential people. For the ones that are in desperate need of attention (the rural and indigenous population), it is only adding to their woes. How?
Because dam construction engulfs thousands of hectares of area around the proposed site. This destroys farmlands, hinders river’s natural flow, uproots flora and fauna of their natural habitats, dislocates masses and leaves them hanging in the middle of nowhere.
Pt. Nehru has been quoted as saying, “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.” What this statement does not mention, however, is that this suffering is borne by select few groups – the most deprived of them all.
This is the reason why numerous activists, environmentalists, local people and organizations and celebrities have been draining their energy to convince the government against the project. This was also the reason the World Bank was forced to conduct its own survey, seeing the mass despise towards the programme, and repealed the funds it was supposed to sanction for the completion of the project.
Despite this, the Centre has gone forward and inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam, with the PM proudly declaring it as the greatest gift to the nation; while in reality the situation is complete opposite.
The Andolan is still underway. It has lost media coverage, but is still firmly holding its ground on what is advocates. Medha Patkar, renowned Indian Social Activist has burned her life in attempts to save the countless affected and to be affected, while the government has deliberately chosen to ignore the pleas and move ahead with the programme. This has gone on for three decades now, and will probably be left as an unending dilemma.
6C. SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND SSP
As mentioned earlier, the rationale of Narmada Bachao Andolan includes advocating for ecological sustainability. How construction of dams is harmful for the natural environment has also been described in the earlier sections. Looking at that, one can make the basic inference that dam development and sustainability are not in conjunction with each other. This holds significant importance in present times due to:
a) Climate change is the hot topic globally. All the development guidelines, new policies and frameworks that are being passed in the recent years over the globe need to be kept in accordance with sustainability and the 17 goals issued by the United Nations. In such a situation, development of a project that directly challenges these goals will be viewed as a threat.
b) The SDGs are supposed to be achieved by the year 2030. Given this, and the fact that the entire SSP challenges SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities and SDG 13: Climate Action, the achievement of goals by the said year looks immensely tough and mostly impossible.
c) India needs to ensure that the promises it has made with respect to sustainable development are fulfilled. This not only requires creation of policy frameworks and regulations; but also, quick action on any activity that is degrading in nature and can cause serious environmental damage.
While there is no denying the fact that dams have boosted agricultural and overall growth of the country, the consequences that they bring along cannot be ignored. Specifically in the present times, when the secondary and tertiary sectors are gaining priority over primary sectors, dams as a means of development need to be shifted down the priority list.
The Sardar Sarovar Project has been one of a kind, with multiple crores being spent for the development of the main project as well as tourism boosting infrastructure around the latter. However, the fact that anticipated returns have not been received; as well as the worsening condition of the population affected by the construction, have landed it in multitudinous controversies.
The project has been an embodiment of two things: number one being immense political will. Despite the fact that lakhs of people are protesting against a project, the Centre did not stir in its decision to complete the same. If this level of willpower is shown in other programmes, the ones which are essential for growth across the country, it can change the course of development in India forever.
The second thing is the fierce willpower of the common mass. 33 years of peaceful protests and sustaining torture, yet the people of Narmada Valley have refused to bow down or come to a common ground with the government. They have been fighting and will remain fighting for their cause, until the government decides to bend.
However, in this disagreement between the commoners and the government, the rationale of the commoners makes more sense. If in the name of development, certain sections of the society as well as natural environment is being left to get destroyed, the development will not be fruitful. Which is why the policy on the so called “Temples of Modern India” need to be re-considered, re-evaluated and analysed in order that development in true terms can be achieved.
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