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The controversial Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada River is planned to be the largest and most expensive multipurpose river project ever to be initiated in India. The project is supposed to irrigate 1.8 million ha. of land (see Map 1), supply drinking water to 40 million people, and create an installed capacity of 1450 MW of power, over the next thirty years (Raj 1992: 11). While proponents of the project label it as "the most studied river valley project in India", reality seems to lag far behind rhetoric. This booklet takes a look at the possible environmental impacts of the SSP in the context of the requirements and conditionalities laid down by the Government of India for such projects, examines the lack of a comprehensive EIA, the status of environmental studies related to the project, and the lapse of environmental clearance for the SSP.

The highlights of the environmental case against the SSP can be summarized thus:

  • No comprehensive environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the SSP has ever been carried out. It is shocking that such a large project can be allowed to proceed without such a basic condition being fulfilled.
  • The conditional environmental clearance granted to the SSP in 1987 has effectively lapsed. The project authorities have not met most of the major conditionalities laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests - further work on the project is thus illegal.
  • The worst environmental impact of the SSP is likely to be in Gujarat, where over half the area to be irrigated is moderately to severely prone to waterlogging and salinisation. The possible loss of about one million hectares of agricultural land due to waterlogging and salinisation is an environmental threat of epic magnitude, and is likely to seriously undermine the stated benefits. In addition, severe environmental impacts are anticipated downstream of the project, and even outside the so-called impact zone, e.g. in the forest areas where rehabilitation is planned.
  • Several key studies about environmental impacts of the SSP have not been carried out or remain incomplete. In the absence of detailed studies (and, of course, access to those which have been carried out), the full nature and scope of the environmental impacts of the SSP and possible preventive and mitigative measures remain unknown.

The project authorities are thus currently pushing full steam ahead on a project, whose environmental impacts (such as can be assessed) are unclear or unknown, whose conditional environmental clearance has effectively lapsed, for which critical studies remain incomplete, and which has the possibility of destroying vast stretches of agricultural land.

Our analysis of the environmental impact of the SSP is limited by the fact that several studies and documents which the authorities claim to have prepared are not publicly available. In addition, the magnitude of several impacts are unknown due to lack of studies. Finally, several environmental impacts are essentially unquantifiable, often because of the large number of uncertainties involved and the lack of a system to measure such impacts (e.g. microclimatic changes resulting from reservoir filling and large-scale irrigation). Such impacts are almost always neglected in cost-benefit analyses, but often carry large environmental and associated social costs. This analysis is therefore based on the limited documentation which is available on the SSP, on available experience of other projects, and on our own field observations.

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