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The Hindu on : Turning the tide

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, December 26, 1999

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Turning the tide

The dispute over the Narmada dam is still to be resolved. But, it is possible to build the dam while preventing human displacement and ecological imbalance. RAJNI BAKSHI writes on an alternative proposal to the project that ensures a system built around natural water storage and the regenerative and equitable use of water.

THERE is a solution to the dispute over the Narmada dam. It is possible to build the dam, yet prevent large-scale displacement and still provide water to parched areas of north Gujarat.

This is neither fantasy nor wishful thinking. Such a solution has been drafted by highly qualified engineers. This proposal has been around since 1995 as a book titled Sustainable Technology: Making The Sardar Sarovar Project Viable by Suhas Paranjape and K. J. Joy.

Paranjape, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology (Bombay), is the chief architect of this proposal. A one-time activist of peasant organisations in Maharashtra, Paranjape has extensive exposure to the plight of people displaced by dams as well as those living in chronic drought areas. He is among those who are trying to fill the middle ground between the two extremes of either glorifying the dam as a "lifeline" or rejecting it as completely destructive.

The knowledge about this work has remained within a limited circle of people and thus the popular impression is that we have to choose between the human rights of those being displaced and the development of Gujarat. Is this because the alternative proposal lacks substance? Or is it falling victim to all the obstacles that often greet simple ideas that are strong on common sense?

The alternative proposal redesigns the delivery system of the Sardar Sarovar Project and calls for a reduction of the dam's height from the originally planned 140 metres to 107 metres. This would effectively mean submergence up to 90 metres. The results of these changes would be quite radical.

* The submergence zone would be reduced by about 70 per cent.

* This would save almost 90 per cent of the people now threatened with displacement.

* Lift irrigation in the submergence zone would enhance productivity of the tribal lands and thus enable those who are displaced to be rehabilitated with land in their own cultural milieu. In the original design there is no provision for a service area upstream of the dam.

* Gujarat would still get the nine-million-acre feet allocated to it in the original plan.

* The total service area of the project would be increased to more than four million hectares, instead of the original plan for 1.8 million hectares.

* The critically dry areas of Kuchch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat would get water on a priority basis.

* This proposal does, however, reduce power generation from the planned 3,600 megaunits to 2,600 megaunits. But it more than makes up this gap through use of supplementary non-conventional means of generating electricity, relying partly on solar and bio- mass based devices.

* The new design ensures equitable access to water for all the families in the service area, including the landless. It also provides for a vast area with permanent vegetative cover. In any case, Madhya Pradesh is not able to build many of the upstream dams on the Narmada which were intended to feed the Sardar Sarovar reservoir for a year-round high level of water. That is why the original design calls for a dam height of 140 metres.

But the critical importance of the Paranjape-Joy proposal is not merely reduction of height. The workability of this scheme rests on broadly three components.

First, the distribution system would be built around natural water storage and not on holding water year-round in the reservoir. The canals would be used primarily to carry Narmada water to local surface and groundwater storage. In addition, it proposes a Saurashtra feeder canal system which would take water from the tail-end of the Sardar Sarovar main canal. It also advocates a "tail-to-head" approach in construction and scheduling of water deliveries. Otherwise, areas in the head reaches consume most of the water and very often the tail portions end up getting very little water.

Second, regenerative and equitable use of water lies at the heart of this alternative restructuring. This component is drawn from the experiences of various grass-root level watershed development projects over the last 15 years. It is supported by an evolving body of scientific knowledge and technological developments all over the world.

This part calls for local community mobilisation to develop the surface and groundwater resources before they receive exogenous water provided by the government machinery. It also requires that economic use of water be allowed only after the basic water needs of every family have been ensured. One third of the service area must, mandatorily, be brought under permanent vegetative cover, thus helping to afforest the countryside. Allocation of water and maintenance of the system rests with the community-based water users group.

Thirdly, the plan provides for more than just basic livelihoods and assumes that people will aspire towards a steadily rising prosperity. And energy self-reliance is seen as the key to such sustained prosperity. This can be facilitated by processing biomass into industrial products with the help of energy generated through biomass-solar-fossil fuel cogeneration systems. The concept of these integrated production-cum-energy generation units is again based on the success of various previous experiments, including the work of ASTRA at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Moreover, proponents of this proposal are also keen on ensuring that such a restructuring of the SSP should deliver the benefits even sooner than the original plan. Perhaps the greatest merit of the alternative plan is that it does not claim to be the final word.

As Paranjape and Joy themselves point out they have presented a prima facie feasibility of the alternative. This must now be developed and evolved into an actual solution. Thus they concluded their book by noting that a comprehensive review of the project is urgent and imperative. And, like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, they called for further construction of the dam and canal network to be brought to a standstill until the review process is completed.

The Gujarat Government has consistently refused to allow a comprehensive review of the project on the grounds that this would inordinately delay the project. In any case the work on the dam wall did remain at a standstill for four years because the Supreme Court found that people in the submergence zone had not been fully rehabilitated.

The work was resumed earlier this year and the dam now stands at 88 metres. The Supreme Court has stayed further construction till it can be convinced that rehabilitation in the next part of the submergence zone has been completed. Meanwhile, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and a wide range of independent observers have made a strong case to show that existing rehabilitation work is far from satisfactory. Complete rehabilitation of the 1.5 lakh people to be displaced by the current plan is widely accepted to be virtually impossible.

The passionate intervention by Arundhati Roy, this year, has heightened public awareness about the human tragedy unfolding in the submergence zone of the Narmada Valley. In contrast most of the counter-mobilisation from the pro-dam activists has highlighted the desperate plight of people who are awaiting Narmada waters in the parched areas of north Gujarat.

And yet there is little general awareness that the human suffering on both sides of the dam is entirely avoidable. So where do we go from here?

Paranjape argues that there is no substitute for persuading the people of Gujarat and the State Government that a modified project will not mean loss of prestige and reduction of benefits. The Centre for Environment Education (CEE), Ahmedabad, publishers of this study, have since 1995 attempted to involve several key people in Gujarat to seriously consider this proposal and engage in working out a solution.

Kartikeya V. Sarabhai, Director of CEE, had hoped that this initiative would "promote a process by which different viewpoints culminate in the development of viable technological alternatives." But this hope has so far not been fulfilled. In 1998, the CEE made another attempt to bring together the alternative experts with representatives of the Gujarat Government and the Sardar Sarovar Nigam Ltd. (SSNL). But the meeting did not lead to any breakthroughs.

Jay Narayan Vyas, Gujarat Minister for Narmada and Major Irrigation Projects, is himself an engineer who argues that while alternative development strategies have their relevance, there is no substitute for the SSP as originally designed. At a recent press conference in Mumbai, he dismissed the Paranjape-Joy alternative design on the grounds that it demanded far too much electricity for pumping the water. Paranjape is now preparing an update which will counter this argument and provide fresh answers.

The odds against convincing the government and the people of Gujarat about such alternatives appear grim at the moment. But there have been many positive developments in the four years since this proposal was first drafted.

One, the need for "sustainable" development projects is now taken seriously by more and more people in the corridors of power. Two, given the increasingly rigorous work on alternative strategies these ideas have become harder to ignore. Three, there is a growing awareness that both the irrigation and energy sectors in India are in a mess and at a dead-end, unless they undertake radical innovations.

Proposals like this show that there are optimal solutions which engender a more rational and equitable model of progress. The political will to actually carry out these changes will not be born out of a miracle. It can and will be created by the full range of citizens who are worried about the present and eager to build a better tomorrow.

And the Narmada conflict already holds the active concern of lakhs of such people all over India.

But all such people must act now. The proposal described here will lose its optimal worth if the dam construction is not altered at 90 metres. Time is running out but it is still not too late.

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