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The Hindu on : Gujarat-NBA battle continues abroad

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Sunday, March 19, 2000

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Gujarat-NBA battle continues abroad

By Kalpana Sharma

THE HAGUE, MARCH 18. The opposition to dams and privatisation of water resources, which triggered the theatrics that disrupted the opening ceremony of the World Water Forum on Friday, inevitably emerged in a session on Water and Energy as the Gujarat Minister for Narmada, Mr. Jai Narain Vyas, and those opposed to the dams on the Narmada river got into a heated debate. The differences of perspective, already well-known to Indian audiences, and the extent of hostility between the two sides surprised many in the international audience.

Through a slick power-point presentation, the Minister argued that there was no alternative to harnessing surface water to deal with the acute water shortages faced by 80 per cent of Gujarat. He said energy, an expensive component of development, was being squandered as farmers used diesel pumps to extract water from receding water tables in much of the State. As a result, in some parts of the State, water levels had dropped to 800 feet, resulting in fluoride contamination and saline ingress into underground aquifers. The impact of this was being felt on people's health with increasing incidence of kidney stones and other problems.

Mr. Vyas said Gujarat had no option but to tap the enormous resources of surface water represented by the Narmada which were presently being wasted. He gave the instance of just four days in September last year, when the river was in spate, when an estimated 24,700 million cubic metres flowed into the sea. Though rainwater conservation was a possible alternative, it was not dependable because there was insufficient rainfall in several parts of the State.

Perhaps expecting criticism on the issue of resettlement of communities displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam, the Minister emphasised that the tribals actually benefited from the dam. He showed slides of tribals employed in road construction because forests had receded, leaving them with no option. The dam, he suggested, left them better off as they got concrete houses as part of the compensation. ``Don't be misguided by the word tribal. These people are not aborigines. They are as much a part of our democracy as anyone else. Tribals are not those incapable of defending themselves,'' he said.

Most points made by Mr. Vyas were countered by Ms. Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. She pointed out, for instance, that benchmark studies had established that the tribal populations in the Narmada valley actually migrated out much less than other similar populations because they were able to survive on the forests and the river.

She also questioned the Minister's assertion about the financial soundness of the Sardar Sarovar Project. She pointed out that the drinking water supply part of the project did not figure in the financial plan and that costs had escalated not just because of the case still pending in the Supreme Court but due to a number of other reasons.

Ms. Patkar also quoted from a report of the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board which had found that the quantity of utilisable water in Kutch, the most parched part of the State, which could be harnessed at a low cost through participative methods, was equivalent to the total amount the State would get from the Narmada award. Under the present arrangement, even if the SSP is completed, Kutch has been allocated just two per cent of Gujarat's share of nine million acre feet.

The debate illustrates the on-going differences of perspective that are already beginning to emerge at this meeting on a whole range of water issues. While the engineers and bureaucrats discuss technical details about solving water problems, the civil society groups continue to emphasise issues of equity, distribution, and people's rights.

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