Now that the Supreme Court has allowed the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam to proceed, the country must reflect on the lessons of the experience from the project.
One of the major reasons of delay in the construction of infrastructure in India is the constraints on account of relocation and the pressures placed by a democratic polity to modify project designs. In some cases, like the Tehri project, the original
design was faulty and the work of subsequent groups like the Hanumantha Rao committee showed the substantial details that had to be finalised after the project was formulated. Sardar Sarovar was an interesting case where a well-drawn-out project became
the focus of a largely internationally sponsored critique with a local counterpart to it which succeeded in delaying it in a costly manner.
The motivation of many of these critiques was to expose the moribund nature of their own society so the Adivasi became the “native North American (either Red Indian or Eskimo)”, Nehru and freedom fighters became their oppressors in the manner of the
conservative US mid-western political elite and Narmada became a part of the fantasy of Green politics in the rich world. Some real issues were raised but there were a number of red herrings. Thus globally, even during the last two or three years, there
are many countries where the impression has been created that the project is at an initial phase and will never be implemented.
The attack on the project was on the grounds that there would be waterlogging, that the irrigation efficiencies in it will not be achieved, that no work has been done on environment mitigation and that its investment cost will never yield an adequate
return. The counter factuals were described and were available from the beginning of this critique. But apart from a few conscientious journalists like Kuldip Nayar, nobody was willing to verify the facts.
International, largely urban-based critiques of the project based on no facts whatsoever were thrown around. The groundwater situation in the Mahi Narmada Doab was monitored from the mid-eighties at over a hundred piezzometers. Fortunately, readings were
available and were widely distributed. The canals were so designed that the farmer would be forced to draw groundwater because the design of the system provided for limited delivery of canal water.
If canal water was limited and groundwater would be pumped out, there would not be any waterlogging. If the farmer did not pump out the groundwater, however, its level was being monitored and the system was designed in a manner so that if the water level
reached around five metres it would be pumped out and put back in the canal systems, which was designed to take this load.
It was pointed out that the cost of the project was more than Rs 50,000 a hectare. These calculations were wrong because they included the cost of the electricity generation and loaded it on the irrigation part of the project. But even if this was taken
into account the cost was high. But it was shown that the Gujarat farmer whenever he was given four irrigations plus was achieving yields which would make the economic rate of returns to the project above 18 per cent. The critics continued to quote
“average” low yields. The debate went along unreal lines.
The Sardar Sarovar rehabilitation plan was a model which even the draft national rehabilitation policy and the Hanumantha Rao committee report on Tehri has not been able to achieve. Thus, land for land is not an objective in the national rehabilitation
policy and in the revised Tehri rehabilitation programme. A separate professional group was set up to implement the rehabilitation plan. It is silly to say that if some rehabilitated persons have gone back to their land, that is a failure. In fact,
revenue authorities generally allow farmers to till the land until the actual flooding takes place.
The rehabilitation surveys have highlighted some problems. For example, even when the standards of living improves as compared to the benchmark in the original site, there are annual fluctuations. It takes time for communities to adjust to new
environments. In Gujarat, it was possible to get land for relocating almost 20,000 persons since with fast non-agricultural growth, the work force dependent on agriculture had gone down from 70 per cent to less than 60 per cent. But this may not be
possible elsewhere. Experts have been trying to develop the knowledge and skills to handle the problem of populations which are relocated both on account of the general development processes and on account of projects. NGOs are trying to implement these
ideas. It is these which have to become a major area of concern rather than faulty debates based on unreal promises.