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Thursday, May 18, 2000

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Waiting for deliverance

Even as Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy was waxing eloquent at the Cannes film festival about the ``terrible things'' happening to the millions of people adversely affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project, the common refrain among the drought-affected people in Saurashtra, north Gujarat and Kutch, besides Rajasthan, was that she could at least pay a visit and see for herself the plight of the millions in the sun-baked areas.

With the Supreme Court completing the final hearing and reserving its judgment on a petition filed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), all eyes are now on the final verdict expected in a few months. The dam's construction has been held up since about a year pending the petition, though construction of power houses and the canal network is underway. The apex court had halted the dam's construction in 1995 at a height of 80.3 metres. Subsequently, under an interim order in February 1999, it had allowed the dam's height to be raised to a height of 85 metres.

For residents of the area reeling under the worst drought in a century, the million-dollar question is, will the Narmada waters reach them by the next summer. Officials say that once the Supreme Court gives the green signal, the waters should reach the parched land in six months, although it may take another year-and-a-half for the project to be completed. This would include completion of powerhouses to generate 1,450 MW of electricity.

However, for the residents of 8,215 villages and 136 towns in Saurashtra, North Gujarat and Kutch and 131 villages in Barmer and Jalore districts of Rajasthan who are to benefit from the Narmada waters, the power generation can wait. Although the area has gone through 24 droughts during the last 76 years, this has been one of the worst ever droughts for them.

With the total failure of the monsoon last year in the drought-prone area, which even otherwise receives a scanty rainfall of upto 400 mm, the situation this year is grim. The total available storage in 135 dams of Saurashtra and Kutch has been reduced to less than two per cent, that too in just three dams. The ground water table is depleting at a phenomenal rate of about one metre per month. It is now rare to find water at less than 1,000 feet and the success ratio of handpumps has been reduced to about 50 per cent.

Besides, the salinity ingress has advanced to six kilometres from the coastline and the advancing Rajasthan desert is threatening to take more areas into its grip.

The Narmada water project, initially conceived by Sardar Patel in 1946 and revised to its present shape in the eighties, is being awaited anxiously by the Gujarat government and those likely to benefit.

While the dam's height has gone up to 85 metres, the officials say that a minimum height of 110 metres is required for water to flow into the main canal. The canal head powerhouse has already been completed and work is on at full steam for the main powerhouse. Over 95 per cent of the main canal has been completed and work is on to complete a distribution network of about 66,000 kilometres of sub canals. It is the world's largest irrigation canal with a capacity of 40,000 cusecs.

The project, the largest of its kind in Asia, is aimed at irrigating 18 lakh hectares of land in Gujarat and 0.75 lakh hectares in Rajasthan. It has a catchment area of 88,000 square kilometres.

However, the NBA claims that the figures regarding benefits from the dam are exaggerated. The organisation believes that 3,20,000 people would be directly affected (as against the Gujarat government's claim of 40,709 families) and asserts that the dam would indirectly, but adversely, affect one million people in Madhya Pradesh. Those opposed to the dam call it ``anti-people and anti-environment'', while Gujarat's Narmada and Major Irrigation Projects minister says the project is ``only anti-drought, anti-disparity and anti-despair....''. He claims that liberal and scientific ways have been formulated for the rehabilitation and re-settlement of the affected persons while the NBA stresses on the plight of these people. The claims and counter claims have been debated over the years.

But while the state government has been giving the impression that the flow of the Narmada waters was the panacea for all problems, the fact is that large areas of Saurashtra currently reeling under the drought are not going to benefit from the Narmada waters, as these do not fall under the command irrigation area of the proposed canal network.

Thus the worst affected districts of Rajkot, Jamnagar, Junagadh, Amreli and parts of Surendernagar and Bhavnagar will continue to face a similar situation if the government does not take effective alternative measures. Authorities say these areas have a topography of a reversed bowl and cannot be connected with the canal.

Multiplicity of departments and agencies dealing with the problem of water shortage in Gujarat, play of politics which have led to stalling of various water projects and lack of a long-term perspective planning for rain water harvesting in the drought-affected areas has led to the situation turning from bad to worse each year.

Unfortunately, due to its over-dependence on Narmada waters, the state government had been neglecting other schemes to improve the situation. Nearly 80 per cent of its irrigation budget is earmarked solely for the Narmada project at the cost of other smaller and long-term measures. There is little evidence of any improvement even though the government claims that thousands of check dams have been constructed and measures were being taken to harvest rain water. As per a government admission, nearly 43 per cent of power in the state is used for digging deep bores and drawing out water in the state.

Yet, those likely to benefit from the Narmada waters are eagerly looking forward to the verdict of the Supreme Court, which has held hundreds of hearings and has 80,000 pages to study before coming out with its judgment.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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