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The wait's worth it, Narmada engineer will get to see his dam
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The wait's worth it, Narmada engineer will get to see his dam
SONU JAIN


NEW DELHI, OCTOBER 19: The idea of the Sardar Sarovar Dam was born in 1966. Since then, few have been able to keep pace with the changing fortunes of the project as it lurched from tribunal to committee to the Supreme Court. Several wanted out as the case files grew to 190 volumes. One man dug his heels in: 60 year-old N.B. Desai, who has been with the project from the day it was conceived.

Desai, who is now secretary to the Narmada and Water Resources department, was there at the Supreme Court the day the judgement on the dam's construction was delivered. The Sardar Sarovar dam, the third highest concrete dam of its kind in the country and with the largest ever main canal, has been touted as an engineering marvel, and Desai affirmed that October 18, 2000 was ``one of the happiest days'' of his life.

In 1966, Desai was an assistant executive engineer who'd just graduated from L.D. Engineering college, Ahmedabad. He had retired in 1998, but the government re-employed him. After all, he was the only man who had been around since the first maps of the dam were drawn out. ``They were expecting construction to start any time and nobody had my kind of experience,'' says Desai.

He had become superintending engineer in 1976, chief engineer in 1985 and then secretary to the department in 1990. As the Sardar Sarovar saga getting complicated with every passing year, Desai was a ready reckoner in court for having most of the background information on the case. ``The dispute between the states has been there since the beginning,'' he says, for the benefit of those who thought that Madhya Pradesh was a new dissenter.

Desai recalls the time when the Khosla committee, headed by the governor of Orissa, recommended in 1966 that the dam height be 500 ft and the canal width 300 ft. The states had started bickering and after 6-7 years of negotiations, the Gujarat government lodged a complaint with the Indian government. ``It was then that the tribunal was set up which filed its report in 1979,'' he said.

Then came the environment impact assessment in the `80s (then a new concept) and finally the NBA's PIL in court which resulted in the stay-order in May `95.

``I still remember the day, the first foundation stone was laid in December `79 to clear the river bed for construction,'' he said. There were nearly 300 engineers employed with the project. ``The only construction activity we undertook was between 1984 and 1994 before the PIL. After that, there was minor work undertaken in portions where there was no stay by the court. Over the last two years before the last court order in February, work had been completely suspended,'' he said.

The delay has apparently cost the Gujarat government nearly Rs 55 crore per day, as is claimed in one of their affidavits. Weren't the engineers frustrated? ``Yes, people thought that this project would never really take off.'' But he was confident that the project would start some day.

Did the controversial brick-and-concrete structure invoke any sentiment within him or was it like any other project? ``Though many big dams like Nagarjunasagar and Ukai have been built since Independence, this was special as it would benefit the people of Gujarat, so one felt emotionally attached to it,'' he said.

Now, the first thing that's on the agenda is lowering the reservoir level and stopping the overflow. ``I would like to see the dam completed in the next three-four years, now that I have been around for so long,'' says Desai. This is one wait that has finally reached somewhere.

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