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Narmada canal disproves critics
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Tuesday, April 3, 2001

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Narmada canal disproves critics
Yoginder K. Alagh

Straddling from its solar plexus, through the heart and lungs of Gujarat to its head, the Narmada main canal is a beauty. It is an engineering marvel. You can see it off the great historic cities of Gujarat -- Champaner, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Patan and on to the North. A Boeing can land on it.

More than twice the size of any other irrigation canal in the world, it is itself a river and will carry the blessed waters of India's great river, from the point they would otherwise go into the sea. Did you know that the Narmada is the only one of India's great rivers which is sacred all through and not just in its pilgrimage points? The Narmada main canal will always be a she, for the Narmada herself is known in her frolic as a virgin.

He was standing in the middle of the canal with measuring instruments and when I went down to meet him, he recognised me. You know, Sir, the silt from the river is less than what you had estimated, at least this year. The waters of the Narmada had flown down the main canal and this young Gujarati engineer was measuring the silt the river had brought. I told him that when I went out of India, environmental groups which met me had been told thatwater wouldn't flow in the canal, because its gradient was not enough. He laughed.

Water did flow down the Narmada main canal this year. Not for a short distance, but 144 kilometers, to the Mahi. The canal can carry 40,000 cusecs of water, more than the Yamuna in high flood, but it was allowed to carry only 1,000 cusecs, only two and a half per cent of its capacity. But for the cyclone and earthquake-hit and drought-crazed people of Gujarat, nothing could be better. A thousand cusecs of water cannot be sneezed at in a drought year, even though the capacity meant for drinking water is 10 per cent, flowing all through the year and not two and a half per cent flowing intermittently and in the main the misery of the drought remains and will have to be mitigated in April and May.

When every inch of water matters, upstream of Sardar Sarovar, 54 centrifugal and 15 submersible pumps were installed and the water stored after the highest court's orders, is being pumped into the canal. The cost of pumps for 1,200 cusecs is high and so is the electricity to pump it. It would have been unnecessary, if some people had been more considerate and the dam had reached 110 meters. It is almost there, but not quite and we need the last green light. Water will then flow with gravity. If 1,000 cusecs has flown, 40,000 will flow far more easily. The critics have not been known to accept the laws of physics in the past, but now they will have to.

The water the critics said (still say?), will never reach North Gujarat and Saurashtra, since in large projects in India, 70 per cent of the water is lost in transport. So there are published calculations (?) to show that it will dry up by the time the Narmada main canal reaches the Mahi, for the distance of 144 kms is quite long as far as existing irrigation canals go. But the Narmada system as I have been arguing is a break with the past and I should know for I designed it. For the water that is flowing, I went and collected the actual measurements of losses, since in the Narmada distribution system, all operations are measured.

It will be clear even to the weakest mind that running a system designed for 40,000 cusecs at 1,000 cusecs is very difficult. But even for this low level of operation, the actual losses were those designed, i.e., less than 10 per cent for transporting 150 kms. This small quantity of water crossed a regulator every 15 kms, then it was churned through the great structures of the system, when the main canal, itself a river crosses other rivers, the Men, the Ashwin, the Unch, the Heran, the Orsang, the Deo, the Goma, the Vishwamitri, the Karad, the Mehri and the Kun.

Of these, the aquaduct on the Orsang is the largest in he world. Yet, the loss was as designed. No, the Narmada waters will definitely reach Saurashtra, Kutch and Rajasthan. Also, there will not be the kind of waterlogging some have predicted, for the losses are not there of the kind they feared. For those who argued the impossibility of the Narmada system, the counterfactual is working itself out on the ground. They will now, I suspect, say that what is happening is not good. Also, the actual outcome in the years to come will be there for all to see and that is where the real battles will and should be fought, for it is nobody's case that the social and economic problems of distributing water have all been solved.

Running a system designed for 40,000 cusecs at 1,000 cusecs is very difficult.

Copyright © 2001 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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