How Much do the people know all the facts

Arun Ghosh

Mainstream; September 23, 2000

Jai Sen's article titled 'Development Projects and the Adivasi: What kind of Country do we want India to be?' appearing in the Independence Day issue of Mainstream (August 18, 2000) makes a powerful plea in regard to the issue of equity and social justice - in so far as the majority of people already affected/likely to be affected (in future)by the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project (SSP) are concerned - and one can add little to what Jai Sen has written on that theme. The other - and an important - problem with the SSP is that it is the economics of the Project which is badly flawed. And, since the Hon'ble Supreme Court has already passed judgement on the height of the dam, and the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) continues to agitate against the Project, it is about time that citizens of India (and concerned people, including all Hon'ble members of Parliament) are apprised of the Economics of the Project.

Let me make two points at the outset. First, I am not anti-dam as a matter of principle. I feel that every project should be based on a correct evaluation of costs and benefits. Second, and importantly, the SSP does not appear to make sense on a proper evaluation of the costs/benefits of the Project. Indeed, much cheaper, more viable, more effective solutions are available for the problem of water supply to Saurashtra, Kutch and Northern Gujarat. We would need to mention some of these alternatives, which today do not appear to be on the horizon for two reasons: one, the issue has become an emotive one for every Gujarati; and two, the power of (false) propaganda by the vested interests, by the contractors, by politicians whose political career has been based on the issue of SSP.

Let us not make any mistake. Money - and the contractors have money - gives an immense advantage to propagandaists. This is a universal truth. And it is the contractors who really stand to benefit from the SSP, plus farmers near the headworks of the canal system (in Southern Gujarat) who are likely to hog all the benefits from the Project, now being built at enormous cost. And this is happening when more viable options - expected to cost a fraction of the total cost of SSP - are easily available, can possibly get completed in a few years, with benefits accruing to more people than the SSP is really likely to serve after completion, which is in itself is a distant dream.

What, then, are the facts about the SSP? Perhaps we should jot them down as points, serially. We need a fresh national debate on the issue, without recourse to emotion, without sympathy for a whole set of people who are being displaced and dispossessed for no reason other than profits to contractors and possible re-election of a few political leaders (playing on the emotions of the uninformed common people of Gujarat). The facts, then:

1. The SSP is based on an incorrect assessment of the flow of water in the Narmada. When the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) gave its award in 1979, it had 29 years data on the flow of water in the Narmada. Since then, we have now reliable (and confirmed) data for another 18 years, giving us 47 years on the average flow of water in the Narmada (at SSP). The dam at Sardar Sarovar is predicated on the assumption of 28 million acre feet of usable water annually at 75 per cent dependability, at the dam site. Unfortunately, 47 years river water flow data bring this figure down dramatically to 22.5 million acre feet.

2. If we use the same proportion (of water use) as recommended by the NWDT, the share of Gujarat would come down dramatically to 7.2 million acre feet of water annually. The question then arises: are the costs of the SSP - and the associated canal system (with a series of lift pumps) - justified? Are cheaper options - for this quantum of water available?

3. So far, the costs incurred on the SSP and the downstream canal system are stated to be around Rs. 6000 crores. (The original Planning Commission approved - cost of the Project, in 1988, was Rs. 6400 crores). It is now estimated that by the time the entire Project is completed, the cost may be anything between Rs. 30,000-40,000 crores. (This includes all the costs of the canal system, the lift pump costs, the drainage system necessary to avoid soil salinity which is one of the adverse consequences of canal irrigation.) Again, the question that arises is : are cheaper alternatives - with the same benefits - available? Of course, these benefits would not accrue to contractors but to the people of Gujarat, including, and in particular, the people of Saurashtra and Kutch.

4. As per the Gujarat Government, about 8. 45 percent of cultivable lands in Saurashtra are in the SSP command. The figure for Kutch works out to be 2.4 per cent. Indeed, for North Gujarat, only 20 per cent of cultivable area is in the command. The benefits of the SSP are really hogged by South and Central Gujarat (near the headworks of the canal system), where already a large number of sugar mills have been licensed, which was not intended originally, for sugarcane requires enormous water; and the justification for the Project, given to the NWDT was that Narmada waters ought to be made available to the draught prone areas of Gujarat. Note that South and Central Gujarat are already water rich (as a result of the Ukai project).

5. The SSP authorities claim that (a) the SSP would provide drinking water to 8214 villages and 135 towns; (b) the SSP would provide drinking water to all the villages of Kutch and Saurashtra; (c) there is no alternative to the SSP for Kutch and Saurashtra. However, most of the villages that are to be provided water are outside the command area, and many of them are over a hundred kilometres away. A detailed and elaborate system of lifting water from the canals, pumping and taking it to the villages will have to be put in place; and there are no detailed plans, financial estimates or even time schedules for accomplishing this. In fact, it is only in 1998 that the Government of Gujarat invited consultants to prepare a feasibility study for the same.

6. The extant plan of canal operation is such that water will not flow into the canal beyond the river Mahi from March 1 to May 15 ( as per the Government of Gujarat publication Planning for Prosperity, p. 263). Thus, there will be no water from the canal in the summer months when the drinking water problem is most acute.

7. As per the Project Authorities themselves, the implementation of drinking water component of the Project will take about 10-15 yars. According to the Ministry of Water Resources of the Government of India, in fact, this could drag on to the year 2025. The cost of drinking water component of the SSP could be Rs. 5000 crores. The question is : are any cheaper/quicker alternatives available? (There is no allocation at present of the approximately Rs. 5000 crores required for the drinking water component of the project, for which there is not even a feasibility study available today.) Again, is there a cheaper alternative?

8. The total allocation of water for domestic use in Kutch and Saurashtra, from the SSP, is less than 0.35 million acre feet. It is obviously patently wrong to imagine that there is no alternative solution for this quantity of water, when the annual precipitations of water in Saurashtra and Kutch is 40 million acre feet. (We would come to possible alternative later.) The real problem is: while the politicians use the 'drinking water' issues as an emotive argument, their real objective is to get popular support for the Project, the benefits being hogged by rich farmers in South and Central Gujarat.

9. Indeed, a pertinent question that should be asked in this context is: the existing dams on the Mahi river are much nearer to Saurashtra and Kutch than the SSP. If the drinking water needs of Saurashtra and Kutch were felt to be that acute as to warrant the diversion and use of 'external water', why has the water behind the Mahi dam not been used for this purpose?

10. Finally, have the real costs of the SSP been taken into account, in any calculations? Let us leave out the cost of rahabilation of the oustees, which is impossible; there is simply no surplus land available in India. Let us assume away the problem of rehabilitation for the oustees, in regard to which estimates vary from two lakhs to five lakhs. Let us focus on other real costs of the Project as well as the benefits likely to accrue.

The benefits, First. The SSP assumption is 60 per cent irrigation efficiency (for example, that out of every 100 units of water discharged from the dam, 60 units would reach crops on the farms). The World Bank Appraisal Report of 1985 placed the irrigation efficiency of the project at 48 per cent; subsequently, in their Project Completion Report, the World Bank has said: "It is probable that the efficiency of water transmission to the field will be lower that that projected in the original analysis".

In the final analysis, thus, it is likely that the irrigation efficiency of the SSP may be between 40 per cent and 45 per cent. This implies that as against the planned irrigated area on the assumption of 60 per cent water efficiency, the proposed irrigated area would go down by some 20-25 per cent.

In any irrigation system, the sufferers are alaways those at the tail end of the system. A reduction of 20-25 per cent in the area would imply that the sufferers would be the tail end regions of Saurashtra, Kutchand Northen Gujarat. These are the really drought prone areas.

Though the SSP planning is based on sugarcane being grown on no more than 0.4 per cent of the command area, even the SSP command has pointed out that many new sugar factories are now licensed in the head areas.

Again, enormous new investments for industry are being planned for Central Gujarat. Industries need water; and for these new industries, there would be no source of water other than the SSP. Of course, the SSP would help solve Central Gujarat's water problem for the industries; and development of industry is also a national objective. But that would automatically reduce water availability for the farm sector in the command area. Effectively, water supply from the SSP to saurashtra and Kutch may as well be written off, as a consequence.

Indeed, the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam (SSNN) is planning to sell water to industry in order to raise funds for the project. Thus, industrial use of water is certainly likely to exceed 0.2 million acre feet of water allocated (for industrial use).

To cap the above, in order to raise funds, the SSNN is also planning to build, along the canal, a series of tourist resorts with five star hotels and golf courses. Both require enormous quantities of water. Again, the State of Gujarat may prosper, but the objective of the SSP - to reach the Narmada waters to draught prone farmlands of Saurashtra, Kutch and Northern Gujarat - is unlikely to be fulfilled.

Indeed, it is always that way; the benefits of India's development programmes have increasingly gone to widen income inequalities; and the SSP may prove to be no different. It is inthis context that the costs of the SSP have to be examined.

Power supply is the other benefit from the SSP, which would generate power at two places - the River Bed Power House (RBPH) and the Canal Head Power House (CHPH). The former, with a capacity of 1200 MW, is the main powerhouse which will generate power when utilised water is let down into the river. It would also act as a pumped storage peaking station. Certainly, peaking power capacity is something we badly need in the country, and to that extent, it has positive benefits. The CHPH has a capacity of only 250 MW and would generate power from canal releases. thus power generation here would depend on canal water release.

But, once again, the power capacities have been planned on the assumption of the total utilisable water in the river at 28 million acre feet. If - as we have seen earlier - the actual availability of water is only 22.5 million acre feet, this would substantially reduce the power benefits calculated for the project.

It is significant that the Madhya Pradesh Government - the largest beneficiary from the power Project, having 57 per cent share of the power generated - has asked for the re-examination of the viability of the power component. Obviously, it has reasons to suspect that for some reason, the power cost of the Project would be unwarrantedly high. (This, of course, is a surmise) While the NWDT had estimated the capital cost of the power supply facilities at RS. 236 crores, these costs were put at Rs. 2900 crores by the Gujarat Government (in 1993); and have already reached close to Rs. 3000 crores much before the completion of the Project.

[To be concluded.]