Issue Dated: May 8, 2000


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Is it a Dam Good Way?
The downstream project of the Narmada dam will spell succour
I stood on the dry, parched land and laughed. I shouldn’t have, because here in drought-prone Saurashtra and Kutch, the soil had this mournful look of a sick mother unable to nourish her children. But I laughed because I had this sudden improbable vision-of lush green fields and full water tanks, plump cattle and smiling faces of children. I chided myself for dreaming something that was not to be. The upstream dam on the Narmada can’t come up-the resettlement problem is too huge. There are 60,000-70,000 people involved, railway lines, towns... Sardar Sarovar Dam: watering hole
Sardar Sarovar Dam: watering hole

But what about the downstream project which, if ready, would’ve given 16 million acre ft of water a year? The dam is already up to 88 metres, despite the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s agitation, and only about 100 people left to rehabilitate. Once the Supreme Court allows building another 8-10 metres, water can flow to this deficient region and fill up the water tanks.

Why is development always an us vs them issue? Ask anybody in Gujarat and she’ll say the Narmada project is the best thing to have happened to the state. "In fact, if the upstream dam isn’t built, the entire virgin river can flow into Gujarat, adversely affecting MP, a poorer state," says Y.K. Alagh, former executive vice-president of the Narmada Planning Group. MP, however, even while slated to get more electricity from the dam, doesn’t allow the height to go beyond 420 ft.

Says R.K. Pachauri, director, TERI: "It’s unfortunate that extreme positions have been taken. While dam builders pay lip-service to resettlement and the environment, ngos seem to be against the dam per se." Adds Alagh: "The Narmada project is the most scientifically-designed, technically perfect in this country, earning praise from even Mekong valley experts as the best in Asia. Also, a pari passu clause in the plan ensures work can’t progress without adequate resettlement and rehabilitation."

Says Alagh: "The common charge is that for a cusec of water released from the dam, only 0.6 cusec reaches the fields. But that’s much better compared to unlined canals that get only 38 per cent or so. In fact, experimental projects have proved water availability up to 70 per cent in Narmada. It’s actually like a pipe going up to the fields."

Why is the Narmada project more important than watersheds and rainwater harvesting, especially when big dams are becoming passe? One, in less than two out of five years, the reservoirs fill up naturally. This year, only 9 per cent of the tanks were full. Two, ironically, when it floods in Narmada, it’s deficient rain in Saurashtra. The height is a must to lift the depleting water table.

Alagh is confident that Gujarat won’t have problems next year. "Once the water starts flowing in by the monsoons in 2001, when the Supreme Court allows further construction, and the people can see it for themselves, the movement will fizzle out." Meanwhile, the delay takes its toll on yet another section of the poor, including the water-starved-those who are indirectly paying for Gujarat’s huge loan burden. Roughly Rs 1,000 crore a year is allocated to Narmada, while a third of Gujarat’s borrowing goes to fund it. Why is it that the poor always pay, development or no development?

Paromita Shastri

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