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Issue Dated: May 15, 2000

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IRRIGATION

Damned Temples
Big dams have guzzled huge amounts of money but have failed their objective miserably

SOME BIG INCOMPLETE IRRIGATION PROJECTS

It’s clearly a case of fallen idols. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s "temples of modern India" have failed to deliver and the old faithfuls now have to contend with a new, young band of sceptics. As the debate over large dams versus traditional methods of water harvesting continues, the rosy picture painted by the architects of these temples is gradually losing its colour. A cursory look at the report card of some of India’s major and medium irrigation projects reveals that despite their ever-burgeoning project cost, they have miserably failed to achieve their projected potential. Data obtained by Outlook from the ministry of water resources show that in certain cases, some of these dams and canals don’t irrigate even an inch of land.

The reasons for this may vary from lack of infrastructure and funds to people’s resistance. But the end result is clearly disappointing. Sources in the ministry of water resources say that in some cases the project is ready but is not being used to its full capacity due to the lack of an efficient canal network. With each passing year the cumulative cost of the project spirals up, running into hundreds of crore of rupees without any apparent benefit.

Sardar Sarovar in J&K
Sardar Sarovar in
J & K

Tehri in UP
Tehri in UP

In this light, the argument of the inevitability of big dams like the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) or the Tehri dam comes under sharp scrutiny. The anti-dam lobby argues that when the created potential (what is meant to be achieved) of already existing projects is becoming hard to achieve, what is the guarantee that the hopes being raised by the proponents of big dams will not prove to be a farce. Says Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dam, Rivers and People: "They have created the projects but they have not been able to utilise their full potential."

The pro-SSP lobby, or for that matter even the Gujarat government, has been maintaining that big dams have become inevitable. The fact that what the existing projects actually achieve is far less than the projected potential (see infographic on page 29) provides a solid ground to the anti-big dam lobby which says mega projects eventually turn out to be white elephants.

Nirmal Sengupta of the Madras Institute for Development Studies has conducted a comprehensive study of the potential utilisation of major irrigation projects. In his study, prepared for the World Commission on Dams (WCD), Sengupta observed: "As per the irrigation department data, 13.7 per cent of created potential in major and medium irrigation projects in India is unutilised. According to the land use statistics collected by the revenue department, underutilisation is about 25 per cent."

Sengupta claims that if the full potential of the existing major/ medium projects is used, at least 40,52,000 hectares of land may be brought under irrigation. Another 40,29,000 hectares can be irrigated by using the full potential of minor projects.

But some figures present a depressing scenario. Work on the Jamrani dam in Nainital district of Uttar Pradesh began in 1975 with an estimated cost of Rs 61.25 crore. The project was supposed to irrigate 66,000 hectares of land. But 25 years later-and with the upgraded cost estimate of Rs 280 crore-the achieved potential is only 21,000 hectares. The Gosikhurd project in Maharashtra began two decades ago with an estimated cost of Rs 461.11 crore. It had the projected irrigation potential of 2,50,800 hectares. In the eighth plan the cumulative cost of the project has increased by five times. Achieved potential: zilch.

Similarly in Madhya Pradesh, the Rajghat II project began in 1975 with the project irrigation capacity of 1,16,600 hectares. Twenty-five years later the cost went up from Rs 309.21 crore to Rs 523.41 crore. But the achieved potential remained only 9,000 hectares. Subarnarekha in Bihar (Rs 1,428 crore) had the projected potential of 236.85 hectares when it was conceived around 1975. In the last 25 years the cost of the project and its upgradation has gone up to Rs 2,376 crore but it has also failed to achieve the projected target.

Even more striking is the attitude of the state governments who have an interest in not declaring a project complete. Once a project is over, the Planning Commission stops funding it. Therefore, in some instances the state governments declare their projects as ongoing so that the inflow of funds from the Centre, needed for the maintenance of the completed project, doesn’t stop. The most telling example probably is the Nagarjuna Sagar dam in Andhra Pradesh. This project began in the late 1950s and was estimated to cost Rs 91.12 crore. Four decades down the line it’s still on even though it has more or less achieved its ultimate potential of irrigating 895.28 thousand hectares of land. The latest add-up cost has run into Rs 1,000 crore.

Thakkar says that the solution doesn’t lie in large dams. According to him, the poor maintenance of the dams also affects their potential adversely. It is a known fact that some of the dams have collected huge amounts of silt resulting in less quantity of stored water. According to reports, a 38-foot high dam in Gujarat has 28 feet of silt. That means a dam which has the capacity of storing 38 feet of water holds only 10 feet water. The project irrigation capacity will naturally go down.

The question that begs an answer, therefore, is: what is the rationale of going in for mega projects for the development of agriculture when the already existing projects are lagging far behind in achieving their projected objective? As the country reels under one of its worst droughts, the question becomes even more important. Rosy pictures don’t really make reality any less harsh.

By Rajesh Joshi


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