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The truth behind
government platitudes

Illustration:Mishta Roy

After the Supreme Court Order on the Sardar Sarovar
Dam, government doublespeak is at its zenith. With no
land and gross errors in the survey of the submergence zone, environmentalists are at each otherís throats, while the errant engineers go scot-free. Is there any way to break this vicious cycle of state misinformation?
Ravi Kuchimanchi discovers the key among tribal villagers in the Narmada Valley

It was July 20 and the Narmada was visibly rising a few inches every day until it covered the path between Nimghavan and Domkhedi, crossed a tree, and threatened to enter the fields. Imagine my surprise when I read the gauge at Hapeswar after a week and found the water in almost the same place, at about 92 metres! Every morning in Domkhedi as we prayed and meditated, as people did shramdan, dug toilets and worked on alternate energy, I saw the water quietly remain there, neither invading, nor retreating in defeat. A week passed, and another. Then I started calculating.

The dam was 88 metres high and the overflowing river 92 m. I asked myself, how much of Narmada would flow past in 10 days at this rate? A quick question to Medha on the width of the dam was met with a reply on the number of blocks the court had ordered at 88 metres, and I figured the lowest part of dam was 300-400 m wide. So how much water should be flowing over it?

Easy enough - kinetic energy equals potential energy and for 4 metres overflow of water we were looking at flows like 10,000 cubic metres per second.... Now what do we compare this with? The total volume of water in Narmada itself - an insane comparison, but still ...that's what sitting in the Satyagraha makes you do, I thought, let's see in how many days the Narmada would empty itself!

While making the rounds of the Narmada villages, people have told
me with certainty that the waters
will enter further into the villages than the land-acquisition going
on based on the calculations
of dam building engineers

Since the Narmada carries
22 Million Acre Feet (MAF)
of water every year, and we
were less than 50% done with the monsoon season, it meant the present volume could be
no more than 11 MAF. This
is roughly 15000 million cubic metres. There are a million seconds in 10 days, and so
in 10-15 days Narmada should drain itself of all the water it could possibly have had till
then - draining at 10,000 cubic metres per second. So my prediction was that the water level would soon begin falling.

Days passed, but it didn't budge an inch. It was the second week of August and waking up, I decided to go to the dam-site and check the water level for myself. Reaching Wagadia village by the evening, I excitedly began asking people questions like:

Is the water flowing over the dam?
Is it flowing very fast over it....
I mean is it flowing like a whole metre over it or 4 metres over it or
Don't know but it is a lot....

I persisted with the same set of questions until finally someone offered to take me there so I could see the level myself.

And so armed with a flashlight we went to a steep cliff overlooking the dam. We walked down some muddy stairs carved in with a rope to hang on to. While climbing down we read the government marks: 150 metres, 145 metres, 125 metres and so on. As we approached the river, the moment of truth arrived. It was the time for
Satyagraha. As we came to the river there was a metre stick half sunk in the water and half over it, and where it crossed the water, it read "89.2 m!" Not "92.2 m".

All of a sudden another thought occurred to me -- oh my god, the village people were right! They had a better measuring system than the government. There was a discrepancy of nearly 3 metres between the Hapeswar reading (92 m) and the dam (89.2m). What is more, we had solid proof, that depended on the way they measure heights compared to the way engineers measured them. This pitted their knowledge versus that of those in business of building dams. And they were right and the engineers wrong - beaten not by a few centimetres of error, but by a whole 3 metre.

In the last year or two, while making the rounds of the Narmada villages, people have told me with certainty that the waters will enter further into the villages than the land-acquisition going on based on the calculations of dam building engineers. And why are they so sure? In any village they could tell me where the 1970 and the 1994 flood waters came into, finally concluding that if without the dam Narmada waters rose that high, then with the dam it would be much more than government figures.

So when Medha asked me to carry out a survey of levels in the Narmada valley, with the help of a professional surveyor I landed at Hapeswar where we decided to start from, moving on to other villages. There was a benchmark there that said the temple was 105.990 m above Mean Sea Level (MSL) and so we decided to use this as the reference height.

I began to observe something -- if in Sikka, Vestha
Bhai told me that the 1970 flood waters had come up to some tree and in Domkhedi, 2 km from Sikka, if Dedli Behen told me that they came to some stone, both levels actually tallied when we checked with the theodolite to within a few centimetres. I began to gain confidence in the valley peopleís accurate knowledge of the river and its height when in spate, or otherwise.

People living on the river know it. Back at Hapeswar, as we were waiting for the bus with our instruments, a Government of Gujarat jeep pulled up. They claimed to be NGOs and asked us to join them instead of helping the NBA. "You said you are cross-checking the heights but this benchmark here is also the government's, how do you know that's right?" and they went away laughing, having concluded the futility of challenging the government.

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