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Tuesday 1 February 2000

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Ahmedabad
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Sardar Sarovar: Digvijay's `Sankalp Yatra'

AHMEDABAD: It was a temptation Digvijay Singh found hard to resist - a crowd of around 20,000 Gujarat Congress workers waiting to listen to Sonia Gandhi and the party president not around. The issue of the day: lifting the ban on government employees from participating in RSS activities took the back seat as the Madhya Pradesh chief minister decided to address the thorny issue which has been pricking at the side of both MP and Gujarat for some years now.

The result was a passionate appeal to the people and the government of Gujarat to reduce the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam. Digvijay's gamble at the Kankaria football ground here on Sunday may not pay off, but it was an opportunity he could not let go by, having got a change to address such a large gathering in Gujarat for the first time.

Congress leaders, who had expected a virulent attack on the BJP regime, went crimson as they saw two other chief ministers - Vilasrao Deshmukh of Maharashtra and Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan - supporting Digvijay's impassioned plea.

The `Sankalp Yatra' left several Congress workers in the state wondering if there was anything to be gained out of the biggest demonstration they had ever organised against the state government. Or had the three chief ministers handed on a platter to the state BJP, a whip with which to lash the Congress in the months to come.

Narmada being a sensitive issue in Gujarat, any climbdown from the present dam height of 455 feet would be suicidal for any political outfit with a stake in Gujarat.

But while Digvijay's view on the subject was all too well known to all, what was surprising was the unexpected support he got from the chief ministers of the other two states which have a stake in the Sardar Sarovar waters. As per the Narmada Water Disputes tribunal(NWDT) award, of the 1450 mw power to be generated from the project, MP is to get 57 per cent, Maharashtra 27 per cent and Gujarat 16 per cent. Besides, Barmer and Jalore districts of Rajasthan are also to get water for irrigation and drinking.

This was a significant turnaround in fortunes from the position one year ago when Gujarat got strong support from Maharashtra and Rajasthan from the then chief ministers Manohar Joshi and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Singh, Gehlot and Deshmukh had perhaps discussed the issue before the public meeting at the hotel where they were staying in Ahmedabad, without realising the fall-out of their statements on the Congress in Gujarat.

Both Digvijay and Deshmukh are facing a strong movement in their respective states by the Narmada Bachao Andolan which has managed to generate enough public opinion in the states against the dam and they were perhaps addressing the constituency back home than the workers gathered to hear them on the RSS ban issue.

For Gujarat, however, there is no going back on Narmada after spending nearly Rs 8,000 crores on the project which was first mooted in 1963. The Khosla committee had initially proposed a dam height of 500 feet to take the water right to the end of Kutch. However, after bitter negotiations between 1969 and 1979, the NWDT deliberated the issue and finally resolved it at a height of 455 feet.

But soon after Digvijay Singh took over as chief minister in 1993, he mobilised support among all political parties in MP to get the height reduced to 436 feet which would give Gujarat all the benefits while reducing the number of affected families in MP from 33,000 to 23,000. He has stated that Madhya Pradesh is even willing to forego part of its lion's share in power if Gujarat agrees to the reduction in height.

What is disturbing for Gujarat is that in future battles in the Supreme Court, all the other three participating states may speak in one voice. Singh, Deshmukh and Gehlot are not just Congressmen but they belong to the same generation of politicians whose thinking on the issue may have lot in common than their Gujarat counterpart Keshubhai Patel.



The Economic Times


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