Narmada issue props up, thanks to drought
By Bharat Desai
AHMEDABAD: When drought last struck Gujarat in 1987, Sanat Mehta -- an expert on water resources and then a minister -- recalls that the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi told Gujarat leaders to turn this into a "blessing in disguise" by executing a water supply plan that would provide a lasting solution to the problem.
Mehta was requisitioned to chalk out a detailed plan to supply the Narmada waters through a pipeline to Saurashtra, which he did. But the blessing never came through because the Rs 750-crore project got entangled into bureaucratic-political quagmire and never saw the light of the day.
Come `Drought 2000' and the Gujarat government is once again hoping this would generate some support and sympathy for the state's stand on the Sardar Sarovar Project, dogged by delays, legal battles and opposition from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.
Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, sources said, is also planning to take up the Narmada issue strongly before the Union government when he discusses the drought situation with Central leaders for financial assistance next week and remind Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of his promise at an election meeting in Ahmedabad early this year that he would try to negotiate for a Cauvery-like solution to the Narmada imbroglio.
Reports reaching from New Delhi suggest that the latest round of hearing going on in the apex court has also focused on the drought in the state and whether the SSP could have helped mitigate the situation - if the project was allowed to be completed on time.
Magan Barot, lawyer for Chunibhai Vaidya, who heads a pro-Narmada NGO, argued in the Supreme Court on Thursday that the SSP was the only panacea for the severe scarcity conditions prevailing in Saurashtra and North Gujarat.
The plea by state government's counsel Harish Salve said the project should be allowed to go ahead full steam if the persistent problem of water in the semi-arid regions of the state are to be solved quickly.
However, Narmada Bachao Andolan lawyer Shanti Bhushan countered that if the state government was really concerned about the water crisis , it should have cleared the proposal mooted in the late 1980s for taking the Narmada waters by pipeline to Saurashtra from a point downstream of the Sardar Sarovar dam.
On being contacted in Vadodara, Sanat Mehta, who had conceived the pipeline project in his capacity as the state's finance minister and Narmada Nigam chief, told TOINS that the Rs 750 crore pipeline water supply scheme would have helped the Saurashtra areas till the time water reached this drought-prone zone by canal. "Rajiv Gandhi had told me that let us use this drought as a blessing in disguise by executing a drinking water scheme that would provide a permanent solution to the problem," he recalled.
Mehta, however, regretted that though the scheme was examined carefully by the P A Raj Committee, successive governments did not pay any attention to it. He said, "Unfortunately, every time there is drought, we are doing some patch-work repairs without any thought being given to water-shed management, roof-water harvesting or check dams."
The former minister, however, agreed that the current spell of drought would generate sympathy for Gujarat and may remove some of the hurdles that are impeding the progress of SSP.
According to Vadodara-based Narmada Bachao Andolan spokesperson Nandini Oza, the people of Gujarat should realise that the drought is the creation of years of neglect of alternative water schemes for Saurashtra and North Gujarat and because 85 per cent of the state's irrigation budget was being spent on SSP,
"We in Gujarat have finished off our reserves of ground water thinking that Narmada water would come anyway, but the waters are still far away," she told TOINS.
The NBA activist said nearly 131 small water schemes of Saurashtra and North Gujarat had not been allocated any money for several years because all the funds were going for SSP. The people, she said, should also realise that there is hardly any allocation from Narmada for the areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat, all severely affected by drought.
Asked whether the drought would generate some sympathy for Gujarat on Narmada, she said: "Far from it, people will see the drought as a creation of SSP."