HIMANSHU THAKKAR'S RESPONSE TO
GAIL OMVEDT'S OPEN LETTER

SARDAR SAROVAR AND THE BOMB

"For some time past, however, I have been beginning to think that we are suffering from what we may call, "disease of gigantism"...... We have to realise that we can also meet our problems much more rapidly and efficiently by taking up a large number of small schemes, especially when the time involved in a small scheme is much less and the results obtained are rapid. Further in those small schemes you can get a good deal of what is called public co-operation, and therefore, there is that social value in associating people with such small schemes."

Jawaharlal Nehru, Nov. 17, 1958

Gail Omvedt needs to be taken seriously for many reasons. More than anything else, there are very few other than those who have a vested interest in large dams who are prepared to defend large dams. Gail is one of those few persons.

It is significant that the Gujarat Government has chosen to highlight Gail's writing in it's campaign against the Peoples' movement in the Narmada Valley. It is not for nothing that three out of the twelve items in the Current Happenings section of the Sardar Sarovar Nigam web site these days happen to be authored by Gail Omvedt.

To begin with, let me make some facts clear. Though I am not writing this on behalf of the NBA, I can categorically say that the NBA is not against development in general and irrigation in particular. Any suggestion to the contrary is misleading and bigoted. It is part of NBA's case that there is need for an expeditious solution to the genuine water problems of Kutch and Saurashtra. However, why look for 2% or 9% solutions ? The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), even on paper, is going to benefit only 1.6% of the cultivable area of Kutch and 9% of the cultivable area of Saurashtra. Let us assume for the moment (this is a very heroic assumption, as we shall shortly see) that the SSP will actually deliver what it says it will. Even than, how will the genuine needs of the remaining 98.4% cultivable area of Kutch and 91% of the cultivable area of Saurashtra be met? Gujarat officials tell us that for these remaining areas, they will implement alternative solutions.

Now surely if 'alternative solutions' are good enough for 98% of an area, they're good enough for the remaining 2%?

Remember that Gujarat got more than it's share of the Narmada waters (9 Million Acre Feet (MAF)) from the Narmada Waters Dispute Tribunal only because it claimed that it had more drought prone areas than Madhya Pradesh had. In fact, Gujarat said before the Tribunal that it wanted to irrigate 11 lakh acres of cultivable area in Kutch with Narmada waters. Today, even on paper, the SSP includes only 1 lakh acres from Kutch in its projected command. So much for Gujarat's concerns for drought prone areas. However, the point critics of SSP are making is far more serious. It can be shown from facts and figures that the SSP will not deliver the benefits it claims to deliver for Gujarat's real drought prone areas like Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat.

Firstly, the whole project is based on flawed hydrology. As Madhya Pradesh has said in its petition before the Supreme Court, the Narmada has only 22.5 MAF of water as annual flow at 75% dependability as against the assumption of 28 MAF of water. Thus, as per the Tribunal order, Gujarat's share from Narmada water will drop by 19.5%, in proportion. The sufferers of this drop will be the areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat, which are at the tail end of Narmada Canals.

Secondly, the SSP assumes that an irrigation efficiency of 60% will be achieved. Now this is based on highly unrealistic assumptions. One only has to look at irrigation efficiencies achieved in India till date. As per the India Irrigation Sector report of the World Bank (1991), no project in India has achieved more than 36% irrigation efficiency. Thus, realistically, at least one third of the projected command will not get irrigation waters. Who will suffer in the process except the tail enders?

Thirdly, if the available water in the SSP is to be spread over 18 lakh ha as projected, the project cannot provide more than 525 mm of water on an average. With SSP's assumption of 60% efficiency, this would mean about 320 mm of water to the plants. With this amount of water, it would be difficult to grow anything more than wheat in most parts of the SSP command. But the Gujarat Government has given licenses and is actively promoting at least ten sugar factories in initial region of the SSP command. Sugarcane in these regions require between 2000 and 3000 mm of water. It is true that in the initial period of the SSP's operation, when the canal network in the rest of the command would be unbuilt, there will be abundant water for the initial regions, as the World Bank's staff appraisal report (1985) has noted. But once the central Gujarat regions of Baroda, Bhroach, Khaira and Ahmedabad establish needs and create lobby to fulfil them, can any power stop them from continuing to take the waters they want?

Fourthly, the SSP as planned now has no allocation of water for any urban, rural or industrial use south of the Sabarmati River. But large towns like Baroda and Ahemedabad have already made and sanctioned plans to take water from the Narmada waters for their use. In fact, the implementation of the Baroda plan has reportedly already started. Five star hotels and luxurious water parks are being promoted along the Narmada Canal to raise finances for the project. Huge industries and industrial estates are coming up in these regions, all based on the assumption of availability of waters from the Narmada. When all these politically and economically powerful interests manage to corner the Narmada waters for their use, whose share will they be taking?

Fifthly, there is 150 kms of river downstream of the Sardar Sarovar dam. There is a rich estuary in this region. This region also needs water for domestic, industrial, agriculture, fisheries, navigation and environmental (to push back the salinity ingress) uses. When Gujarat was presenting its case before the Tribunal, it said that the state needed 0.7 MAF of water for the downstream areas. The Tribunal, while allocating 9 MAF to Gujarat, said that Gujarat was free to use its share of water, as it found fit, including using it for downstream uses. In the present SSP plans, Gujarat has allocated the whole of its share of water from the Narmada River to the command area. No water is allocated for downstream areas! Because the Narmada is a monsoon fed river, 80-90% of its annual water flows away in the four monsoon months. Thus, the SSP, with its live storage capacity of 4.73 MAF, may spill some water in the monsoon months, but it will spill no water in the non-monsoon months. And the demands of the downstream region being strong and justified, Gujarat will have to allocate water for these regions out of its share and this will again be at the expense of tail-end regions.

One can go on like this with further arguments. In this series, one of the most important arguments is the financial one. The History of large projects in India shows that the project authorities consistently deflate the costs of the projects to get them sanctioned. Ultimate project costs are invariably in multiples of the original projected costs. This is already proving to be the case with the SSP. When the Planning Commission sanctioned the project, the project cost was estimated at Rs. 6406 crores at constant prices and at 13,000 crores at current prices. Now the project authorities agree that the project cost will not be less than Rs. 20,000 crores. However, our estimates show that the project cost will not be less than Rs. 44,000 crores. Here it is important to note that of the total project cost, the most expensive part is the cost for canal structures. Thus, the dam wall and the initial canals may get built, but when the finances dry up, the sufferers will once again be the tail enders.

As far as the regions of Kutch and Saurashtra are concerned, the Gujarat Government rhetoric is similar to Gail's: there is no alternative to the SSP for these regions. But let us look at the facts once again. What is the average annual precipitation in Saurashtra? A simple calculation of average rainfall in Saurashtra shows that this figure is over 43 MAF. (Compare this with the amount of water Saurashtra is to get even on paper from SSP: 3 MAF.) As per a report from the Gujarat Land Development Corporation (a Gujarat Government body), 10-15 MAF of this is utilisable, but is flowing away unutilised today. And the GLDC has come out with a plan as to how this water can be made utilisable in ten years, in a decentralised way, at much lower costs than the SSP will ever achieve for less than one third of these benefits.

Seven years back, a movement started in Saurashtra that is today known as the well recharging movement. Entirely through people's efforts, three out of seven lakh existing wells in that region have been recharged using a simple technology. Existing streams fed by rain are diverted to existing wells via a small sand filled pit that acts as filtration pit. The regions where this has been done have seen a number of remarkable changes: the groundwater level has come up, the salinity of water in coastal areas has gone down, water is available for domestic uses throughout the year and in a number of places, protective irrigation is available to crops at times of stress. The movement has taken roots and is now digging up existing and new tanks to harvest and recharge more rainwater. The govt., seeing the success of this, wanted to intervene, but the people said politely, but firmly, "No, please. We do not want this initiative to fail." This is not the only such example. A number of other examples illustrating the feasibility of options can be found from across Saurashtra and Kutch.

The tragedy for the people of Kutch and Saurashtra is that not only have they been told for the last forty years that there is no alternative to the SSP for them. But also that the govt. has no resources for options that are feasible and much more cost effective and quicker for them. To add insult to injury, all evidence shows that these regions may never get any water from the SSP.

If the Gujarat Govt. was really serious about solving the water problem in Kutch and Saurashtra, one would have expected that along with building main canal, they would first build the branch and other canals in Kutch, then in Saurashtra and then in North Gujarat, followed by the central Gujarat region coming last. This would ensure that the most needy areas, in whose name the whole project is getting justified, would get first and assured benefit from SSP. A number of independent people including the FMG (Five Member Group) review committee appointed by the Govt. of India have recommended this. What do we find on ground? The Govt.'s priority is exactly the reverse. Already water-wise (and industrially, agriculturally, socially, economically and politically) resource rich area of central Gujarat will have the first right to use Narmada waters. And in their scheme of things, Kutch and Saurashtra are at the tail end of the proposed canal. Would one need greater evidence to show the real intentions of the Gujarat Govt.?

Now let us come to the question of the restructuring options of the SSP that people like Joy, Paranjpe and Datye have put forward. This is a proposal that suggests the Sardar Sarovar Dam should not be more than 107 mts high (as against the projected height of 138.68 mts. It suggests how the needs of Kutch and Saurashtra can be met with this, much lower dam, which would save upto 75% of the projected submergence. It would mean that at least 300,000 people could be saved from the trauma of displacement. (It is strange, is it not, that the people who devised the proposal have not complained to NBA that the NBA has neglected them.) The proposal, to begin with, was extensively discussed with the NBA right from its formulation stage. It was made public in consultation with the NBA. It was because of the NBA, the proposal got a hearing before bodies like the FMG, and the FMG has not only taken note of the proposal, but has also suggested in their reports to concerned governments to peruse the proposal. NBA had full agreement with the main principles of the proposals, e.g. there should be equitable distribution of water, that full use of local resources need to be made first, etc. NBA brought to light this proposal wherever it could. The proposal was made in 1995 when the dam was at 80.5 mts. The only point NBA made was that any such alternative proposal should be taken to its logical conclusion and to begin with, it should be explored as to how the structure constructed till date can be put to use. It is also to be noted that the Joy-Paranjpe proposal does not establish need for SSP. It only incorporates the SSP dam as part of it is constructed. NBA's position is that if the principles underlying the proposal are properly followed, there is no need for SSP.

So to conclude the first part of my argument, let us count the losses from the SSP: Over half a million people displaced (including a very large proportion of tribals and dalits), 39,000 ha of land and over 17,200 ha of forests destroyed, over 1,87,000 ha of land taken for canal construction, over 150 kms of river destroyed in the downstream area in addition to the destruction of river habitat in the submergence zone, annual loss of fisheries in the estuarine area amounting to over 12,000 tonnes, unknown other impacts in downstream area, Destruction of wildlife habitat in the command area, loss of opportunities to develop local water systems, over Rs. 44,000 crores of rupees, human rights violations of unknown kinds and numbers. All for doubtful benefits for less that one tenth of cultivable area in drought prone regions. Apart from these, the SSP will create a potential of water logging and salinisation in the vast, as yet unknown extent of command area.

And these impacts are only from the SSP. However, to realise the SSP benefits, the SSP alone is not sufficient. Another, bigger and much more destructive dam called the Narmada Sagar Project must come up in Madhya Pradesh. That project will submerge 90,000 ha of land including 45,000 ha of forests and a total of 254 villages. While counting SSP's projected benefits, the costs from NSP must be debited to the SSP.


Can any bomb do better?

LARGE DAMS AND BOMBS

Everybody, irrespective of whether he/she is rich or poor, has equal right over the water given by nature and stored by the efforts of common labour in which he/ she has actively participated. Nobody should have special benefits in any way, is my firm belief and conviction.

Pledge of Baliraja Smriti Dam water users' cooperative

It is convenient to quote Nehru as worshipper of dams and to club all those who are against large dams as advocates for "returning to the presumed harmony of a 'natural' agricultural society", as Gail Omvedt does. Most people do not know what Nehru said in latter stages of his life, as quoted in box above (in part 1 of my essay). Let it be clear that all those against large dams are not against development. What is being questioned is the prevalent model of development, not development per se.

We have to be clear about what our priorities are, what resources we have available to us and how we are going to use them. If we are not clear about this, then, we will surely be driven by the engineering paradigm of looking for appropriate sites for large dams and then justifying dams we want to build.

Since rainfall is decentralised and the demand for water is decentralised, it sounds rational to harvest water where it falls. Even Govt. of India programme of watershed development accepts "From Ridge to Valley" as the central principle. The River Valley as the unit of planning and management of water resources has been accepted the world over and a watershed as a unit for harvesting water is the logical extension of this. The large dam critique also says: harvest and use water where it falls. To do this surely modern science and technology should be used. But certainly, using modern science and technology does not necessarily mean that you automatically have to negate traditional and accepted wisdom? But proponents of large dams begin with the premise, as Gail does, that large dams are basically agents of human advance. The problem starts here. This is such a non participatory, undemocratic and let me say, anti people premise. You cannot argue against it. The decision has been taken by the state on behalf of everyone else, even though you may be able to fulfil your water and energy needs in a more benign, sustainable, cost effective, equitable, participatory, quick and viable way. You have no say in that decision. You have got to have large dams. Otherwise you are backward.

Critics of large dams are not against irrigation, energy, water supply or ways of reducing damages due to floods. What they are against is the notion that large dams are the only means of achieving all this. They are against large dams because large dams are economically unviable, ecologically unsustainable, politically reprehensible and technologically obsolete.

Unfortunately, a false impression has been created in post independence India that the food self sufficiency achieved today is due to large dams. India's irrigation establishment, which has assured that India has the highest area under irrigation in the world (Sandra Postel: Pillars of Sand: Can the irrigation miracle last?, Worldwatch Institute, 1999) has vested interest in spreading such myths. It is a fact that today India produces 205 million tonnes of foodgrains as compared to 51 million tonnes in 1950. However, a simple back of the envelop calculation shows that less than 12% of food production today comes from area irrigated by large dams. There are many factors responsible for the increase in food production today. As far as water is concerned, ground water has played much bigger role than large dams both in increasing the irrigated area and in increasing per ha yields.

Hence, to begin with a conclusion that it cannot be said that the project of building dams was itself a mistaken one is to perpetuate the same myth that large dam lobby seeks to perpetuate. Gail has not been able to give any substantial arguments in favor of such a hypothesis. An honest, objective analysis of the experience till date would show if this premise holds or not. Unfortunately, after building over 3300 dams and spending over Rs. 91,000 crores of rupees at current prices (Rs. 2,20,000 crores at constant 1996-97 prices), we do not have comprehensive post project evaluation of a single dam. The state has not done it. The academics have not done it. No one has even questioned the fact that such an exercise has never been done. And if we were to look at all the costs, benefits and distributive aspects, it is difficult to escape the prime facie conclusion that dams have not worked.

Look at the costs we have paid in the process of following the model development that main stream economists in India have been advocating. We have displaced over 50 million people, 40 million of them due to large dams. We have submerged millions of ha of land and forests. We have destroyed the habitats of people, plants and wildlife. We have more drought prone and flood affected areas today. We have more "no source" villages (as defined by Govt. of India) today than we had fifty years ago. Not a single river in plain areas of the country has potable water and an ever-increasing extent of groundwater is getting polluted or vastly depleted. We have destroyed a rich tradition of local water harvesting systems. We have destroyed the people's sense of belonging to and managing their resources. How many bombs would you need to achieve comparable results?

The biggest price we have paid is in terms of wasting an opportunity to develop the country in a more sustainable, equitable, participatory and just way. History does not provide many such opportunities. We have wasted a golden opportunity, to put it mildly.

To say as Gail does, that rainwater harvesting can be insufficient for agriculture in certain drought prone areas is a meaningless statement unless it is qualified by specifying what kind of crops are to be grown in the areas in question. Drought prone areas differ in the quantity of rainfall, climate, soils, topography, groundwater conditions, and so on. And cropping patterns have to be suited to these conditions. No doubt at least one crop a year should be assured in any region. Where possible and sustainable, two or three crops too should be taken. But there can be no single solution for water requirement for all kinds of drought prone areas. The underlying principle has to be: exhaust your local water potential first before raising the issue of exogenous water sources. Unless this is done first it is unscientific to claim that the methods that were sufficient... have now become outmoded.

The point is that as far as Kutch and Saurashtra are concerned, such a potential has yet to exhausted, as is evident from the situation on the ground and reports from the Gujarat Govt. itself. However, some signs of the kind of potential that exist in these regions is available from the results of what is being done in Saurashtra, as described in part I. Such a potential is yet to be exhausted in Narmada Valley either. That is why so much water is seen to be available in Narmada, even as large areas within Narmada valley remain drought prone and water thirsty.

More evidence is available from what has been achieved in Alwar district in Rajasthan over the last fourteen years. Alwar is also a drought prone district with an average annual rainfall of less than 600 mm. There, due to the efforts of Tarun Bharat Sangh, a non-government organisation working with the local community, some 2500 johads, or local water harvesting structures have been constructed. This has changed the face of the region. A notified dark zone has become white in govt. records. Local migration has been reduced very substantially and in fact, some of the population that had migrated has started to return. A food deficit region has become food surplus and most illustratively, five of the local rivers that used to dry up just after the monsoon have become perennial. No doubt the solutions applicable in Alwar could be and would be different than those applicable in Kutch or Saurashtra or other drought prone areas. But of course, before talking about these issues, we need to educate ourselves about whether the proposed large dams (like the SSP) will benefit the drought prone areas (like Kutch, Saurashtra or North Gujarat) at all.

That large dams have not led to drought proofing can be seen at many places across the world. What large dams achieve at the most is they create islands of prosperity. Prosperity in terms of water, agricultural development, industrial development. However, they also destroy huge habitats. They destroy habitats in the submergence area, in downstream areas and more often than not in command areas. They take away resources that the poorest people depend on. Even in the command areas, documented studies show that large farmers and industries benefit at the cost of small and marginal farmers, craftspeople, fisherfolk and other poor people.

The point about Kalahandi is not that dams and development has led to hunger in western Orissa. I happened to visit the districts of western Orissa extensively after the last severe drought of 1996. What came out most starkly from speaking with people of the region and NGOs and some of the bureaucrats working there for a long time was that in spite of the abundance of water and other natural resources in that region, the situation of the people of western Orissa was only going from bad to worse. A process of severe disentitlement (both internal and external) was taking place where Dalit and Adivasi farmers were losing out whatever resources they had or were entitled to. We were told about the destruction of people's rich tradition of local water harvesting systems due to government policies. We were struck by the utter lack of development of groundwater in the region, though, as a former collector of Kalahandi told us latter on, there was large potential for groundwater development. Most importantly, we were struck by the fact that region was surplus in rice production in each year including the drought year of 1996 and yet people did not have enough to eat. Studies have shown that this pattern of uprootment and marginalisation of the poorest is reinforced and worsened in the command areas of large irrigation projects.

Nobody is suggesting that the rural Dalits and Bahujans of Kalahandi should continue to live and produce as they are living now. The point is that even in scrambling for minor forest produce or in being forced to migrate, the Dalits, Adivasis and the Bahujans of western Orissa are getting severely exploited. They are unable to hold on to the minimum resources available to them in the region. Prescription of big dams and large industries in the region would only accelerate the process.

Turning to hydropower, no doubt some power is produced by large dams, but who does that go to? Rich people in Delhi's posh Greater Kailash area may have twenty air conditioners and capacity to pay for electricity for these air conditioners, but is that sufficient reason for building large dams when even after fifty years, and building over 3300 large dams, 80% of rural households have no access to electricity? When over 90% of tribal households do not have access to electricity? When mismanaged, inefficient and corrupt systems lead to vast amounts of wastage of existing energy and energy systems. When vast untapped potential of demand side management would lead to saving in terms of thousands of MW of installed peaking capacity. When existing dams have thousands of MW of potential to generate peaking power. When such vast potentials of renewable energy potential from wind, solar and biomass remains untapped.

To give an instance about the untapped potential of renewable energy sources, some seven years ago India had less than about 100 MW of installed wind power capacity. That has suddenly gone up over 1000 MW today. The World over, the installed wind capacity has jumped from less than 1000 MW ten years ago to over 10,000 MW today and is slated to jump to 40,000 MW in the next ten years and to over 100,000 MW in the next twenty five years. How did all this suddenly become possible? It became possible because more research & development efforts were put in and economic incentives were given for wind power generation. A much larger potential exists in terms of mini and micro hydro, solar and biomass energy. If enough money and encouragement is put behind the R&D in these fields they will become viable alternatives.

So to conclude, as Gail does, that industrialisation and major irrigation projects must be the twin goals to aspire to is a somewhat tired, outmoded and illogical notion. A notion that has hurt the poorest adivasi people in the hills and forests of India very severely in the last fifty years.

What is most tragic is that Gail Omvedt's defence of large dams in general, the Sardar Sarovar, the Gujarat Govt. in particular and her charges against NBA and its supporters including Arundhati Roy, is that it amounts to a defence of the most undemocratic, repressive, insecure, anti people government that has chosen to crush the movements of the adivsis and farmers, that has suppressed all attempts at any debate on the issue in Gujarat, that has even disallowed any attempts to inform the people of Gujarat about the project. The language and the charges she uses are the same as the Gujarat Govt. uses. Moreover, she has very little information about the issues she writes about. Worst of all, she has chosen to raise these issues when the people of Narmada valley are fighting this battle with their backs to the wall, when almost each and every institution of our 'democratic' functioning has refused to do justice to them and they are fighting against the worst form of state sponsored repression in the form of submergence. It is not for nothing that three of the twelve items in the Current Happenings section in the website of the Sardar Sarovar Nigam happen to be authored by Gail Omvedt.

By being an instrument of the Gujarat Government, Gail is certainly not serving the interests of fighting people of Narmada Valley. Nobody should be under the illusion that strong vested interests, that has not be convinced by the struggle of the people of 14 years would not get convinced due a few academic articles. Being from Kutch and knowing the area and the people of this most drought prone area of Gujarat, I can also assure her that she is not serving the interests of drought prone areas either.

Himanshu Thakkar