Large dams on the Narmada river

Sites of struggle

Of the 30 big dams proposed along the Narmada, Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and Narmada Sagar Project (NSP) are the megadams. The Maheshwar and Omkareshwar dams along with SSP and NSP, are to form a complex which would ultimately cater to the needs of SSP. The struggle of the people of the Narmada valley against large dams began when the people to be displaced by SSP began organizing in 1985-86. Since then the struggle has spread to encompass other major dams in various stages of planning and construction chiefly Maheshwar, Narmada Sagar, Maan, Goi and Jobat. Tawa and Bargi Dams were completed in 1973 and 1989 respectively have seen the affected people organize post-displacement to demand their rights.

Official website of the Narmada Valley Development Authority

A brief history

The Narmada river originates from the Maikal ranges at Amarkantak, 1057 m above the sea-level, now in Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh. In its 1312 km long journey before joining the Arabian Sea, the Narmada flows through the three states of Madhya Pradesh (MP), Maharashtra and Gujarat. Nearly 90% of the flow is in MP, and most of the remaining is in Gujarat. It flows for a very brief stretch through Maharashtra.

The valley of the river Narmada (which means one who endows with bliss) has been the seat of an uninterrupted flow of human civilization dating from pre-historic times. The Narmada finds mention as one of the seven most sacred rivers in ancient Indian texts. A number of written accounts and ballads refer to this river. Its banks are dotted with temples, myths and folklore, the living symbols of a timeless Indian tradition. The river Narmada has supported a bewildering variety of people and diverse socio-cultural practices ranging from the relatively autonomous adivasi (tribal) settlements in the forests to non-tribal rural population.

The idea of damming the Narmada was discussed as far back as the late 19th century during the days of the British Raj. The first Irrigation Commission of India, in its 1901 report, mentions a barrage near Bharuch. However the black alluvial soil of the region was not considered suitable for flow irrigation from the point of view of investment.

The issue of damming the river was raised again after independence under the thrust of the Nehruvian Development policy which referred to dams as the "temples of modern India." It is said that the first Home Minister of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who hailed from the strong agrarian background of central Gujarat dreamt of harnessing the river for the benefit of his own people. This "dream" syndrome became very strong and was subsequently used by every politician in Gujarat to leverage political support for the Narmada project.

The Narmada valley project was mired in controversy and dispute right from its inception. In 1965, the Khosla committee planned a 530 feet high dam in Navagam (the site of the Sardar Sarovar dam today) while allocating 13.9 MAF (million acre feet) of water to MP and 10.6 MAF to Gujarat. This proposal was immediately locked in a dispute between the so-called riparian states i.e. Gujarat, Maharashtra and MP over the sharing of the costs and benefits of the project. The chief minister of MP, Mr. Govind Narayan Singh, objected to the unprecedented submergence as a result of the dam and contested the claims of Gujarat on the Narmada waters. Gujarat on the other hand claimed a higher share of water on the basis of the projected needs of the "drought prone area" in the far-off Kutch region. In this effort, Gujarat also made Rajasthan a party to give itself more bargaining power, although Rajasthan - a non-riparian state - had nothing to do with the project.

In 1969, the Government of India under Mrs. Indira Gandhi constituted the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) to resolve this inter-state water dispute. The Tribunal itself was subjected to a series of wranglings between Gujarat and MP. While MP proposed a dam height 210 feet, Gujarat demanded that the height of the dam be 530 feet. While Gujarat put its water requirement at 22 MAF, MP would concede only 4 MAF. Finally in 1979, after 10 years of deliberations, the Tribunal gave its award which consisted of clear compromises between the claims of Gujarat and MP. Accordingly they allocated 9 MAF of water to Gujarat. and arrived at the 453 feet for the height of the dam. Subsequently, 2 extra feet were added to the dam height for completely unknown reasons to bring the height to round figure of 455 feet. After a token show of resistance, the main political formations in MP accepted the award.

The full contours of the Narmada Valley Development Plan (NVDP) appeared only towards the late 1980s. It is an ambitious plan which envisages the building of 30 big dams, 135 medium dams and 3000 small dams on the Narmada & its tributaries. If all of these dams ever get built then the river as we know it will disappear and all that will be left are a series of lakes.

Map of proposed large dams on the Narmada

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Map of dams planned on River Narmada