The meeting mentioned below was held in September 1994 in New Delhi.

Here is an article on a meeting in Delhi which considered technical altermatives to the SSP. (Subsequent meetings are planned to be held in other places.)

-Kamal Lodaya

Sardar Sarovar: Will the Courts Advise Study of Alternatives?

We are told that no other project has been studied as much as the Sardar Sarovar project (SSP). Flaws have been pointed out in almost every aspect of the project, from the basic assumption of water available to power generation and irrigation efficiency, not to mention the rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) package which was so inadequate as to lead the World Bank to pull out from the project.

One question asked about the SSP is: is there an alternative? Recently, a number of proposals have addressed this issue. At a recent meeting organized by the All-India Peoples Science Network (AIPSN) and the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, scientists and technical people from all over the country met to look at the alternatives to the Sardar Sarovar project from a primarily technical point of view. Participants included members of the Planning Commission, Central Water Commission and Central Electricity Authority, who were in office when the project was under design and construction. The Sardar Sarovar Nigam (SSN) and the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) were invited to send observers. The NBA responded and participated, but the SSN did not appear.

The main conclusion of the meeting was that, prima facie, excellent technical alternatives to the SSP exist -- even if the Narmada Tribunal's division of the waters between the four benefitting states (Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra) is not altered, and even if the wall constructed is to be utilized. The meeting called for an immediate comprehensive review of the technical, social and human aspects of the project, based on the latest data (which was not available to the Tribunal) and incorporating modern methodologies.

CMs decide water availability

Vinod Raina of Eklavya, Bhopal, narrated the background of the project. The Planning Commission had sanctioned a dam height of 162 feet in 1960. The Gujarat government proposed, on the other hand, a full reservoir level (FRL) of 460 feet. (This includes the height of the site of the dam, 59 feet above sea level.) Disagreement with other states led to the formation of a Tribunal in 1969.

One of the major terms of reference for the Tribunal was to find the water available, at 75% dependability over the years. But instead of the Tribunal finding this, the concerned Chief Ministers arrived at an agreement (in 1972) on how much water was available! They said the Narmada flow was 27.25 million acre feet (MAF) of water and requested the Prime Minister to fix a suitable dam height!

Thus dictated, the Tribunal fixed the water availability at 28 MAF and divided the water among M.P., Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra in the ratio 65:32:2:1. The FRL fixed by the Tribunal was 455 feet. Their calculation for irrigation indicates an FRL of 436 feet. Why was the height increased? Because the Tribunal also looked at potential for power generation to replace some schemes in Madhya Pradesh which would become inoperative thanks to the Sardar Sarovar dam's FRL. Power generation was not in the terms of reference for the Tribunal.

How valid are these data? Records from 1948 to 1972 showed a water flow of 22 MAF. Some partial and questionable figures of the previous 57 years (1891-1947) were used to increase this figure. With more complete records (upto 1992), it is clear that the water flow is around 23 MAF.

Dr. Raina put forward his calculations for an FRL of 400 feet, based on the more recent data. At this level, most of the submergence of the present plan is avoided.

Power generation

Professor A.K.N. Reddy of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, demolished the power generation part of the project. The River Bed Power House has a life only upto completion of the project, and is to be run later by expensive reversible turbines. Professor Reddy pointed out that although the Narmada is a perennial river, it gets most of its water flow during the monsoon flooding. Using the water to generate power the year round does not make sense. The increased height of 19 feet is completely unjustified. He proposed a systematic analysis of alternate sources of energy, which are much chepaer than the SSP, for the power generation component of the project.

Drinking water

Professor P.P. Patel of the M.S. University, Baroda, pointed out that the Gujarat government, which had been promising water for most of Gujarat as rewards of the SSP, had realized that this was not going to be fulfilled. It was now proposing to build another canal downstream of the SSP to supply water to Saurashtra. Meanwhile, emboldened by the success of ``pani panchayat'' schemes, hundreds of villages in Saurashtra have given up hopes of Narmada water and resorted to conserving water in their wells.

Local water resources

K.R. Datye, a renowned engineer, suggested a comprehensive look at the water, energy and biomass available. He pointed out the economies of a cascade of small dams as opposed to a single large dam. Resettlement of project-affected persons then becomes feasible instead of reaching unmanageable levels. Mr. Datye visualizes efficient use of local water resources throughout India. Water from outside (such as from dams) is used to restore vegetative cover to degraded land and to recharge ground water aquifers which are badly depeleted. Water and soil balance can then be maintained.

Engineers Suhas Paranjape and K.J. Joy have applied these ideas to the SSP. Water bodies are formed at the village level which husband local storages such as tanks and wells. Narmada water is used only in addition to these storages. A major bias of the present project -- that water is distributed mainly to South Gujarat and less to the drier regions of Kutch and Saurashtra -- is corrected by the new proposal, using circular canals in both these regions. The FRL required at Sardar Sarovar is less than 350 feet.

An interesting aspect of this proposal is its analysis of the economics of water use. Water is supplied free upto a basic level necessary for the population of a village. More water is supplied at an economic rate which goes towards meeting costs. The entire proposal has been costed, including new canals, reinforcement of existing water storages, creation of new local storages, etc. The resulting figure is still below the present SSP costs.

Dunu Roy presented his work with Ravi Chopra. He said the logic of planning has concentrated solely on production of cereals as a means of maintaining the food needs of the country. Production of pulses, on the other hand, has plummeted. Pulses are also required for a balanced diet and their production ought also to be planned. In fact, the water resources required for the production of pulses is much less than that of cereals like wheat and rice.

Another Cauvery?

Discussion at the meeting was lively. Participants felt that much of the spirit of the alernative proposals applied to other projects as well, but stopped short of recommending a review of other projects which appear to be ill-designed. The presence of a heterogeneous audience of government planners, engineers, scientists, environmentalists and activists led to sharp debates. But everything was done in good humour and in a spirit of trying to understand the speaker's point of view. If nothing else, the meeting showed the virtues of a healthy debate among a large section of the public before embarking on a mega-project.

One of the issues which came up was that the construction of the dams on the Narmada was proceeding in precisely the wrong order. Once the SSP water starts getting utilized, building a dam in Madhya Pradesh later can only reduce water availability at Sardar Sarovar and create a Cauvery-like situation where the upstream and downstream states squabble over water usage. Rushing to build the SSP is leading to potentially explosive situations like this.

The moot question is this: will the Government of Gujarat, or the Government of India, take any steps to stop work on the dam and perform a sincere review? Participants noted that the Sardar Sarovar Nigam, which had been especially invited for the meeting, had simply not shown up.

As Jashbhai Patel has argued (Economic and Political Weekly, 23 July), the Gujarat government has perfected the technique of building dams at its borders, so that benefits accrue to the state, but most of the submergence remains confined to the neighbouring state! Any mention of alternatives or review is brushed aside as talk of Maharashtrians or Madhya Pradeshis or Rajasthanis who want to deprive Gujarat of its progress. The Gujarat government now claims that the Tribunal award cannot be challenged, even by the Supreme Court.

As Arun Ghosh observed at the meeting, a judicial stay order, with heavy punishment of violation, appears to be necessary even for a quick review of the project. Continued construction pre-empts alternatives and deprives the project-affected persons and states from the potential of a better deal for them.

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