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Background to the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP)

According to the integrated Narmada Valley Develpment programme, the Narmada Sagar Project in Madhya Pradesh and the downstream Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat must both be completed together. Adequate water has to be in the Narmada Sagar reservoir and let out to fill the Sarovar reservoir. The Narmada Sagar when construct ed will submerge 9O,OOO ha. of land in Madhya Pradesh, wh ile the Sardar Sarovar will submerge directly 37,000 ha. of land spread over the Sates of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Pradesh. This immense spread of land going to be drowned is immeasurably valuable forest which our denuded and desertified country can never afford to lose. Along with forests earmarked for destruction are the richest fertile valley lands which had been under cultivation for millennia. The lands to be flooded are unquestionably the only sustenance for a large population of tribal and marginal farmers. Yet in our democratic, socialistic, independent country where development is supposed to be for the welfare of the ord inary citizens, the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal has not bothered to estimate the socio-economic, cultural ecological destruction due to the river valley development projects they have proposed. In spite of the fact that some of the dams in the Narmada basin were taken up for construction in the early 1960s, the various negative aspects of this project such as dislocation of large tribal populations, deforestation and even the total inability of the projects to deliver the envisaged benefits came to light only towards the late 1980s. Developmental fiascos which should have enabled us to rethink on our costly suicidal course have not even been topics of public debate. Even within the restricted ambit of directly affected people, such discussions have not evolved. Already the Narmada Sagar Project is stalled enmeshed in social, economic and ecological problems. But the Gujarat government in particular beginning from the Chief Ministership of the late Chimanbhai Patel took the stance that Sardar Sarovar Project is the lifeline of Gujarat and bulldozing all objections went ahead with the project. In spite of critical feedbacks from institutions like the World Bank, irrespective of insurmountable financial crisis, each day adding to the terrible trail of human rights violations, the vested interests within the social and political leadership of Gujarat is obstinately going ahead with the construction of SSP.

Already 5 dams including Tawa, Sukta, Kolar, Bargi (Phase I&II) are nearing completion or are already completed as part of the Narmada valley development. These dams are more than enough to show us the irreparable environmental and social disruptions and the massive economic loss inflicted upon the region. For example Bargi dam alone has uprooted and created more than a lakh refugees most of whom are tribal people who have not been paid even a nominal monetary compensation until today. These hapless people who were part of the age old rich rural agrarian secure social systems have been transformed overnight into mere shadows of people counting their last days in the slums of Jabalpur and Vadodara. It is only since public spirited people like Dr.B.D. Sharma have brought out their horrendous plight that even within our country we are hearing about this section of our society earmarked for annihilation through our development projects. We are shocked when confronted with this unpardonable injustice perpetrated on our own people. On the other side the disparity between the real achievements and the promised returns from these huge investments in irrigation enhancement, drinking water supply and electricity generation schemes are even more unbelievable. For example Bargi was envisaged to irrigate 4.44 lakh ha. fields. But actually water reached hardly 12,100 ha. and even the lands that got the canal waters were totally destroyed through water logging. The soil was unsuitable for canal irrigation and the canal designs did not provide for draining the surplus waters. The Tawa project which was completed in the mid 1970's in Madhya Pradesh also created only water logged wasted lands.

Even when the fields were not water logged, the sudden availability of cheap and abundant fresh water through canals encouraged the massive conversion of traditional farmlands which had wheat, jowar and other coarse grains along with citrus, bananas, legumes etc. into very profitable water demanding cash crops like sugarcane. The sudden prosperity of the large landowners in turn initiated social and economic disequilibrium which has its negative impact both politically and ecologically. Once the canals are completed it need not be possible to actually regulate water use or encourage the really necessary and suitable crops like food grains. The immediate profitability thereafter decides the direction of the evolution of the agrosystem to which the political leadership will always be subservient. Along with the disappearance of the cheap local coarse food grains there is the simultaneous, far costlier damage to the fields due to water logging, salination, chemical toxicity etc. through excessive irrigation.

Since 1961 through the planned economic development implemented through Five Year Plans we have taken up the construction of 246 major River Valley Projects mostly for irrigation. Of this only 65 have been completed. Taking into consideration the negative environmental and social impacts of these mega projects and the fact that there is no possibility of recovering the thousands of crores of rupees invested in them, many experts and even parliamentary Public Accounts Committees have repeatedly asked for a moratorium on mega dams. According to a report based on data of 1990, canal irrigation from big dams costs above Rs.30,000/- per hectare of command area. The soil and water conservation measures and other essential land preparation costs are over and above this estimate. We definitely cannot afford such an enormous squander of scarce national resources. Between 1975 and 1982, big dams alone have inflicted upon us the dead investment of atleast 20,530 million rupees. It is against this background of our experiences from big dams that we should attempt to view the SSP.

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