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Economic Times, New Delhi, 8 October 1994

Sardar Sarovar Project
Exercising the Other Option

There are technical alternatives to this mega-scheme which can provide the required water and power.

The Sardar Sarovar project (SSP) has been dogged by controversy ever since its inception in the Sixties. 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. To cap it all, activists have raised doubts about the rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) package -- a key issue on which the World Bank pulled out from the project.

Every now and then, the question whether a technical alternative to the SSP exists or not has come up. There are many. And the recent meeting on SSP in Delhi provided ample evidence for this. These alternatives can work even without altering the Narmada Tribunal's division of waters among the benefitting states (Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra) as well as the structures built already.

The meeting, which was attended by officials from the Planning Commission, the Central Water Commission and the Central Electricity Authority, 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. Interestingly, Sardar Sarovar Nigam (SSN) did not participate.

Consider some of the contentious issues.
The Planning Commission had sanctioned a dam height of 162 feet for the Sardar Sarovar project way back in 1960. The Gujarat government proposed, on the other hand, a full reservoir level (FRL) of 460 feet to utilize all the Narmada water. (The FRL 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 how much water would be available at 75 per cent dependability over the years. But instead of the Tribunal finding this, it was the concerned Chief Ministers who decided this in 1972. 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!

This forced the Tribunal to fix the water availability at 28 MAF and divide the water among M.P., Gujarat, Rajasthan and MaharashtraRL fixed by t he Tribunal was 455 feet. But its calculation for irrigation indicates an FRL of only 436 feet.

So, why was the height increased? Because the Tribunal also looked at the potential for power generation to replace some schemes in MP, which would become inoperative as a result of the Sardar Sarovar Dam's FRL.

But power generation was not in the terms of reference for the Tribunal. (In a move to ease the deadlock, MP chief minister Digvijay Singh recently asked for a reduction of the dam height, foregoing MP's share in the power generated.)

How valid are the Tribunal 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.

As an alternative to this, Vinod Raina has 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.

In their recent paper, Professor A K N Reddy of the Independent Energy Initiative, Bangalore, and Girish Sant have demolished the power generation part of the SSP. A conventional hydro-electric project is based on water falling from a height. This does not apply to the Sardar Sarovar, because once the canal system is built, water will be used for irrigation. Hence the River Bed Power House has a life only upto completion of the project. Afterwards, conventional power generation can only take place during the monsoon flooding.

Perhaps in view of this, the SSP includes a pumped storage scheme. Water is pumped back into the reservoir when there is extra power in the grid, and power is generated when demand is high. This means the project has to have expensive reversible turbines. This makes SSP much more expensdy-Sant paper mentions the Pimpalgaon Joge scheme in the western region. If the aim is to meet peak demand during the day, which comes about mainly because of lighting in the evening, the paper suggests a least-cost mix of alternate sources such as compact flourescent lamps, improved pumpsets and other pump storage schemes to meet the demand.

The increased dam height of 19 feet, stated to be for power generation, yields less than 10 per cent of the energy, but causes 27 per cent of the submergence. The human cost involved outweighs the benefits and is sufficient grounds to rule out a height above 436 feet.

On the drinking water aspect, Professor P P Patel of M S University, Baroda, argued that the Gujarat government, which had been promising water for most of the state (8,215 villages and 135 towns), has now realised that this will be difficult to meet. It has now proposed to build another canal downstream of the SSP to supply water to Saurashtra. Meanwhile, hundreds of villages in Saurashtra have already given up hopes of Narmada water and resorted to conserving water in their wells.

Ironically, several industrial areas and cities not included in these villages and towns are relying on Narmada water becoming available to them. The Baroda City Corporation has passed a resolution several years ago to make use of Narmada water. So, how is the Gujarat government going to tackle such powerful lobbies?

Moreover, a comprehensive review of the yield of land, taking into account the water, energy and biomass availability is required, according to K R Datye, the renowned irrigation expert. Datye emphasizes the need for regenerative use of water for agriculture, using local water resources. 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, to a point where water and energy balance can be maintained. (See table)

Engineer Suhas Paranjape and social scientist K J Joy have applied these ideas to the SSP. Water bodies are formed at the village level which work as 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, which uses the SSP canals to transport water away from the dam to the local storages. Of the 9 MAF available to Gujarat, the ares of Saurashtra and North Gujarat each get 2.4 MAF, while Kutch gets 0.8 MAF. The FRL required at Sardar Sarovar then is less than 350 feet.

The submergence area behind the dam decreases from 36,000 hectares to 10,800 hectares. However, the creation of local water storages results in a submergence of 26,000 ha in the command area, which is considered a cheap price to pay for the benefits accruing from the project.

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. This is estimated at 18 tonne of biomass per year -- 2 tonne for foodgrains, 5 tonne for fodder (for a pair of bullocks), 2 tonne for firewood, 6 tonne of biomass is recycled (fallen leaves, roots, etc) and 3 tonnes is planned as a surplus for cash income. A productivity of 30 kg per hectare-millimetre is assumed using limited resources in a sustainable way. This means that 600 ha-mm of water has to be harvested from rain, local water storage and exogenous sources.

The dam water which goes to meet this 600 ha-mm per family is provided as a basic service. Water beyond this is supplied at an economic rate which goes towards meeting costs. A precondition for the proposal is the creation of village water bodies which would regulate water use.

The entire proposal has been costed, including new canals, reinforcement of existing water storages and creation of new local storages. The resulting figure of Rs 11,920 crore is still below the World Bank estimate of the basic cost of the present project, which is Rs 13,640 crore.

Ravi Chopra of the Peoples' Studies Institute has looked at the construction of mega-projects such as the SSP from another viewpoint. Planning in India has concentrated solely on production of fine cereals as a means of maintaining the food needs of the country.

Production of pulses, on the other hand, has plummeted. Pulses, vegetables and coarse cereals are also required for a balanced diet and their production also needs to be planned. In fact, water resources required for the production of pulses and coarse cereals are much less than that of fine cereals like wheat and rice.

At the meeting, 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. 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 utilised, building a dam in MP 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 meeting did not consider alternatives which reject the need for a dam. As Nirmal Sengupta has shown in his paper, there are good grounds for considering such an alternative. But with construction proceeding at a rapid pace, it becomes more and more difficult to consider such alternatives. The continuing construction of the dam forces the issue and makes the SSP a fait accompli. The argument given is, now that we have invested so much money, we should not stop this project. The point never considered is that by not performing a review, we may be throwing good money after bad.

Jashbhai Patel has argued that 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, he has said, 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 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.

The moot question is this: will the Government of Gujarat, or the central government, take any steps to stop work on the dam and perform a sincere review? Is SSN listening? After all, SSN officials hadn't shown up at the meeting.

Estimated additional water resource available by watershed development on twice the basic service area

Resource Kutch Saura- North Rest of
shtra Gujarat Gujarat

Existing surface
storages (MAF) 0.41 1.6 0.35 0.95

Watershed area
treated (Mha) 0.68 2.16 2.47 1.16

Rainfall (mm) 300 500 600 1000

Additional local
resource (MAF) 0.16 0.86 1.78 0.93

Total local
resource (MAF) 0.57 2.46 2.11 1.87

Allocation (MAF) 0.8 2.4 2.4 1.6

Kamal Lodaya

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