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
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
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
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
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
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
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
storages (MAF) 0.41 1.6 0.35 0.95
treated (Mha) 0.68 2.16 2.47 1.16
Rainfall (mm) 300 500 600 1000
resource (MAF) 0.16 0.86 1.78 0.93
resource (MAF) 0.57 2.46 2.11 1.87
Allocation (MAF) 0.8 2.4 2.4 1.6
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