SSP impasse: Is there a solution?

Kamal Lodaya

Economic Times, May 3, 1997

[A dam height of 300 feet can actually lead to a more acceptable solution to the Sardar Sarovar controversy, says Kamal Lodaya] ... But what are the facts of the matter? Why has the situation so stubbornly resisted a solution?

The facts are simple enough. SSP means massive water for Central and South Gujarat (by no means an arid region where cattle are dying out, as the advertisements claim), sufficient to grow sugarcane and set up sugar barons a la Sharad Pawar. SSP means submergence and displacement to lakhs of people in Madhya Pradesh. Strategically placed near the boundary separating the two states, the submergence area of the dam reservoir is mostly in MP, and Gujarat gets its share of water and power with hardly any submergence.

Gujarat has been arguing for the maximum possible height of the dam, 455 feet, since this will mean the greatest benefit to it. At this height, the submergence area will be 90,000 acres. Madhya Pradesh wants the height reduced so that submergence will be lower, and it is even willing to forego its share of the benefits if the dam height is brought down to 436 feet. At this height, the submergence area will be 52,000 acres.

Meanwhile, resettlement of oustees because of the present height of the dam, 264 feet, is still not complete. Until last year, Gujarat had produced only 1,700 acres of land for resettlement of oustees, scattered across numerous villages, contravening the conditions laid down for rehabilitation, which ask for resettlement in community units. This year, Gujarat increased this figure to 5,700 acres, still scattered. At this point of time, it seems clear that producing land for rehabilitation is itself a tall order, and rehabilitation as agreed to is impossible.

This is the genesis of the current impasse. Is there a way out?

Looking through the various statements made during the court hearings, one finds a proposal by the Union government to build an irrigation bypass tunnel at a height of 290 feet which will supply water to the canals. The canals are built to take water from a reservoir level of 300 feet. The tunnel enables water to be taken a little lower. There is the beginning of a solution here. According to the current design of the dam, the reservoir water can be taken away into the canals at 300 feet. What happens if we fix the dam height itself to be 300 feet?

According to Sardar Sarovar Nigam data, the flow in the river from July to October is 2.9 MAF (million acre feet), and that in the remaining months of the year is 2.3 MAF, a total of 5.2 MAF. The Tribunal declares (with some questionable statistics) that the amount of water to be delivered by the project is 28 MAF, of which 9 MAF goes to Gujarat and 0.5 MAF to Rajasthan. 0.5 MAF is assumed to be lost due to evaporation, and the remaining water goes to MP. If we ignore MP for the moment, we see that 10 MAF is required, of which more than half is already available at a dam height of 300 feet.

The other component of the dam's benefits is power. At 300 feet, the river bed power house gets a head of 220 feet compared to the 375 feet head which it would get at a dam height of 455 feet.

Since the 375 feet head is expected to generate 1200 MW of power, we can assume a head of 220 feet will proportionately generate 704 MW of power. Of the 1200 MW, Gujarat's share is 192 MW, Maharashtra gets 324 MW, and the rest goes to Madhya Pradesh. So the 704 MW generated by a dam height of 300 feet will meet the power share of Gujarat and Maharashtra, as well as a small amount of Madhya Pradesh's share.

How much is the submergence at a dam height of 300 feet? It comes down to 18,000 acres, or only 20 per cent of the full submergence. While it is hard to see how Gujarat can meet the rehabilitation requirements even for this amount of submergence, the problem at least becomes easier to grasp.

Can more be extracted from this scenario? Yes, the Sardar Sarovar Nigam has earmarked storage areas along the canals and in Saurashtra where excess flow from the Narmada can be transported and stored. This storage works out to 2 MAF. The SSP canals have a capacity of 44,000 cusecs, or 2.7 MAF per month, so transporting this water through the canals to the storages presents no problem.

Further, the reservoir of the Bargi dam on the Narmada, in Madhya Pradesh, stores 2.6 MAF of water. The command area of the dam is negligible and the dam is being used basically to generate power. Without reducing the power generated, 2.5 MAF of water can be supplied by regulated release to the Sardar Sarovar. Thus the water availability rises to 5.2 + 2 + 2.5 = 9.7 MAF, or 97 per cent of the requirements of the states, excepting for MP. If MP were to forego its stake in the SSP, practically all the water required for the other states, and more power than is necessary for them, becomes available at a dam height of 300 feet! If a redesign is done for a dam height of 290 feet, the submergence comes down still further.

What does Madhya Pradesh then get out of the Sardar Sarovar? First and foremost, it can ask the courts to categorically ensure that resettlement is now done according to the conditions agreed to, and make this binding upon Gujarat. 188 MW of power is available to it if the other two states insist on getting their share. A more equitable distribution of the power available at 300 feet would give it 60 per cent of its share at 455 feet.

One reason why Madhya Pradesh has been so unhappy with the dam height of 455 feet is that two of its power projects, Jalsindhi and Hiranphal, go into the submergence zone. At a height of 300 feet, both these sites are saved, and Madhya Pradesh can go ahead with its projects. Some of the money which MP has invested in the SSP can be returned to the state, which can be used for these projects.

The amazing thing is that a dam height of 300 feet can actually lead to a more acceptable solution for all the parties concerned. But it requires politicians forgetting their tantrums and the emotional rhetoric they have put in to the SSP, and willing themselves to find a just solution to the current situation.