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Politics By Pipeline

May 31, 2003 17:34 IST

In a 1998 publication from the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited -- the Gujarat government body that is responsible for the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada -- I found this: 'Now Government of Gujarat has decided to supply Narmada water [to Saurashtra and Kutch] by a pipeline and Rs 1 billion have [sic] been provided in budget of 1993-94 as a plan scheme. ... The scheme can be completed within three years.'

As best as I can figure out, this is meant to say that in 1993-94, when the constructed height of the Sardar Sarovar dam had reached 80 metres, the Gujarat government thought it was feasible to take water through pipelines to distant Kutch and Saurashtra. I emphasize: they thought this was a feasible plan then, with the dam at that height. They thought this could be accomplished in three years, and set aside the money to do it.

As best as I can figure out, it is now ten years later; the height of the dam is at 95 m and sought to be raised this year to 100; and it is now that the the Gujarat government has triumphantly, finally, brought water to Kutch via pipeline.

Great scenes of joy in Kutch, naturally and as there should be. That vast area of Gujarat has suffered from a serious scarcity of water for two centuries. An end to that suffering is cause for celebration not just for its people, but for the rest of us too.

Yet while we celebrate, would it be churlish to ask a few questions? Because they won't go away, and therefore it may be best to ask now.

First, if this pipeline scheme was considered feasible in 1993, and the decision to carry it through had been taken then, and it could be completed in three years, why did it take ten years to put it in place?

After all, the money required for this pipeline delivery had been sanctioned then: The Rs 1 billion mentioned in the Nigam publication. Of course, the delay only meant escalated costs; the same 1998 publication says 'the revised cost of the project has gone up to Rs 7.92 billion.'

There's no explanation for why the revision resulted in an eight-fold -- yes, eight times! -- jump in the estimated cost. But the Nigam was sanguine about getting that nearly eight billion rupees: 'With the commitment of the State Government, Rs 3 billion in three years will come from Government of Gujarat. Remaining Rs 4.92 billion will have to be brought from other sources [like] Government of India, LIC, GIC, etc.'

And even so, news reports about the joy in Kutch tell us that there's been another jump. 'The state Government has so far spent Rs 10 billion' on the project, said The Times of India on May 19. Why the ten-fold -- yes, ten times! -- jump from original cost estimate to actual money spent? Why the delay? Why make Kutchis wait at least seven years for water?

Second question: if delivering water to Kutch was feasible at a dam height of 80 m, why has the dam been constructed to 95 m so far? Why was sanction sought this year, and received, to raise the height to 100 m? And if water is already reaching areas of Gujarat that most need it, why continue building the dam till its full planned height of 138 m? Why not stop now?

After all, this dam has been described to us for years as the 'lifeline' of Kutch and Saurashtra; as the only hope for those parched areas, the only way to address their severe water-scarcity problems. Kutch is the most far-flung part of the command area of Sardar Sarovar. Its very distance from the dam site -- several hundred kilometres -- was the reason given for Gujarat's insistence on a dam as high as 138 m. Let me emphasize that: Kutch was the reason for the height proposed.

In fact, Gujarat's original proposal before the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal in the 1970s was for an even higher dam. An irrigation consultant, who appeared before the Tribunal on behalf of Madhya Pradesh, told me that Gujarat was insistent on a height of 530 feet (162 m). Their stand was that if water had to reach the farthest reaches of the state -- meaning Kutch -- the dam had to be that high. In another Nigam publication I have, then chief minister of the state, Babubhai Patel, mentions that the state first suggested this 530 feet figure. In tones of subtle regret, he tells us the Tribunal reduced that height to the current plan. 'This obviously will leave room for floods and wastage of precious waters,' writes Patel, 'but would reduce the hardships to the Project Affected Persons (PAPs) to the minimum.' (I will return to Patel's commendable concern for PAPs soon).

As the economist Vijay Paranjpye once commented, Gujarat's officials made a 'shrewd calculation that even after the Tribunal reduce[d] the height substantially ... a very high dam could still be built.' And this very high dam was necessary, they contended, if water was to reach as far as Kutch. Forgive me if I hammer hard at that point. I do so because it was in the name of taking water to Kutch that plans for such a vast dam were made. Consider the joyous scenes in Kutch in that light. Consider that water from this dam is flowing there when the dam is nearly 70 m lower than Gujarat first suggested, over 40 m lower than it is now supposed to rise to. Not only that, we find that the Nigam had proposed to supply this water to Kutch when the dam was a full 15 m lower than it is today.

The questions ask themselves: why has the dam been built higher than 80 m? Why do we need another 40 m on top of where it is today?

Third question: what happens to the greatly increased number of people displaced by raising the height from 80 m to 95 m? Note that I'm not even mentioning the people who will be displaced as the height rises another 40 m. OK, I am.

I return here to Babubhai Patel's concern for these displaced people. Of course, a reduction in the height of the dam will 'reduce the hardships to the Project Affected Persons.' Patel deserves applause for recognizing this simple truth; in fact, for recognizing that they face hardships in the first place.

It's no secret that the issue of what happens to people displaced by a dam is a difficult, intricate one. India's treatment of such oustees has always been shoddy. This is not just my opinion. I have still another Nigam publication in which Sanat Mehta, then Chairman of the Nigam, writes of Sardar Sarovar: 'This is the first ever project of the country wherein rehabilitation problem was considered in much details [sic]. ... [If] the project would have been executed in the old fashion, its cost would have been far less.'

The 'old fashion,' of course, was to simply push the people out. Naturally therefore, the 'cost would have been far less.'

It's because the 'old fashion' was recognized as wrong that the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal spelled out a generous package for oustees; a package further liberalized by the states involved. One little detail in the policy is this: people scheduled to be displaced must be resettled and rehabilitated (R&R) six months before the actual displacement.

I can quote figures to you, but I'd rather tell you just this: last August, I myself spent some days talking and eating with families in a village on the banks of the Narmada, a few kilometres upstream from Sardar Sarovar. The day after I left, the water level rose abruptly and drowned their homes. If I needed proof that there were people whom R&R had not reached when displacement happened, let alone six months earlier, these families constituted that proof.

Experiences like that, and the very scale of the protests against this dam, tell the story of R&R: putting it kindly, it has always been a problem. Increasingly, authorities themselves are admitting their inability to fully carry out R&R as the NWDT had in mind. This history should be a lesson to our dam builders: any measures to reduce the scale of displacement must be considered seriously.

So you wonder: If water could have been supplied to Kutch at a dam height of 80 m, why were thousands of such people made to suffer by adding another 15 m? If water is actually being supplied to Kutch now, why spread the suffering by proposing to build to 100 m? To 138 m?

Fourth question: what happened to the project's original plans, to take Narmada water to Kutch by canal?

This is worth asking because those plans had water reaching Kutch only in 2025. That's right, 22 years from now. Indeed, I have a copy of yet another official document, a December 1992 letter from the Commissioner in the Government of India's Ministry of Water Resources, N Suryanarayanan. Writing on his ministry's letterhead, Suryanarayanan says: 'The Sardar Sarovar Project as envisaged now will reduce substantially the distress due to drought in Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat by say 2025 AD.'

Yet the recent scenes of joy tell us that the 'distress due to drought in Kutch' is being substantially reduced today. Not 22 years from now. Isn't it remarkable that in the decade since Suryanarayanan wrote that letter, over two decades were shaved off the target he mentions?

But this phenomenal speed can only leave questions floating around. How were the project planners off the mark as widely as this? Were their plans, laid over a generation and more, so badly misguided? According to that first Nigam publication I mentioned above, a canal is supposed to bring water almost to Samkhiyali, the gateway to Kutch where the joyous scenes happened. From there, pipelines were to take the water throughout southern Kutch. But today, a 468 km long pipeline, all the way from the dam, brings Narmada water to Kutch (, May 19). Is this a viable, sustainable, way to supply all of Kutch this water? If so, why wasn't it proposed during the earlier planning that the dam builders had 'envisaged'?

Or does this phenomenal speed speak of something else: the political benefits of getting some water to Kutch, one way or another, and plastering the press with this achievement? Sort of like the regular claims that Rajkot's severe water problems have been solved by supplying that town water from the Narmada? (See my column Watery Countdown)

Your call. Me, I'm looking at the last line in that Times of India report. It says this: 'With the arrival of the Narmada waters, the municipal corporation of Rajkot [has] been forced to create a new network of

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Dilip D'Souza