November 3, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Watery Countdown

Gujarat elections in December. Apart from a half-baked Hindutva --- call it pseudo-Hinduism --- that Narendra Modi and Company will trumpet, what's the other issue you can be sure will feature in the rhetoric as we rumble up to the polls? Water from the Narmada river, and particularly the Sardar Sarovar dam! So politically charged is the Narmada issue that no political party in Gujarat can afford to ignore it, much less begin to question the project. They will all vie to make claims, one more remarkable than the next. And I mean remarkable.

Take one: relieving the water woes of Rajkot, Modi's own assembly constituency. This Saurashtra city gets 20 minutes of water every second day. That fact should give you an idea of how desperate its residents are for water. For a long time now, they have been told that Sardar Sarovar is the answer to their longing.

So it was that on October 18, 2000, the day the Supreme Court allowed construction to resume on the Sardar Sarovar dam, that the then chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, had some things to say about water for Rajkot. Applauding the resumption, he also promised that "construction of the Irrigation By-Pass Tunnel would be taken up immediately and completed in about 100 days to help supply drinking water [from the Narmada] through the Malia canal and pipeline to ... Rajkot." [The Hindu, October 19, 2000].

"Water shortage," said Patel, "will now become a thing of the past for the people of Gujarat."

Well, 100 days from October 18, 2000, takes us to about the end of January 2001. As far as I can tell, by that time Rajkot was not much closer to a solution to its water problems than it had been 100 days earlier. I base this on a report I found on on March 1, 2001. It said:

    [C]ivic officials say that Rajkot is going to get water from the Mahi-Narmada project by March-end. The question disturbing water supply experts is that there is no guarantee that Narmada water will reach Rajkot by the promised time. Even if water comes, the quantity would not be sufficient to meet the needs of the city.
Of course, those "water supply experts" may not have been any kind of experts at all, at least as far as the Gujarat government circles go. For another three weeks later, on March 22, 2001, The Times of India reiterated that March-end date, reporting:
    The Narmada waters would be made available [to Rajkot] from March 31. ... [W]ater Resources Minister Narottam Patel has said that Rajkot would be getting 4 million gallons of Narmada waters.
March 31, 2001: more like 160 days since Keshubhai Patel's promise, not 100; but if the water did arrive then, who's counting? Well, I suppose I'm counting. Because the next time I found any news about water reaching Rajkot was some 420 days later, in the third week of May 2002. That's right, 420 days later. On May 20, 2002, The Times of India's Ahmedabad edition reported that Rajkot was festooned with banners. Two typical ones read:
    Narendra Modi ae kari chhe kamaal, have nahi rahe paani ni dhamaal.
    (Modi's miracle, now there will be no scuffles for water.)

    Haash havey to roje roj paani, saachi padi chhe bhajapni vani.
    (Now there will be daily water supply, BJP has kept its word.)

The report carried on:
    [The] hoardings and banners eulogis[e] Modi's success in solving Rajkot's permanent water problem and Bharatiya Janata Party keeping its promise to solve the water crisis in this region. [They refer] to about 50 million litres of water per day to augment the Rajkot Municipal Corporation's current meagre supply of water for 20 minutes only on alternate days.
That this is Narmada water is a message carefully repeated in advertisements, in press notes.... "BJP has created history by bringing Narmada water to Saurashtra," claims an official press note.... Even the official government press note welcomes "Narmada Maiya" reaching the outskirts of Rajkot.

The write-ups don't mention the fact that the waters are of the River Mahi and are merely channelised through the Sardar Sarovar Malia branch canal.

Mahi water being passed off as the Narmada's? But it's water, right? So what does it matter which river it's from. If it really reached, I'm not quibbling. And Modi made an appearance in Rajkot on May 19 to "inaugurate the Narmada water supply" to Rajkot. Some papers carried a photograph of him handing over a large pot of the "Narmada water" to a Rajkot woman.

Well, 580 days instead of 100 --- but again, if the water really had arrived, who's counting? Well, I suppose I still am. Because on September 21, 2002, I woke up, opened my copy of The Times of India, and found a small item in it with this headline: Narmada water to reach Rajkot today. It informed me:

    Rajkot will finally get its share of the Narmada waters [today].... Mayor Ashok Dangar said that... the quantum of water would solve the drinking water problem of the city.
Well, 700 days instead of 100...

Whatever the numbers, Narendra Modi is mighty pleased. He has found a way to portray even this "service" to his constituency in pseudo-Hindu terms. "We have brought Narmada waters during Shravan, but the Congress would have wanted it in Ramzan," he told his recent Gaurav Yatra audiences. (Frontline, October 12-25 2002).

I'm not sure which Shravan in all those 700 days he had in mind, but never mind. Who's counting?

I read all this and I wonder, where does all this flim-flammery come from? Answer: the Sardar Sarovar project is simply riddled with it. And since we are talking about delivering water where it is needed desperately, let's ask: have project authorities estimated how many people will get this water?

Oh yes, they have! Many times. I have a 1988 publication from the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, authored by its then chairman Sanat Mehta, who writes that a "20.1 million population in 2021 will be able to get drinking water" from Sardar Sarovar. I have a 1989 Nigam publication that says the dam will deliver water to "29.5 million persons (2021 Census)". I have the 1998 edition of that same Nigam publication that says water will be delivered to a "prospective population of over 40 million by the year 2021". Later in that same 1998 edition -- the SAME book - I learn that water will be delivered to a "projected population of 29.26 million in 2021".

Well, 40 million instead of 29.5 million instead of 20.1 million.... When project authorities concoct estimates like this, should endless news items about solving Rajkot's water problems surprise anyone?

I read all this and I sorrow for Rajkot. I've never visited it, though I hope one day to go and to learn for myself what water is or is not reaching that city. Until then, I'd love to hear from any Rajkotians out there: what is the situation there, really? Am I going to soon read, yet again, that Narmada water is about to reach you? What should I think when I do?

And when the elections come around, regardless of which party asks for your vote, I'm hoping you will keep a few numbers in mind: 40 million, 580, 29.26 million, 700, 100....

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