A weak defence

Print edition : August 21, 2015

Villagers whose homes were submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Project at a 'Jal Satyagraha' in Ghogal village in Madhya Pradesh in September 2012. Photo: AP

The book, which aims to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the socio-economic and environmental impact of the Sardar Sarovar Project based on empirical field-level research, does not live up to its objectives.

THE Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada river is one of India’s largest dams and hydropower and irrigation projects. It is also the most controversial, because it is neither equitable nor sustainable, and is challenged as the costs far outweigh the benefits. Against this background, a book that claims to “undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the current and likely future impacts of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada project in Gujarat on the social, economic, and ecological/environmental fronts…” naturally elicits great interest. The Sardar Sarovar Project: Assessing Economic and Social Impacts by S. Jagadeesan and M. Dinesh Kumar further raises expectations when it says that the evaluation is based on an “intensive empirical field-level research carried out extensively in different locations across the designated command area of SSP”. The expectations are tempered to some extent when one sees that the research, which is at the core of the book, has been supported by Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL), the government of Gujarat agency that is building the dam. One of the authors has also been the Managing Director of the SSNNL.

The authors say that in the past, assessment of irrigation projects was done mainly in terms of the areas irrigated whereas projects like the SSP have many more direct and indirect benefits and that they have attempted to assess the impact of the project in terms of these benefits. On the basis of information on pre- and post-Narmada project periods, they evaluate the following benefits: improving groundwater regimes in overexploited regions of Gujarat, the impact of canal irrigation, the impact on drinking water supply, and the indirect impact of irrigation and drinking water supply on health, savings in electricity for groundwater pumping, and others. The authors assert that “One of the most significant, yet unintended, benefits of SSP is the improvement in groundwater conditions in the command area owing to recharge from irrigated fields and seepage from canal”.

They compare the groundwater levels in seven districts of the command area, namely Ahmedabad, Banaskantha, Vadodara, Bharuch, Kheda, Mehsana and Surendranagar, for pre- and post-Narmada irrigation periods. The comparison in fact shows a rather uneven impact. In Kheda district, the rate of groundwater rise has fallen sharply after the advent of the Narmada canals. In Ahmedabad, the rate of rise increased for October but fell in January and May. In Mehsana in north Gujarat, where falling groundwater levels are of great concern, the rate of groundwater rise fell for October after canal irrigation started but went up in May and January.

Similar results were seen for the quality of groundwater. Comparing the total dissolved solids (TDS) level for pre- and post-Narmada periods, the study finds that in Mehsana, the TDS levels began rising after the Narmada canal irrigation came in. In some of the other districts, the rates at which TDS levels were falling decreased. In some cases, these rates increased. In the case of the benefits of canal irrigation—either directly because of the canals, or because of farmers taking water from the canals using pumps—the book finds that wherever this irrigation was available, the area under irrigation went up substantially. The cropping pattern shifted towards more irrigated and more remunerative crops. Moreover, crop yields went up, as did the gross income of farmers. Livestock holding increased slightly, and the income from livestock went up. Overall, the farm surplus has gone up for farmers in all the districts compared with the situation that existed before the advent of the Narmada canal irrigation and when compared with farmers outside the command area.

Some of these findings are along expected lines. What is important is the extent to which this happens and whether benefits accrue to small or large farmers, or to both.

One of the most important issues is about who its beneficiaries are. The survey results indicate that only large and very large landholders seem to have been considered. For example, the book reports that during the post-Narmada period, the area irrigated per farmer in Bharuch district for farmers getting canal waters went up to 5.11 hectares and for farmers pumping out water from canals, the same went up to 25.05 ha.

For Ahmedabad district, the book reports that the gross cropped area per farmer went up to 17.28 ha in canal lift areas. Given that the majority of the landholdings are small in the State, these numbers suggest that the sample is preponderantly biased towards large farmers. Comparing with the official data on the distribution of operational landholdings, and converting from gross irrigated and gross cropped areas to net cropped areas using appropriate but conservative assumptions, we find that the sample of Bharuch farmers getting canal irrigation represents the top 27 per cent in terms of landholding, while Bharuch farmers using water pumped from canals represent the top 2 per cent and those in Ahmedabad district represent the top 4 per cent.

In sum, it appears that most of the high gains in irrigation benefits (and therefore also the subsequent benefits of increase in agricultural production and income) seem to have gone to very large landholders. Existing literature shows that such big canal-based irrigation projects generally benefit large farmers more. It would have been useful if the book had assessed the benefits accruing to smaller farmers too who form the overwhelming majority in the State.

Coming to the methodological issues, the authors acknowledge that factors other than the irrigation which would have changed in the pre- and post-Narmada periods and could have influenced the income, yields, etc.—for example, inflation—have not been “nullified”. Apart from this aspect, which has been acknowledged by the authors, there are several other issues.

One is that the book does not mention when the “pre” and “post” surveys were carried out. It appears from the book that the period of comparison was one year each from the pre- and post-Narmada periods. Such comparison is fraught with the risk of high errors, particularly in exceptional cases when one of the end years happens to be a drought year. The survey should have actually captured data for a few years in the pre-Narmada period and a few years in the post-Narmada period. At the least, the authors should have indicated the years and the period of surveys and brought out the characteristic features —rainfall, for example—of these years.

Another issue is the size of the sample surveyed. This has been given in the chapter on methodology but the total population from which the samples are drawn is not given. Thus, it is difficult to judge whether the sample size is adequate to allow any generalisation of the findings. Prima facie it appears inadequate. At the least, the authors should have presented the population sizes along with the sample sizes and presented their justification for the sample size they chose.

Similarly, the authors describe their survey sample as a “multistage, stratified, random” sample. However, the stages, clustering and strata are not given in any meaningful detail. The authors only talk about covering all the districts and agro-climatic zones, and the head and tail reaches of the canals. There is no mention of stratification as per landholding, which is one of the important determinants of how much the farmer benefits from such projects and one of the crucial measures of the equity in the distribution of benefits.

Access to drinking water

“One of the landmark impacts of the Narmada project has been on the improved access to drinking water,” the authors assert. In fact, the drinking water benefits—the project is to supply municipal water to more than 9,000 villages and 125 towns —have an interesting history.

The SSP, whose main justification was to provide waters to the drought-prone areas of Saurashtra and Kutch, was (is) actually providing very little water to these areas in terms of irrigation. When this became an issue, the State government responded by adding the drinking water component, with the promise to provide all villages, towns and cities in Saurashtra and Kutch with municipal water from the project. Hence, this component has high political importance.

The book finds mixed impact of the drinking water component of the project. On the one hand, the project claims (and the book does not question the claim) that 24.3 million people have benefited directly. The authors have surveyed Jamnagar and Bhuj cities and the rural hinterland around both for the impact the drinking water component has had on these areas. They find that the Narmada pipeline has replaced all other sources of drinking water. However, they found that in “both rural and urban areas of Bhuj, the frequency of water supply actually reduced after introduction of the Narmada canal based water supply”. Moreover, a large proportion of families, “ranging from 25 per cent for rural Bhuj and rural Jamnagar to 75 per cent for Bhuj town to around 80 per cent for Jamnagar town received water supply only on alternate days …” post-Narmada. The distance to water sources reduced for most people after the Narmada canal-based scheme was introduced, with many more getting water within their dwellings, or near their dwellings. Yet, there was only a marginal reduction in the time spent in collecting water and there was not “any significant change in terms of the volumetric daily water consumption by the households post-Narmada canal-based piped water supply”.

One of the most important impacts was that most households said that there was an improvement in the water quality post-Narmada, that is, the water was soft.

The authors, however, do not analyse the reasons for this uneven performance of the water supply scheme. Could a reason be diversions over and above those in the original plan to politically and economically powerful centres like industries and cities like Vadodara and Ahmedabad? Or that a system of water supply to thousands of decentralised centres from a centralised source, transferring water over several hundred kilometres, has some inherent limitations and problems? Such analysis is of critical importance.

Environmental issues

The section on environmental externalities is inadequate. Only a few random issues are addressed. The chapter on socio-economic impacts on displaced populations does not look at Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which have the lion’s share of displaced populations. Moreover, the rather straightforward and almost algebraic description of resettlement glosses over the massive suffering that thousands of people have faced for decades and continue to do so, and the fact that while there has been some improvement in the resettlement policy, it has come mainly because of the intense, relentless and arduous struggles waged by the oustees. It covers none of the problems that even the resettled people continue to face. However, the chapter ends with an acknowledgement that this is a weak area of the SSP.

The book has two major shortcomings. First, for a book that sets out to undertake a comprehensive economic assessment, strangely it has said nothing about the costs that have been paid or need to be paid for the benefits described, including the huge financial, social and environmental costs. For example, the book mentions only in passing the total financial cost of the project, expected to be more than Rs.50,000 crore, just for the irrigation component. Other costs have been ignored. For example, the authors say that seepage from canal waters has led to a rise in groundwater levels, leading to huge savings in terms of electricity needed to pump groundwater. However, they have ignored the fact that in large parts of the command area, particularly in Saurashtra and Kutch, water for the canals has to be lifted and pumped. Both the Kutch and Saurashtra branch canals get water from the main canal only using massive pumps. This energy consumption has not been counted.

The second major shortcoming is that the study has not addressed the broader issues that have been raised in the protests against the project. One such issue is that the irrigation benefits from the project are to accrue mainly to the water-rich areas of Gujarat, and the drought-prone areas, particularly Saurashtra and Kutch, will get very small shares. The authors do not address this issue.

Another issue is about the time that such projects take to deliver benefits, which is also another form of cost. While the protests and struggles are (wrongfully) blamed for the delay in the project, it is now almost 15 years since the Supreme Court gave the final go-ahead for it. Yet, the authors, while noting that only one-third of the command area is irrigated, do not raise an issue over this.

An equally important issue debated is whether the water needs of the regions can be met by any other means and how these means compare with the SSP in terms of the balance of benefits and costs —in other words, the issue of alternatives. The book under review does not even address this question. It is interesting that another recent study (Shah et al, 2009) notes that in Gujarat decentralised water- harvesting structures have served by far the largest acreage and have had the highest water productivity and that it is such mass-based water harvesting and farm power reforms that have helped energise Gujarat’s agriculture. By not addressing these and the set of broader issues that are at the heart of the struggle against the SSP, the book has limited its scope and utility in discussions about the need, desirability and viability of large dam projects. It also falls far short of its own proclaimed objectives—“comprehensive evaluation” of the SSP.

Shripad Dharmadhikary is an activist and researcher, and coordinator of the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra which studies water and energy policies.

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