Dam and deluge

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

The heavy monsoon rain in August results in the flooding of the Narmada, increases the inflow into the Saradar Sarovar dam and causes the breaching of canals, highlighting the serious flaws in the implementation of the project.

THIS monsoon season has been the worst for those living on the banks of the Narmada although the district administrations in Gujarat were on the alert to arrange for the emergency evacuation of more than 20,000 people living in 10 villages downstream of the Sardar Sarovar dam. Incessant and heavy rainfall in the first week of August drastically increased the volume of inflow into the dam with the result that the water level rose to 114 metres, that is, 4 m above the dam height of 110.64 m. The quantum of water in the dam was so high that a wall of water - at the rate of 1,07,000 cubic feet per second - reared up above the dam before spilling over into the basin. This head of water was maintained until late August. Consequently, the amount of water rushing through the main water distribution canal on the other side of the dam was also enormous.

The breaches in the main water distribution canal, flash floods in the plains and in the upstream villages and the dismal state of relief and rehabilitation (R&R) have all vindicated the concerns expressed about the feasibility of the gigantic project.

By the time the rains lessened enough damage had been caused. In Vadodara district, the Hiran river began to overflow. A drain of the Hiran passes under the main Narmada water distribution canal. The pressure from the drain waters on the exterior of the canal wall proved to be too much, and on the morning of August 3 about 50 m of the canal was breached. Six villages were submerged partially. About 700 homes were destroyed and standing crops were damaged. Fortunately, a tragedy was staved off. Since the canal caved in, the floodwaters of the drain received an outlet and part of the water was transported down the main canal. On August 10, the canal wall was once again breached, this time in Ahmedabad district, flooding 10 villages, necessitating the evacuation of 2,000 people. This resulted in a complete disruption of the agricultural season. Farmers suffered a heavy loss: they lost the first crop to delayed rains and the second to the floods. In Vadodara district alone crops on 5,000 hectares were destroyed.

Unfortunately, no lessons have been learnt. The Gujarat government is merely concentrating on repairing the main canal and, in the meanwhile, channeling the water into the sea. While repair of the canal is an essential immediate measure, the larger issue is being avoided. The reality is that the Narmada main distribution canal is designed to withstand pressure only from within. The breaching of the canal wall is just one of the flaws in the construction of the dam and its infrastructure that were accidentally brought to public notice this monsoon.

When plans for the construction of the canal were first discussed, the Irrigation Department had vetoed them because the canal passed through the districts of Narmada, Bharuch and Vadodara over sections of land that had a natural tendency to be waterlogged. The department argued that the presence of a vast canal (at certain points the main canal is 100 m wide) over such land would cause havoc to farming. Its objections were dismissed and the canal was built, and so poorly that water seeped easily through its lined base causing additional problems in some of the districts that already had high ground water levels.

The floods have raised serious questions about the canal network of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). The SSP was built on the basis of the promise of drinking water and irrigation to Gujarat and power supply to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. An elaborate infrastructure exists on paper but, as is now apparent, the network of canals that would have supposedly carried the water all over the State is practically nonexistent. The SSP became a symbol of political strength and thus all monetary and public relations efforts concentrated on raising the height of the dam and in building the main Narmada water distribution canal.

Medha Patkar, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), said, "The main canal has been hyped, but the distributary canal network has been neglected. Now the people and the project will pay for it."

Without the ancillary distributary network, Gujarat has been unable to keep its grand promise of water to all. It has also neglected command area development. This refers to the planning of the entire area that is supposed to benefit from the project. The total catchment area of the Narmada is one lakh square kilometre. For effective command area development, a detailed ecological survey needs to be done. On the basis of this survey, plans are made and construction is carried out. Instead, localised studies of the amount of rainfall, the highest rainfall received and local catchment areas were done. This piecemeal approach to the gigantic project is responsible for the present situation of flooded villages, homeless people, breached canals and silted fields.

Musing on the irony of the situation Medha Patkar, says, "So much was done at the cost of so many to get the dam raised to 110 m and now that it is at this height the government is releasing all that precious water into the Arabian Sea."

One of the basic aspects of command area development is to work out canal alignment along with a drainage system. Medha Patkar says this was supposed to have been done by December 1989 but the fact that it was not is in evidence everywhere. Seepage from poorly lined canals and the waterlogged fields have turned the so-called beneficiaries of the command area into nervous farmers, apprehensive of a situation whereby they will now have to contend with too much water instead of too little. So uneasy are the farmers that they have changed their attitude towards the NBA. Medha Patkar says that on a recent trip to Vadodara district she found farmers rallying around the NBA instead of shouting slogans as they used to do. "Canal-side dwellers now feel as threatened as riverside dwellers. They no longer feel they are a privileged lot." The worrisome fact is that if their agricultural lands are affected, the farmers will not be eligible for any sort of automatic compensation because they were initially seen as being beneficiaries of the project.

While the flooding was to some extent contained with the abatement of the rain, the region was in for another shock when on August 11 an earthquake measuring 3.4 on the Richter scale shook Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh. Minor seismic activity has also been common in the area for the past two years. While the quakes have been of low intensity, informal observations suggest that their increasing frequency is a disturbing fact. The attitude of the Gujarat government to criticism about building a gigantic dam in a seismic region (mild as it is) is disturbing. Seismic activity is monitored on a daily basis at an observatory at the Kevadia colony near the dam site. While minor tremors are recorded daily, the authorities dismiss them as inconsequential, saying that the dam has been designed to withstand an earthquake measuring more than 6.5 on the Richter scale.

While news is being made by the downstream villages, the recurring tragedies in the Narmada saga continue upstream of the dam. The backwaters of the SSP extend to a distance of 214 km. Currently, the effects of devastation are being felt for about 117 km from the dam site. Submergence of villages upstream of the SSP depends largely on the dams upstream of the project. Of the 30 big dams planned on the Narmada, two - Tawa and Bargi - have been completed. The sluice gates of these dams control the flow of water that affects downstream villages. While the August rains did not result in water flowing off the top of these dams, it did spill over from the Narmada Sagar dam thereby furthering the submergence of the villages along the course of the river. Floodwaters spread farther than expected this year, reaching as far as Bilgaon, a village where a mini hydel project built by the villagers was working successfully (Frontline, October 24, 2003).

Like many other villages, Bilgaon was not supposed to have been affected until the dam was much higher, but SSP planners failed to take into consideration the impact the swollen tributaries would have on the project-affected villages. Kakrana village in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, is slated for submergence only when the dam is at 132 m. But the village experienced high floods this year. Likewise, in the prosperous plains of Nimad in Madhya Pradesh, 17 villages, which are not listed as dam-affected, are likely to feel the effects of submergence this year.

Possibly with the exception of Maharashtra, which is taking some cognisance of the project-affected families, R&R has been shelved. Madhya Pradesh has stated categorically that it can do no more than offer cash compensation although this has been specifically forbidden by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA).

The real tragedy lies in the fact that although there are rules to support the affected people, even the most essential ones are being flouted.

The NWDTA says that submergence should not occur unless R&R is completed at least six months prior to that. People whose homes and lands have been below water for many years are yet to receive R&R.

The NWDTA also states that construction will proceed only after the oustees are resettled. The present situation is such that people who were affected when the dam was less than 100 m high are yet to receive full R&R.

The R&R package was based on a land-for-land exchange. Cash was expressly forbidden. This is being disregarded and cash compensation has almost totally replaced the land-for-land promise.

Entire communities were to be resettled at the same site to minimise disruption of the social fabric. At present hamlets that belong to the same community but are situated at different heights on hill slopes are resettled as separate entities.

In its order of 2000 under which construction was allowed to proceed on the Sardar Sarovar, the Supreme Court had said that within four weeks the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) should draw up an action plan to ensure that those affected by further construction would be rehabilitated. The court said: "Such an action plan will fix a timeframe so as to ensure relief and rehabilitation pari passu with the increase in the height of the dam. Each State shall abide by the terms of the action plan so prepared..." The NCA responded to this order by submitting an Action Taken Report and a schedule for further R&R. The schedule has not been upheld by the riparian States.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment