Sardar Sarovar Dam

Sardar Sarovar dam: Water woes

Print edition : September 13, 2019

A view of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Photo: PTI

Controversies regarding the Sardar Sarovar dam project continue as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh fight it out over the Narmada waters.

The Sardar Sarovar dam has been something of a white elephant from the very start. Not only did the gigantic dam take decades to complete, but it came to fruition long after it was universally acknowledged that big dams were counterproductive. Amid unabated political muscle-flexing by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress and the battles of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the saga of the Sardar Sarovar continues.

August 9 was a red-letter day for the controversial dam. Two years after the installation of 30 gates on top of the gigantic 139-metre dam, 26 gates were opened for the first time and, after a hiatus of two years, the 1,200 MW riverbed power house also came alive. To mark this occasion, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel were present, along with Chief Secretary J.N. Singh, Chief Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister and Chairman of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited K. Kailashnathan, and Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam MD Rajiv Kumar Gupta. The attendance of the two most senior Ministers at the opening of a dam’s gates, and that too past midnight, did not go unnoticed. The average inflow into the Sarovar reservoir had been six lakh cubic feet per second (cusecs) of water, taking the water level to over 130 m. Though the dam soars to 139 m, the permitted water level is up to 131.18 m. With heavy rain in the Narmada catchment areas, the upstream reservoirs and the backwaters were overflowing and the threat of floods forced the Sardar Sarovar Nigam to open the gates. In the early hours of August 9, more than one lakh cusecs of water was released.

Fear of submergence and forced eviction of villages led the NBA to sit in satyagraha demanding that the gates be opened and the Narmada be allowed to flow freely. So, when the gates were opened, the activists saw it as a victory in their 34-year-old struggle, and a certain symbolic quality was ascribed to it since it was also International Adivasi Day and Martyrs Day.

Though releasing the water prevented a disaster, it has not altered the existing critical situation. The NBA says that no fewer than 32,000 families continue to reside in the 192 villages and one township of Madhya Pradesh. There are also hundreds of Adivasis in the hilly region of the Satpuras and the Vindhyas. The rehabilitation of affected people, in accordance with the Supreme Court orders of 2000, 2005 and 2007 and the Narmada Tribunal Award, is far from complete, even though “the struggle has achieved land, house plots, resettlement sites with civic amenities and various grants to thousands belonging to all categories of the affected”. If the gates had not been opened, the land of people awaiting resettlement would have been submerged. That, says the NBA, would have been “illegal, unjust and unethical”.

Resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) continues to be contentious and unresolved. The NBA says there was a severe rollback to the process in the last 14 years during the BJP regime in Madhya Pradesh. Now, with the Congress back in power, dialogue over R&R has resumed. An NBA press note said: “The Congress government of MP began a dialogue with the movement after coming to power, unlike the former government over the past 15 years. They realised and admitted that there are thousands of families still in the submergence area and they can’t be ousted by imposing a watery grave. They also realised and exposed the fact that Gujarat has cheated the States of MP and Maharashtra by keeping the main riverbed power house, depriving them of the only benefit of power generated from the dam, that is, 56 per cent and 27 per cent respectively! The issues were raised by the People’s Movement as well as the State government challenging the Gujarat and Central authority against their demand to fill the reservoir up to the full height, that is,138.68 m. A serious controversy and hot debate came up in the media and threw the mass actions in the valley, including a rally on 31.07.2019, with the strongest women power.”

But there were issues beyond R&R that forced the opening of the gates. The priority of the Sardar Sarovar is irrigation and drinking water supply. Power generation is a relatively minor part of the agenda. The three States that the Narmada passes through—Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat—were to share in the power generated by the project in the ratio of 57:27:16.

The riverbed power house has a capacity of 1,200 MW, and the canal head power house has a capacity of 250 MW. The riverbed power house is an underground power house built into the right bank of the Narmada about 165 m downstream of the dam. It has six reversible turbine generators which can operate at a minimum reservoir level of 110.64 m. Energy generation depends on the on the inflow of water into the reservoir and what priority the stored water is to serve.

In April this year, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited requested the Narmada Control Authority to grant permission for power generation only after the water reached 138.63 m. Gujarat says that since both 2017 and 2018 were rain-deficit years in the region, the reservoir never filled to capacity and so the riverbed power house remained shut. This year, not only did the reservoir fill to capacity but the inflow of water was so overpowering that the gates had to be opened. Apart from the plea that drinking water and irrigation are the priority for the project, there was also apparently a technical requirement. A full reservoir is required so as to be able to test whether the concrete structure of the dam can still hold up against the huge thrust force generated by the power house. When the riverbed power house is activated, the water that is used to generate electricity flows away to the sea after it goes over the turbines. Efficient use of water would have meant that this water be reused, but in this case there is no storage pond. One such pond, called the Garudeshwar weir, is being built near the Statue of Unity. But until it is constructed, water from the riverbed power house will flow away. Once the weir is constructed, the reversible turbines can pump the stored water back for reuse.

Madhya Pradesh has a different standpoint on all of this. Gujarat has said that since water from the reservoir is primarily for irrigation and drinking, power generation is not a priority. Critics say that the State loses the least if it does not get power, whereas Madhya Pradesh is the biggest loser since it is entitled to 57 per cent of the power generated. Madhya Pradesh faced blackouts and severe power shortages under its earlier BJP regime. The present Chief Minister, Kamal Nath, has taken a strong stance on the matter.

Madhya Pradesh has said it will follow the Narmada Control Authority’s guideline. It has also asserted that Gujarat acted unilaterally when it requested that power generation be allowed only when the reservoir reached its full capacity. In response, Madhya Pradesh has refused to share its surplus water with Gujarat, thereby ensuring that the reservoir does not fill up to full capacity.

Madhya Pradesh has asked the Centre to intervene in what it considers an unfair arrangement. Kamal Nath’s government says that Gujarat’s demand for 4,000 million cubic metres just to test the strength of the Sardar Sarovar gates is unreasonable. Madhya Pradesh points out that it has already released 1,600 million cubic metres of water. In a letter to the Narmada Control Authority, the Madhya Pradesh administration said that Gujarat had failed to supply power and had not paid any compensation for this failure as had been stipulated in the Narmada Water Distribution Tribunal accord. Because of this situation, Madhya Pradesh has a power shortage and has been forced to spend close to Rs.230 crore a year to buy power. Madhya Pradesh says that another reason for refusing to release more water is that it will put more than 6,000 families at risk of submergence in 76 villages in the catchment area in the State. Vijay Rupani accused Madhya Pradesh of playing petty politics. He said that Gujarat’s share of water in an average monsoon is not enough to generate power. Gujarat claims it requires much of the water that is Madhya Pradesh’s share but is not getting cooperation from its neighbouring State.

No one really wins in this standoff. Madhya Pradesh does not get its much-needed electricity. Gujarat’s request to the Authority is, in effect, negated. Gujarat has taken the moral high ground and is accusing Madhya Pradesh of returning to what it called the dark days of the earlier Congress regime. Madhya Pradesh’s decision to withhold water has left the State open to criticism. Yet, it seems to have a valid point. Madhya Pradesh also says that instead of using the excess water that it releases, Gujarat is just storing it. It also says that by refusing to release water it is saving those in the Sardar Sarovar zone from submergence.

Thousands of people are trapped in this stalemate between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. With the Gujarat government being overly cautious about reopening the gates after August 9, the water level in the Sardar Sarovar reservoir has risen and is threatening lives, homes and lands of more than 32,000 families.

Protests by villagers under the guidance of the NBA have been blocked by the police and cases have been registered against individuals. The protest gained momentum after five people were electrocuted on August 13. Chiman Darbar, 40, and Santosh Mankad, 36, died when their boat hit a live power cable in the flood.

Their village of Rajghat, like so many others, was marooned, forcing them to set out in search of food. Rajghat was marooned because Gujarat refused to open the dam gates, leading to an increase in the backwaters of the reservoir.

The issue is complicated and the pettiness displayed by the stakeholders is very much in keeping with the politics of the Narmada Valley projects over the decades.