Breach of trust

Published : Jul 18, 2008 00:00 IST

The 40-foot-wide breach in the Narmada Main Canal at Sujatpur village in Mehsana district of Gujarat. - PTI

The 40-foot-wide breach in the Narmada Main Canal at Sujatpur village in Mehsana district of Gujarat. - PTI

A major breach in the Narmada Main Canal once again highlights the many fallacies about the canal network.

SEVEN years ago, an eminent economist, in a paean to the Narmada Main Canal, which he had helped build, called it a beauty and an engineering marvel and said that a Boeing can land on it. The tribute to its strength, however, turned out be an overstatement as the canal breached three times in the past four years.

The latest mishap occurred on June 11 when the canal breached in Kadi taluk of Mehsana district in north Gujarat. Water flowing through the 40-foot-wide gap inundated five villages. Two of them, Sujatpura and Balsara, bore the brunt of the floods with people trapped in waist-high water and farmers suffering complete loss of crops and fodder. Agricultural lands face the possibility of temporary water-logging.

Embarrassed by the major breach in a system that has been projected as the pride of Gujarat, Chief Minister Narendra Modi sent three senior Ministers to the site before undertaking a visit himself. He created a technical review committee to inquire into the breach. While the complete terms of reference of the committee were not announced immediately, it is understood that its members will conduct a technical survey of the entire 458-km stretch of the canal from the site of its origin at the Sardar Sarovar dam until the point where it enters Rajasthan. The committee is expected to submit its report within two months.

Putting this in the political context in which it should be seen, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) leader Medha Patkar says she does not have much hope in the outcome of the inquiry. This has happened before. When the canal breached in 2003 and 2004, about 18 villages in Vadodara district were affected. Their residents were not compensated, nor was any action taken for their future security.

In the blame game following the recent disaster, the construction contractor was held responsible for the shoddy work, for sub-contracting the job and for doing a rushed job. The authorities are also blaming the breach on the curves in the canal. They said that although this weakened the structures load-bearing capacity, it was unavoidable because of the villages in the canals path. This is a half-truth (the canal curves also because of the topography) and the government seems to be creating the impression that no villager lost land and no one was displaced because of the canal network. In actual fact, about 1,60,000 hectares of land (primarily agricultural) was taken over to accommodate the entire canal network and about 24,000 families were affected. They were given meagre sums as compensation and were not considered project-affected people (PAP) and hence were not entitled to other forms of compensation.

The breach has highlighted the many fallacies about the canal network. The canals were promoted on the basis of their potential to provide irrigation and drinking water and serve as a flood-control system. But the truth is that the canal network is not used to its fullest and promised potential. The Comptroller and Auditor Generals (CAG) report points out that there are irregularities and corruption in its construction.

The Sardar Sarovar dam is part of the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme. Under this, the project is entitled to Rs.8,377 crore from the Central government. This allocation was used for the construction of the canal network. This was meant for 4,35,834 ha of created potential irrigation and 8,00,000 ha of potential planned irrigation. However, the achieved irrigation level for 2007 was far lower at 61,941 ha. Medha Patkar says that only about 7 per cent of the water passing through the Sardar Sarovar turbines is actually routed for irrigation needs. Ninety-three per cent of the water is flowing out to the sea just as it used to before the dam was built because of an inadequate canal distribution system. The only difference is that instead of flowing out through the Narmada, the waters are going via the Sabarmati, she observed.

In the last budget session, the Modi government was forced to admit that only 22 per cent of the canal network had been completed. Despite these obvious failures, 66 per cent of Gujarats dam budget continues to be allotted for canals.

Water-logging is an unanticipated and underestimated outcome of canal networks.

In a report entitled The Case against Large Dams (Singh 1990, Agarwal 1985, Agarwal and Narain 1991), the researchers say, Canal irrigation made viable by large dams may seem crucial for any increase in crop yields (particularly in low rainfall areas). However, it has been widely found that the long-term effect of canal irrigation on increasing crop yields is marginal. The main problems are water-logging and salinisation of the soil due to water that seeps out of the canals and distributaries, and due to inadequate drainage. Studies have shown up to 71 per cent water loss in transit from the reservoir to the field. In some cases, up to 18 per cent of land that utilises irrigation has been lost to the above problems. Particularly, in some semi-humid and humid areas, there has been an actual decline in crop yields. In arid areas, dams have produced positive results in the first few years, but eventually the above problems have taken over. While theoretically, seepage can be reduced by lining the canals and through other distribution methods, practically this is uneconomical and, therefore, often knowingly not undertaken.

Water-logging also occurs when the canal is built over natural drainage in fields, as has happened in the case of the Narmada network.

The installation of drainage works is a crucial precondition to commencing any other construction work in the command area. According to an April 2008 report of the Environmental Sub Group of the Narmada Control Authority, command area development has been neglected all over Gujarat and Rajasthan, the other beneficiary State. In spite of this, water is flowing down the canal in Rajasthan. This has led a former professor of the Indian Institute of Technology who was involved in a command area study, to remark that the sudden introduction of water in an area where no drainage has been planned can actually intensify the desertification of the region. In December 2007, the Ministry of Environment and Forests asked the Ministry of Water Resources to stop funds for command area development until a Master Plan for it was developed. At present Rajasthan is getting a supply of notional water, that is, a radical decrease in canal water until the necessary work is done.

One of the major promises of the Narmada canals was that they would eliminate tanker-supplied water, but 1,300 towns and 8,200 villages continue to depend on tanker water. Even though water pumped from the canal has been available since 2001, the canal network is far behind schedule and is not likely to be completed until 2010. Interestingly, while some areas continue to be serviced by tankers and some areas lack irrigation, the Baroda Milk Dairy has received permission from Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited to set up a plant to bottle Narmada water, or Narmada neer as it is to be branded. The dairy has a daily requirement of five lakh litres of water but gets double that amount from the Narmada pipeline, and so the chairman of the dairy, Madhu Srivastava, struck upon this idea. Why the Nigam has allowed the dairy to get more water than its requirement is a question that probably has a murky answer. Srivastava, who is also a Bharatiya Janata Party Member of the Legislative Assembly, has even got the blessings of Modi for the project.

Finally, with regard to the flood control abilities of the canal network, the 2004 breach was actually caused by floodwaters. At the point where the Heran river intersects the canal, the pressure of the floodwaters was so strong that they burst through, causing a 50-metre-wide breach. Canals are often expected to deal with the extra water that dams store because of the compunctions of hydro-electricity. If a full dam receives excess rainfall, then water has to be released to the canals. This can aggravate a situation, especially if the canal construction is of poor quality.

Allegations and proven instances of corruption have dogged the Narmada project since its inception. The breach in the canal only serves to bring these to public notice yet again. The CAG report for the financial year 2006-07 raised the issues of awarding of contracts for the canal work of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

The report said the Rs.16.78 crore spent to construct the concrete lining of the branch canal was a premature expenditure and had led to a loss of interest of Rs.1.92 crore. It pointed out that this work was done without a feasibility study on the development of the command area. Further irregularities were found in the contractual arrangements of the branch and sub-branch canal earthworks leading to the risk of more breaches in the future.

As Medha Patkar pithily summed up, its not just the canal that is breached. Its the confidence in the canal that is breached.

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