Is the Sardar Sarovar Dam boon or bane?

To assess whether the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) is a boon or bane, we need to have a credible assessment of all the costs, benefits and impacts once the project is completed.

First, the project is still incomplete (even after downscaling the canal network by about 18,000 km), as per Gujarat government figures, with over 30,000 km of canals yet to be completed; the Garudeshwar Dam downstream from the SSP is still under construction (without any social and environment impact assessment). Second, there is as yet no credible assessment of the costs, benefits and impacts of the project. But let us take an overview of the key issues.

Not going to plan

The basic justification offered for the SSP by the Gujarat government from the time of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal in the 1970s was that there is no alternative to SSP waters for the drought-prone areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat. Funnily, all the incomplete canal network of the project is in these very regions, while in the water-rich and politically-socially-economically powerful central Gujarat region (excluding the eastern tribal belt) the canal network was completed long ago and the people have been enjoying full use of the water, way beyond their share in the original SSP plans. So, the SSP’s basic objective is far from achieved.

Social and environmental impacts have gone far beyond what was estimated at the outset when the project was cleared in the late 1980s. Rehabilitation of even the submergence-affected population is about 80% incomplete, but the Prime Minister, on September 17, 2017, his birthday, declared the project complete! One of the most glaring aspects of this episode is that even the highest judiciary of the country could not assure that the displaced population got a just rehabilitation as required by law.

There are many other dimensions of the impacts of the project. For example, the 150-km stretch of the Narmada downstream from the dam is now dry most of the year and the claim of 600 cusecs (cubic feet per second) being released not immediately downstream but several kilometres from the dam is not supported by any clinching evidence. In any case, that quantum was not the result of any participatory assessment, and is not sufficient to stop even salinity ingress, as was seen in the last several years. The livelihood of at least 10,000 families depending on the Narmada estuary stands destroyed, without any one talking about any rehabilitation or compensation. Similarly, there is no rehabilitation for all the other categories of people displaced by the dam.

Independent review a must

Incidentally, the Sardar Sarovar reservoir could not be filled, and even the extent to which it was filled (up to a maximum of 129.68 m against the full reservoir level of 138.68 m) was possible only by stopping all power generation at the River Bed Power House for almost two monsoon months, and by reducing power generation at the upstream Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar dams by over 95% and depleting the meagre water storage.

The best way to know if the project is a boon or bane would be through an independent review of the project. Such reviews happened at least twice, one set up by the World Bank, another by the Government of India. In both cases, the outcome was the same: the project in its current form should not go ahead. That answer was available about 25 years ago.