Will the height of the dam be increased? Will construction continue? These have been the most frequently asked questions in the saga which has evolved around Sardar Sarovar dam in India. Dam opponents and an earthquake have both played an important role over recent months, as I M Sahai reports

After almost a decade of turmoil with the environmentalists, a comparative peace reigns at the Sardar Sarovar dam site in Gujarat, India. Construction activity resumed in October 2000 and the height of the dam is being raised from 88m (the height achieved when work was stopped five years ago) to reach the project height of 138.68m by June 2005.

State-owned Sardar Sarovar Nirman Nigam (SSNNL), which is responsible for executing the project, is keen to follow the revised schedule. After the Indian Supreme Court’s judgement on 18 October 2000 favoured the project, and the consequent retreat of the Save Narmada Movement (NBA) group, indications are that the project will be completed.

Hopes about completion, which will encompass the main dam since most of the canal system is ready, have been raised in the past but failed to come to fruition. There is a greater optimism this time as many of the obstacles to the project have been removed.

Sardar Sarovar is the biggest project on the river Narmada which flows west through central India and discharges its water in the Arabian Sea. It is one of 30 major dams projected on the river and will not only benefit the Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh states through which it passes, but the adjoining Maharashtra and Rajasthan states will also receive a share of the river’s waters. The project comprises:

• A main concrete gravity dam which will be 138.68m high, 1210m long, have seven chutes and 23 service spillway gates. The gross storage capacity of the reservoir will be approximately 9497M m3.

• A main 532km long canal (Gujarat: 458km; Rajasthan, 74km).

• A Distribution system of 42 branch canals with a total length of 66,000km.

• Power generation through two stations with a total capacity of 1450MW.

When originally conceived back in 1961 the project was of a modest size. In its present, magnified parameters, the work was initiated in 1987. However over the next eight years, the project experienced a number of ups and downs. A whole environmental movement, NBA, was built around the project to try and stop the submergence of 37,533ha of land and the displacement of 40,727 families. As well as focusing on the ecological impacts of the scheme, various allegations were made about the project. These included that:

• It would lead to heavy degradation of land.

• There was an incorrect assessment of the availability of water, more so since the reservoir would get heavy siltation.

• The dam was unsafe, being located in a seismic zone.

• The project was economically unviable.

The big versus small dam debate was revived. Over the years, various objections raised against the project have been painstakingly rebutted by SSNNL and the state government of Gujarat. A major complaint of NBA was that the resettlement and rehabilitation plans for the oustees were defective, inadequate and not being implemented properly, and that the biggest sufferers would be the tribal population. SSNNL has countered this with facts and has quoted a World Bank report which states: ‘Many of the tribals welcome the opportunity to improve their lot in the more fertile and sustainable command area. They see little future in the increasingly degraded submerged areas. The greatest opposition is from more wealthy farmers.’

The lid was put on this issue by the Supreme Court. Based on the field reports of court-appointed panels, it upheld SSNNL’s contentions and felt that circumstances existed whereby the dam height could be allowed to go up from 88m to 90m. For each stage of subsequent elevation up to the design height prior approval of designated authorities would have to be sought, including approval for resettlement and rehabilitation action.

Initial opposition to the dam’s design height of 138.68m came from one of the riparian states – Madhya Pradesh. The reason was that it stood to gain less from the project: no extra irrigation, drinking water or flood protection. In addition it was only to get a 57% share in the 1450MW of electricity available, yet over 50% of the submerged area fell within its bounds. It thus pleaded that the dam height be reduced by 5.8m, so that about 10,117ha of land could be saved and about 38,000 less persons would be ousted. Madhya Pradesh government did realise that such a height reduction would reduce power capacity by 10-12%, but was prepared to cut its own power share by that amount. However, a curious turn of events led to a change in the government’s stance. In November 2000 a new state was carved out of Madhya Pradesh which took away much of the coal reserves and power generation of the undivided state. The government found that it was now a power-deficit state and could not afford to let go of any additional power generation capacity: it is no longer pressing its original objection to the dam height.

Water supplies

One of the proposed benefits of the project was the provision of drinking water to 135 urban areas and 8215 villages of Gujarat state which either had no or inadequate facilities. With the possibility of yet another drought looming and the Sardar Sarovar dam having already risen above 88m, Gujarat government has recently commissioned a portion of the main canal by lifting the water from Sardar Sarovar reservoir. Fifty-four centrifugal and 15 submersible pumps were deployed in the process to carry about 1000cusec of the river’s water over the first 144km phase of the canal which is already complete, thus benefiting rural and suburban habitats along the canal. Politically this is not only a shrewd move but is also meant to silence the critics. It will enable SSNNL to test the canal system by measuring siltation, transit loss of water, flow rate and leakage before the canal system receives its full load of 40,000 cusecs on completion of the project. The project authorities are also pushing ahead with the completion of the 1200MW river bed power house.

In its initial phase of campaigning, both within and outside India, NBA was quite successful in drawing the media and popular attention to its cause. During the early 1990s it even managed to persuade the World Bank to withdraw assistance from the project. It was NBA, along with others, which moved India’s Supreme Court in 1995 against continuation of work on the site and obtained an interim stay. However, NBA may have been taken by surprise when the Supreme Court, after a five-year legal battle, decided against the petitioners. NBA leaders, Medha Patkar and Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy, initially castigated the judgement. They also organised a big demonstration on the gates of the court. For their pains, the court slapped a second contempt-of-court notice on them (the first time around they were let off with a warning).

In deciding the case against NBA and others, the Supreme Court also expressed its own views on big dams in general. The court said in its judgment: ‘India has experience of over 40 years in the construction of dams. The experience does not show that construction of a large dam is not cost-effective or leads to ecological or environmental degradation. On the contrary, there has been ecological uprating with the construction of large dams.’ The court also stated that ‘the petitioner has not been able to point out a single instance where the construction of a dam has, on the whole, had an adverse environmental impact. On the contrary, the environment has improved’. The court cited certain domestic instances where dam-based hydro projects have improved the quality of life for local residents.

Reacting to this portion of the judgment, NBA leaders pointed out that in the court case the concept or utility of big dams per se was not an issue. For this reason, the court had disallowed NBA lawyers from citing the experience of other big dams in India and elsewhere. NBA did not get the chance to rebut the points mentioned above. It felt that this portion of the judgment could be treated only as passing remarks by the court.

NBA was also handicapped by the fact that until the date of the judgment, the World Commission on Dams’ (WCD’s) report (of which the main NBA leader Medha Patkar was a commissioner) had not been released. The WCD report cites the merits and disadvantages of big dams and supporters of either view can use it in their favour.

The WCD report received only a sketchy mention in the Indian media after it was released in mid-November 2000. There had till now been no official reaction or public debate on its recommendations.

Nevertheless, with the backing of the Supreme Court judgment, work on Sardar Sarovar project resumed on 31 October 2000 (the birth anniversary of late Sardar Patel, the well-known freedom fighter and later India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, after whom the project is named).

In the mean time, NBA filed a review petition in the Supreme Court against its October 2000 judgement. It is pending at the time of writing.

It appears however, that NBA is getting used to the realities of Sardar Sarovar. In a statement issued on 26 March 2001, Patkar is now pleading for the height of the dam to be restricted to 90m, claiming that the recent provision of interim supplies of drinking water from the dam, had ‘vindicated’ NBA’s stand that the Narmada waters could be supplied to the population even at that height through hydraulic means. She further pleaded that water could be stored in small ponds along the command area, and so meet the purpose of the project. It would also save the state government the trouble of having to find resources to finance the increased elevation of the dam, and would avoid further submergence and displacement of oustees.

Seismic issues

In the past, a number of issues relating to seismicity have been raised by the dam opponents. They relate to both inducing earthquakes and to the effect of a quake. It has been pointed out that the Narmada Valley was known to be seismically active. The construction of large dams in such active zones was fraught with enormous risks.

In a supplementary affidavit filed in the Supreme Court in July 1997 by NBA and others, it was pointed out that an earthquake had occurred in the last decade with its epicentre 10km from the Bargi dam, upstream on Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh. The quake had caused heavy damage in the city of Jabalpur and the adjoining area. NBA said there was an urgent need for a seismic review of the Narmada Valley in view of opinions expressed by eminent scientists and experts, and the possibility of reservoir-induced seismicity.

The plea of the project authorities, as placed before the Supreme Court through a counter-affidavit by the state government, was that the latter had entrusted seismo-tectonic studies of the region around the Sardar Sarovar project to one of the best professional schools in the country: the Department of Earthquake Engineering at the University of Roorkee. These studies were reviewed by the dam design review panel of the project. It suggested that the maximum credible earthquake in the region could occur at a distance of 12km from the epicentre and with a magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter scale. The dam had been designed to safely withstand this without any adverse effect; and that has also accounted for seismicity due to pondage. Moreover, eight seismic stations had been installed on the periphery of the reservoir which constantly record tremors in the area. These data were classified and analysed so that the study of tectonic movements was constantly maintained.

SSNNL has stated: ‘The Sardar Sarovar dam design and sections have been evolved and analysed meticulously by competent experts and debated in expert panels consisting of renowned and experienced professionals. All safety requirements are ensured as per the requirements. Fears about adequacy of the dam design for a severe earthquake are thus ill-founded and should not cause concern to anybody.’

Gujarat earthquke

The issue again came to fore after the giant earthquake that hit Gujarat state and other parts of India on the morning of 26 January this year. With an intensity estimated between 6.9 and 7.5 on the Richter scale, it caused heavy damage to life and prosperity in Gujarat. Its epicentre was about 400km north of Sardar Sarovar dam.

In a way it served to test the strength of the latter. Both initial reports and later surveys showed that neither the main dam or any part of the project were damaged by the quake. This was confirmed by SSNNL in a written communication of 7 March 2001 to the author. It also stated that the latest completion schedule, approved just a fortnight before the quake had hit the region, would be adhered to.

The earthquake did move the federal government – but not regarding Sardar Sarovar. India’s Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee, mooted the possibility of another expert review of the safety of the 260.5m high Tehri dam in the Himalayas.

The much delayed Tehri dam is also in a highly seismic zone. Vigorously opposed by a section of the local population, the safety of Tehri dam has been assessed in the past by more than one federal-appointed expert committee. (Vajpayee’s suggestion has apparently not been followed up as the project company, Tehri Hydro Development Corp, was set to start filling up the project reservoir from 1 April 2001).

Referring to Vajpayee’s suggestion, Medha Patkar broke her silence about Narmada projects 16 days after the earthquake. In an article published in Delhi’s The Hindustan Times on 11 February 2001, she wrote: ‘Similarly, there have been doubts raised by experts on the feasibility of the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat, now that it is confirmed that the seismic zone here is prone to tremors and quakes of high intensity. That is why a re-think on this mega project involving so many dams is a rational demand, and not a cranky obsession resurrected by crazed eco-terrorists – as we are made out to be.’ Her demands have not yet been met.

Future steps

On 10 January this year, the Review Committee of the Narmada Control Authority met to take stock of construction progress at Sardar Sarovar and ratified the revised schedule for its completion. With this schedule the height of the dam will be raised from the present 90m to 100m by June 2002, to 110m by June 2003, to 121m by June 2004, and to a final elevation of 138.68m by June 2005. It has been stipulated that all resettlement and rehabilitation work should be completed six months before the raising of the height to a particular level, ie by December of 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 respectively. It has also been confirmed by SSNNL authorities that this schedule will remain unaltered despite the 26 January earthquake.

As a consequence of the Supreme Court judgement it appears clear that, barring some wholly-unforeseen development, the Sardar Sarovar dam and project will be completed – sooner rather than later. However both Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh state governments need to take steps to ensure the approval of relevant authorities, and to smooth the progress of future project construction on the Narmada. Such steps could include:

• Greater attention to the ecological effects of a project on the Narmada covering the catchment area, afforestation, effects on wildlife, fisheries and on public health. Appropriate measures to counter these effects would have to be undertaken.

• The seismicity of the project would have to be carefully determined through credible studies and monitored regularly.

• Rehabilitation and resettlement plans have to be formulated in accordance with specific guidelines and in the light of experience gained from Sardar Sarovar.

• The economic feasibility and the cost-benefit ratio of the project would have to satisfy a whole range of authorities: federal and state governments, experts, NGOs and consumer groups (for power tariffs).

• A greater transparency (and accountability) in the various processes needs to be ensured. The grievance-redressal machinery would have to be active and efficient.

The State Governments involved in the Sardar Sarovar project will also do well to resume efforts to reach a modus vivendi with NBA and allied groups. The Supreme Court has already suggested that the latter works with the project authorities (and not as an adversary). Recent events are an encouraging sign that NBA is moving in that direction but local opposition can still erupt at a project site at a moment’s notice. To tackle this the concerned state government needs to show a stronger political will.
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Construction complete at Sardar Sarovar


…with K C Kapoor, managing director, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam
We are now over the major hurdle to construction. Sardar Sarovar will start paying off the rich dividend for the effort and investment made in this project over a long period of time.

As far as progress at the dam site is concerned excavation is 99% and concreting 86% complete. The canal head power house is completed and the river bed power house is at an advanced stage. The canal works are being carried out in a phased manner so as to flow the water availing the height of the dam at a specific stage.

Funding for the project will come from multiple sources. Funds will be allocated by the state government through budgetary support: the government has always remained committed to the project.The share of participatory states (Madhya Pradesh, Mahrashtrra and Rajasthan) is envisaged through the Narmada Dispute Control Authority. Private funds will also be sought.

SSNL has firm plans to complete this project as soon as possible. Given the clearance from the Supreme Court, as well as from the public, SSNL sees the realisation of the dream of the Sardar Sarovar life-line – not only to Gujarat but to western India as well.