(published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. VII No. 4, October 1987; this is an uncorrected retyped version)
By Pallava Bagla and Ashish Kothari
The Narmada, “the charmer”, inspirer of saints Kabir, Kapil and Markandeya, is the lifeline to millions of tribals and peasants. The Narmada is also one of India’s largest west-flowing rivers, and certainly one of its prettiest. It is said that the maiden Narmada, fleeing the advances made by the male river, Son, was confronted by king Kartavirya with his thousand hands. Using her agility, the managed to slip through them at the spot now known as Sahastradhara. Today, the river faces a far greater challenge: an attempt to harness its awesome energy with the help of perhaps the world’s largest river valley project, the Narmada Valley Development Project. Aiming to convert the river’s flow into irrigation and power, the Project, in doing so, also threatens to destroy, forever, a unique and beautiful river system.
None of this was clear to us, a group of students belonging to the environmental groups Kalpavriksh and the Hindu College Nature Club of Delhi, when we began our work on the Narmada back in 1983. We undertook a long and enthralling trek through its valley, hence beginning an intense relationship with the river that some of us have maintained even to this day –a relationship that has made us realize, with growing pain, the injustice now being done to the river valley and its inhabitants, in the name of development.
In the summer of 1983, our group of five got off the train at Bharuch, north of Surat in Gujarat. Climbing down from this ancient port to the estuarine mouth of the Narmada river, we had only a vague notion of what we had set out to do. We basically wanted to get a feel of the river valley, its culture and its inhabitants, and in the process of doing so attempt to get a picture of what a large project would mean to all these. We had planned to visit some of the major dam sites and pilgrimage spots –at that time we weren’t even aware that Nehru had almost equated the two by calling dams India’s modern temples’!
Our very first steps along the river alerted us to one grim aspect of the Project. Our trek began along an estuary, one of the most productive of eco-systems, rendered immensely fertile by the nutrient deposition by the river, as well as the action of the sea’s tidal waves. What, we wondered, would happen to this fertile eco-system once the dams across the Narmada reduced the downstream flow and the nutrient load? Four years later, as we write this in late 1987, we are still wondering. For, like many of the potential ecological impacts of the Project, this fact remains unstudied.
The river valley and its people
We spent the first few days of our trek just savouring the physical and cultural environment of this river valley –enjoying its breathtaking and unspoilt beauty, conversing and staying with its people, walking through its fields and forests. As we did so, we recalled some of the descriptions we had read about while preparing for the trip.
Originating on the plateau of Amarkantak in the Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh, the Narmada river winds its 1,312 km. long course to the Arabian Sea through lovely forested hills, rich agricultural plains and narrow rocky gorges. Its waters are augmented by 41 major and countless minor tributaries. Its basin, bound on three sides by mountains ranges (the Satpura, Vindhya and Maikal ranges ) and on the fourth by the Arabian Sea, covers an area of nearly 0.1 million sq. km. Dry and moist deciduous forests cover (at least on paper!) almost one-third of this area, while black cotton soil agricultural lands cover about co per cent. The climate is warm and humid, the valley receiving a fairly high average annual rainfall of 1, 178 mm. We were ourselves blessed with rain on the very first day of the trek.
Walking alongside the river, we met up with several of the valley’s tribal and peasant inhabitants. Tribal groups like the Bhils, Gonds, and Baigas constitute a large portion of the more than 20 million population of the valley. The vast majority of this population practices settled farming, growing a variety of crops such as wheat, paddy, millets (mainly jowar and bajra), maize and pulses (mainly gram and tuar).
Amongst the many interesting conversations we had with the people, perhaps the most fascinating were those we had with the Parikramavasis. These are pilgrims out on a circumambulation, a parikrama, of the river. This ancient tradition originated by Rishi Markandeya, is so deeply ingrained in the culture of the valley that each of its inhabitants must undertake it at least once in a lifetime. The journey, at least 2,600 km. long, is arduous because of the often difficult terrain and the strict rules that govern it –one must travel only on foot, without any footwear, carry only the next meal and perhaps an extra cloth, observe chastity, not cut any hair or nails on the journey, eat no food cooked in oil and sleep only on the ground. Yet, these pilgrims are looked after by the villagers throughout their journey, and become an important link between the diverse communities and cultures spread all along the river. That link may well be permanently severed now. The huge reservoirs that will come up on the river as part of the Narmada Project will make it impossible to traverse this age-old route on foot. The parikrama will either have to be abandoned or its nature altered drastically. The parikrama is only one aspect of one of India’s most important rivers –culturally and religiously. (In fact, every stone found in its bed is said to be a Shiva-linga.) With great surprise we learnt that many consider the Narmada to be Hinduism’s most sacred river. Indeed, Ganga is said to visit this river every year as a coal-black cow to wash off her sins and return pure white. The Narmada is believed, by the devout, to have originated from the body of Shiva; Shiva-worship is dominant along its entire course. Millions of Hindu pilgrims visit the various pilgrimage spots that dot the river, the most frequented being Amarkantak, Omkareshwar, Mahaeshwar and Nemawar. Also situated here are important pilgrimage centres of other religions –the mosques of Mandu, the seat of several Mughal rulers; the awesome 84-foot-high statue of Bawan Gaja, Jainism’s first tirthankar at Barwani, and others. There are even sites of prehistoric human settlement in the valley, including the famous Bagh caves.
We got our first glimpse of the Narmada Valley Development Project when we reached the staff colony and site of the Sardar Sarovar dam. We had already read that this dam was only one of 30 major dams coming up in the valley. The Narmada Project is, in fact, one of the single largest river valley projects in the world. Its vital statistics are truly staggering. Apart from the 30 large dams (10 on the Narmada and 20 on its tributaries), 135 medium and 3,000 minor dams are envisaged. Of the major dams, two (the Tawa and Barna) have already been built on tributary rivers, while a third (Bargi) is nearing completion. Work on the construction of four more is ready to begin, of which two, the Sardar Sarovar and the Narmada Sagar Project, are currently at the centre of a controversy. The final cost of the whole Project as we learnt while talking to Project authorities, may well be over Rs. 250,000 million. The World Bank has been asked for financial aid. The date of completion of these dams is unclear. Though initial estimates put it at 22 years, this was later revised to 45. Now many officials admit that it may even take upto 100 years.
The expected benefits are equally breathtaking. The Project aims to irrigate nearly 0.5 million hectares of agricultural land and produce an installed power capacity of over 3,000 MW. Some 15 million people in villages, and many more in cities, are slated to benefit. In addition, the Project is expected to control floods, generate pisciculture in its reservoirs, provide employment to millions of people, supply water for domestic and industrial use, make facilities available for dairying, and promote tourism. In other words, a revolution of every colour –green (agricultural), grey (industrial), blue (fisheries) and white (dairying) –is the expected outcome of the Project. The message is clear –the Narmada Project will usher in an “era of prosperity” to the valley.
“An era of prosperity?”
As we proceeded on our trek we realized that this message of “prosperity” was seriously flawed. Already we had been alerted to some possible negative impacts of the Project, like its effect on the estuarine eco-system and on the parikarma, but these paled almost into insignificance in the face of that we subsequently came across. So disturbed were we by the time our journey ended, almost two months later, that we decided to make our concern public. We released a long report some time in early 1984, prepared jointly by Kalpavriksh and the Hindu College Nature Club. This report contained our arguments against the Project; unfortunately, it was perforce a rather general overview and did not contain much of the sort of solid evidence with which to prove our assertions. Three years later, however in between, we can now confidently state that every single one of our major arguments remains valid to date.
How long will the dams last?
One of the primary concerns we had expressed, in a report released subsequent to the trip, related to the catchment areas of the Narmada. It is now well accepted that the generation of benefits from a dam can be sustained over a long period only if the catchment forests of the river on which it stands are preserved. Cut these forests down, and the resultant erosion of soil into the river will quickly silt up the dam reservoir. Many a dam in India and other countries has had its lifespan cut short drastically because its catchment areas were allowed to deteriorate.
Many of the catchment areas of the Narmada are still lushly forested, but there is evident the unmistakable trend towards degradation. A multitude of factors have contributed to this: the voracious appetite of some of India’s largest paper mills situated in the valley, Madhya Pradesh’s huge wood-based industry, large-scale mining and agricultural expansion, firewood-collection and grazing. All these pressures are only likely to increase in future –in fact the Narmada Project itself will boost the industrial and urban demand for wood. The Project documents, however, predict a constant rate of siltation! They assert that this will remain so by keeping the catchment forests intact. How they plan to do this is extremely unclear. To their credit, and perhaps for the first time in India, the issue of catchment treatment has been looked into by a special committee. Headed by Dr. M.L. Dewan of the National Land Use and Conservation Board, this committee surveyed the catchment areas and drew up a Rs. 5,200 million scheme for the treatment of selected areas.
That such a committee was appointed at all is a commendable step and a sign of the fact that at least a portion of officialdom is treating this vital issue with the importance it deserves. The Dewan Committee report unfortunately, is based on what it itself calls, “Limited surveys and local knowledge,” because, “No specific surveys have been carried out to map areas of different erosion intensities, problems and needs for different treatments for checking soil erosion…” Moreover, it does not seem to take into account present and future demands on catchment forests from industries, urban areas and villagers. Thus it makes no recommendations on how to meet these demands to avoid the further deterioration of the catchment. There is, in fact, no mention of the various powerful vested interests which are today destroying these forests. To add to all this, the report recommends the closing of degraded catchment areas for treatment, but does not suggest how rural communities dependent on these areas will subsequently obtain their fuelwood, fodder and other necessities. Faced with such a situation, the villagers will either have to undergo tremendous hardship or else sabotage treatment efforts by forcibly continuing to use the closed areas.
More recently, the Department of Environment (DOE) at the Centre described as quite inadequate the existing plans for catchment treatment. It said, “Today we have an Intention Plan which can be converted into an Action Plan only on the basis of field survey date which is not available. Considering the accelerated deforestation during the last few years, the total area in the catchment needing treatment is sure to be much larger than that proposed by the Dewan Committee.”
Forever lost: the cost of submergence
Some of the loveliest portions of our trek were through the valley’s forests. Towards Gujarat these forests are
Fairly degraded, except in patches, but the dense teak forests of the Chandgarh and Punasa ranges in the central part of the valley, as well as the stately sal forests of the upper basin were an absolute delight. This feeling of delight was however mixed with a sense of sadness, for we knew that many of these areas would soon cease to be forests. They would instead make way for huge reservoirs, with perhaps only our foot-prints at the bottom.
The submergence area of the Narmada Project is colossal, though there seems to be no officials estimate of the exact extent. The only figures available are those provided by S. N. D. Tiwari, adviser to the Madhya Pradesh Environmental Planning and Coordination Organization (EPCO). According to him, some 0.35 million hectares (3,500sq. km.) of forests, and 0.20 million hectares (2,000 sq. km.) of agricultural land will be flooded when the dams impound the river waters. Also lost will be vast tracts of grazing and other, unclassified, land. The two major dams which are currently in focus –the Narmada Sagar Project and the Sardar Sarovar Project –will between them submerge about 130,000 hectares of which 54,000 hectares is forest land.
The loss of forests under submergence is perhaps the single greatest cost of the Project. In a country down to less than 10 per cent forest cover, any further large-scale loss of natural forests is bound to be viewed with hostility by environmentalists and foresters. Several forest officials whom we met on our trek and subsequently, made their displeasure at the submergence quite apparent. This is especially so in the case of the Narmada Sagar Project in Madhya Pradesh, which will inundate over 40, 000 hectares of forests, including some of Central India’s best trek forests. This aspect has been the Project’s major stumbling block, for the DOE has not taken a very kindly view of it. Under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 any diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes requires clearance from the central government. The state governments of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have been requesting clearance for several years now, but the DOE has raised objections. It was, in fact, only a few months ago that the Prime Minister rode roughshod over the DOE’s objections and gave the Narmada Sagar and Sardar Sarovar dams the green signal.
The Project authorities have valued forests solely in terms of their timbers, firewood and minor forest produce yield. Most of us are, in fact, accustomed to ignoring the much more vital products and functions of a forest: soil presentation, water replenishment, microclimatic stabilization, air purification and genetic storage and improvement. The Forest Research Institute at Dehradun estimates that these values amount to Rs. 1.7 million per tree over a 50- years period! And some benefits are not even quantifiable. For a tribal, for example, a forest is of great cultural and psychological importance and its destruction is a serious, disruptive event. Regarding the Narmada Sagar Project, in a recent note submitted to the Prime Minister, the DOE has said: “Even if one were to assume that the forests to be destroyed do not contain genetic resources… the simple loss of these forests would have an environmental cost estimated at several thousand crores of rupees as per norms developed by FRI. The environmental cost is thus colossal.” (emphasis ours). As per norms developed in recent years by the Government of India, any submergence of forests must be compensated for by afforestation over an equivalent area of non-forest land. If non-forest land is not available, twice the amount of degraded forest land should be afforested. Under sustained pressure from the Central Government, the states of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have demarcated land for this, for the Narmada Sagar Project and the Sardar Sarovar Project –a definite improvement over most past dam projects.
But a vexing question that has bothered us since 1983 remains: can the loss of a natural forest ever be truly compensated? A forest of the kind to be submerged by the Narmada Sagar Project contains perhaps hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals, interacting in complex webs, having evolved jointly over centuries. A ‘compensatory’ plantation can perforce contain only a minute fraction of this enormous diversity. And then again, there is always a tendency to plant species which are commercially beneficial. Indeed, the Narmada Sagar Project afforestation plan recommends the planting of certain exotic species for commercial use. Under such circumstance, ‘compensatory afforestation’ is only a very partial response, the natural forest lost in submergence remains irreplaceable. Yet nowhere do we see this fact being admitted, much less its loss evaluated. Indeed, we find it amazing that even the DOE accepts ‘compensatory afforestation’ as adequate compensation for natural forest loss.
The loss of wildlife
Late in 1983, following our trip, we managed to gain access to some documents regarding the Sardar Sarovar Project. One of these was the response sent by the dam authorities to a questionnaire sent to it by the DOE. In an answer to one query, the authorities has said: “At present there is no wildlife in the reservoir area of the proposed Sardar Sarovar dam and its vicinity.” Similarly, the Detailed Project Report (1982) of the Narmada Sagar Project claimed that the, “Impact of the Project on wildlife shall be nil, since wildlife has got natural characteristics of shifting to nearby jungles whenever it is felt suitable for them.” Both these statements seemed to us to be indicative of the short shrift that wild plants and animals are likely to get under the Narmada Project.
The Sardar Sarovar submergence zone does indeed have very few large mammals felt, if this is what its authorities mean by there being “no wildlife”. But surely wildlife is not just tigers and deer? What about wild plants and insects and reptiles and amphibians and birds? Having walked through these forests, we are sure that there must be thousands of species of all these. So how is it possible for the dam authorities to dismiss the whole issue in just one sentence? Yet they continue to do so –indeed in the more recent Workplan on Forests and Wildlife produced by the Sardar Sarovar authorities, there is no mention even of the word wildlife, except on the cover, much less a strategy for saving it!
The Narmada Sagar story is somewhat different. In the words of the DOE: “The forest area especially affected by the Narmada Sagar Project represents areas harbouring a rich heritage of genetic resources as well as wildlife.” Preliminary observations in the area indicate the presence of several rare or endangered mammals like the wolf, tiger, panther, bear, caracal, pangolin and hyena –all conspicuous species that cannot be wished away.
In their 1982 Detailed Project Report, the Narmada Sagar Project authorities dismissed the wildlife aspect by stating that is will, “relocate itself”. They have stuck to this theory for that part of the submergence zone’s wildlife which lies to the north, for here there are contiguous forests to which the animals can migrate. There is even a plan to convert these forests into a sanctuary. To the south, however, the nearest suitable forests are 40 to 100 km. away, with agricultural fields in between. Well, believe it or not, the Narmada Sagar Project authorities plan to have ‘squads’ of trained staff to drive the animals through these fields into the forests 40km. or more away. Nobody has yet worked out the feasibility of this method.
And what about the wildlife that is tied down to its localized habitat and cannot be expected to “relocate itself” or be ‘driven to relocation’? The animals will simply be left to perish, unless translocated, one by one. The translocation of millions of creatures is way beyond our capacities. This only magnifies our fear of the inevitable and large-scale loss of wildlife.
As alarming as this loss will be, is the fact that we do not yet even know what we are going to lose. To date there is no detailed listing of the flora and fauna in the submergence areas of the Narmada Sagar and Sardar Sarovar projects. Studies on this (and on other aspects of wildlife displacement) have been initiated, but will take a few years to complete. As the DOE note says, “Under the circumstances, it is not possible to assess the impact of the loss of habitat on the wildlife, and the overall loss of biological diversity and genetic reserves.”
This highlights one of the most objectionable aspects of the Project –if no one is yet in a position to evaluate the impact of the Project on wildlife (and in general on the environment as we shall point out) then on what basis has the Prime Minister given it clearance? This is a crucial point and we shall come back to it.
Displacement: the human cost
The network of reservoirs to come up under the Narmada Project will inevitably result in the submergence of villages and towns, and consequently the displacement of people. According to the National Institute of Urban Affairs, about one million people will be ousted by the Project as a whole, a mind-boggling figure! The basis for this estimate is unclear, for there seem to be no official figures on this. Official estimates for the Narmada Sagar Project and the Sardar Sarovar Project do however exist, and these indicate that the one million figure may well be an underestimate. The Narmada Sagar Project and the Sardar Sarovar Project will together affect nearly 0.2 million people, whose displacement will take place over the next 10 to 15 years.
As in the case of catchment treatment and compensatory afforestation, the Narmada Project has taken a vital step forward in the issue of the rehabilitation of those displaced. Indeed the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal set up to decide the share of each state in the river’s waters, put forward a set of directives on rehabilitation in 1979. Perhaps, the most crucial of these was that those oustees losing at least 25 per cent of their land under submergence must be allotted as much land as is lost, with a minimum of five ac res. In addition, resettlement grants, civic amenities in the rehabilitation villages and other such support was to be provided to each oustee. Though these directives referred only to people in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra being displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project, they also became the model for policies relating to the oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat and of the Narmada Sagar Projcet in Madhya Pradesh.
Unfortunately, what is guaranteed on paper does not necessarily get translated into practice. In fact, the history of the displacement of several villages in the Sardar Sarovar Project area shows great reluctance on the part of the Gujarat government to follow the Tribunal’s directives properly. There have been delays in identifying land for resettlement, and many plots identified have been infertile or too far away and are thus rejected by the oustees. As a consequence , many of the people displaced so far have received cash compensation instead of land. A report by anthropologist, Thayer Scudder, written for the World Bank (which has cleared substantial aid for the Sardar Sarovar Project) notes: “Cash compensation usually results in lower living standards and reduced quality of life among the large majority of relocates.” This is due to several reasons, all of which have manifested themselves in the Narmada case. For instance, assets held by oustees are generally undervalued while the value of assets in adjoining areas where rehabilitation is to take place gets inflated. At the time of our trek, oustees of Gujarat were being offered Rs. 3,200 per acre as compensation, while land of equivalent quality elsewhere was available at a minimum of Rs. 6,000 per acre. Cash compensation also exposes oustees to the exploitative practices of many landowners and middlemen. Then again, it becomes impossible to relocate people into planned villages, as directed by the Tribunal –families get scattered trying to acquire enough land individually. It has thus not been possible, in many cases, to provide the amenities promised by the Tribunal. Scudder noted in 1984 that due to these and other reasons, “The odds are high that the majority of (Sardar Sarovar’s) oustees will be worse off following removal.” Also, over 75 per cent of the oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Project, and one-fifth of the Narmada Sagar Project are tribal. For them, the outcome of displacement is not just economic; the break from a closely-knit physical and social environment can also be culturally and psychologically traumatic.
Various other problems have plagued rehabilitation efforts, some of which were related to serious deficiencies in the Tribunal’s directives themselves. These directives, for instance, made no provision for the landless. They said nothing about land being tilled for generations by tribals but for which they had no title-deeds as it was technically government-owned land. The Gujarat government initially refused to compensate for the loss of such land, which would have meant that thousands of tribals would have lost their means of earning a livelihood. Then again, the Tribunal made no provision for fuel and fodder at the resettlement sites –we distinctly remember several oustees complaining of the fact that since they had been resettled in non-forested areas, they had to walk several kilometers to satisfy their daily fuel-fodder needs. More recently, it has been reported that the Sardar Sarovar Project oustees of Maharashtra have returned home from their resettlement sites in Gujarat, finding the land infertile and water scarce.
Of late, the Gujarat government has made substantial improvements both in its rehabilitation policy as well as in the administrative set-up handling resettlement. For instance, compensation will be given for non-patta lands cultivated by the oustees, and the rate of compensation will be adjusted to offset the inflated costs of land in the resettlement areas. It is, however, pertinent to note that these changes have come about primarily due to sustained pressure put on the government and the World Bank by the oustees and certain social activist organisations working with the oustees. This pressure has taken the form of petitions to authorities, demonstrations, the refusal to vacate land till demands are met and even a long-drawn-out litigation in the Supreme Court, filed by Chhattra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini and the oustees.
As regards the Narmada Sagar, the picture seems far more bleak. In general, the Madhya Pradesh government has modeled its rehabilitation policy on Gujarat’s. But in 1984, S.C. Verma, Chairman of Madhya Pradesh’s Narmada Valley Development Authority, admitted that there was not enough government land available to apply the policy of ‘land for land’. In such a situation, he said, cash compensation will be given and it will be necessary to “Motivate and mentally prepare the oustee families to take a vocation other than agriculture.”
In its recent note, the DOE has expressed reserved satisfaction over resettlement plans for the Sardar Sarovar Project. But for the Narmada Sagar Project, it has noted that the total land required for the rehabilitation of all the oustees has not yet been identified; that which has been identified is reported to be, “Severely eroded and gullied, infertile…. Suffering from general scarcity of water.” We would honestly like to give as much credit as is due to the Project authorities, but one cannot help but get the feeling that the oustees of the Narmada Project are likely to face a traumatic and uncertain future. This especially so for the tribals who will be thrown into an unfamiliar urban or semi-urban market-dominated, exploitative system. To top it all, this is what the former rehabilitation officer of the Sardar Sarovar Project had to say about this when we met him in 1983: “They (the tribal oustees) are in a jungle state; we are bringing them into civilization.” Are not we simply leading them to large city slums? Should not the local people be consulted in the planning process? Is it only people sitting in ‘air-conditioned’ offices who have the right to decide the future of millions of people?
And what of the benefits?
The social and environmental costs of the Narmada Project are enormous. On the face of it, the expected benefits are also indeed very impressive, especially the irrigation of nearly 0-5 million hectares and the creation of about 3,000 MW.of installed power capacity.
A closer look, however, at the expected benefits from the Narmada Sagar and the Sardar Sarovar dams shows that the picture is not so rosy. There is firstly the question of whether such targets will be achieved at all. The Tawa dam in Madhya Pradesh, the first major dam to be built in the Narmada valley, was commissioned over 10 years back. Yet one-third of its projected irrigation potential remains unutilized, and the delay has already increased its cost by 500 per cent. Similar delays and shortfalls in achieving targets have been reported from almost every major dam in India. This is partly because once the dam, and perhaps the main canal, are built there is no great enthusiasm to finish laying the canal network, do the land leveling and carry out other such tasks necessary for irrigation, especially so if the cost escalation has already exceeded the original budgeted allotments. There is no reason to believe that the Narmada dams will be any different. As for power, the figures given for installed capacity often submerge the estimates of firm power generation –thus for the Narmada Sagar Project, the firm power output is only 223 MW., out of the 1,000 MW. Capacity, and this too will decrease to 118 MW. Once its full irrigation potential is reached. Figures for the Sardar Sarovar Project are similar.
There is a darker side to irrigation that is even more worrying –waterlogging and salinity. The true implications of this problem hit us only when, mid-way through the treak, we visited some villages in the Hoshangabad district, part of the Tawa dam’s command area; for a large number of farmers, the dam’s irrigation has proved to be a curse rather than blessing. Seepage from unlined canals has, over the last decade, turned large areas (exact extent not known) into waterlogged, unproductive land. In 1981, the Author-General of India reported that according to the State Land Record Commissioner, there had been a decline in the yield of every major crop in the Hoshangabad district after dam was commissioned. Large-scale waterlogging in the Barna dam command area in the northern part of the valley, has also recently been reported.
Waterlogging is not a surprising outcome of irrigation in a valley with predominantly black cotton soils, for such soils are extremely water-retentive. Indeed, various agricultural experts over the last century or so have warned specifically against large-scale surface irrigation in the Narmada valley. And, more recently, a detailed study conducted by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, concluded that over two-fifths of the command area of the Narmada Sagar and Omkareshwar projects could get waterlogged. This could mean the ruin of over 0.1 million hectares of land! The Indian Institute of Science has suggested methods of reducing this impact, including extensive ground water pumping and the conjunctive use of ground and surface water. An independent estimate puts the power required for this at 45 MW., be generated by the Narmada Sagar Project. In any case the original cost-benefit figures of the Narmada Sagar Project dam contain no provision for anti-waterlogging measures, though Project authorities have now agreed to adapt them. The problem of waterlogging might be smaller in the case of the Sardar Sarovar Project, both because much of its huge command area is fairly dry and the water quantity to be used per hectare is reportedly much less than in the other dams.
But detailed studies of the waterlogging potential are available for only a small portion of the Sardar Sarovar Project command area, and it is not yet known as to what the impact on the rest of the area could be. Massive irrigation in dry areas can also cause serious salinity problems because of the high rate of evaporation of irrigation water, resulting in salt encrustations on the top soil. The fact that this seems to be inadequately assessed brings us to what is perhaps the most crucial point in our critique of the Narmada Project.
Benefit vs. cost: which is greater?
It seems common sense to us that a development project can be justified only if a thorough evaluation finds its benefits to be greater than its costs. This is all the more important for so massive a project as the Narmada dams, and one whose costs are so inevitable and benefits so tentative. But no such comprehensive evaluation of the Narmada Project is available. And such an evaluation cannot be, for two reasons: one, that many of the Project’s environmental and social costs have not been considered ‘legitimate’ costs at all; second, that the date base on which a satisfactory evaluation could be done, just does not exist.
The second point first. In, we had highlighted the fact that no listing of flora and fauna found in the submergence zones of the Narmada Sagar Project and the Sardar Sarovar Project existed. This is still the case –work on this has been commissioned but is unlikely to be finished before the year1989. There has been, as far as we know, no study conducted on the impact of the dams on the aquatic eco-system of the river. What has been done is a study on the impact on commercially used fish, as if these were the only inhabitants of the river. The environmental consequences of the displacement and relocation of large numbers of people and livestock are amongst the many factors which have just not been studied.
It is true that both the Narmada Sagar Project and the Sardar Sarovar Project have had an ‘environmental impact assessment’ EIA done for them. But both these, by their own admissions, are very preliminary in nature. The EIA for the Narmada Sagar, done by the Madhya Pradesh Environmental Planning and Coordination Organization, admits being based on ‘secondary date’ which was at times ‘contradictory’, and contains conclusions that have come out of a ‘desk exercise’ and ‘intuitive judgement’. Similarly, the EIA for the Sardar Sarovar by the MS University, Baroda, is based partly on outdated information and cursorily collected date, as it itself acknowledges. Subsequent studies on specific environmental issues like waterlogging, are incomplete. A study by Shekhar Singh of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi, reveals that of the 30-odd environmental issues to be studied, only about five have been adequately dealt with.
Linked to the issue of an inadequate date base is the fact that project planning in general, and of the Narmada dams in particular, just does not take into account a number of environmental and social factors. Thus the ecological losses caused by forest submergence, valued by the DOE at, “Several thousand crores of rupees,” have been completely ignored. So too the social costs of displacement, the cultural costs of the disruption of the parikarma, the inevitable loss of wildlife.
Indeed, the very cost-benefit analysis on which the Narmada dams have obtained financial clearance from the Planning Commission is suspect. Even at an early stage in our study we were able to detect serious distortions in the way the B-C ratio had been worked out, and several engineers admitted in private that benefits were always exaggerated and costs underplayed to make the projects look not only viable out positively desirable. We have already cited examples of this: sustained benefits from irrigation were fully included in the B-C ratio, but the costs of catchment treatment and anti-waterlogging measures were completely excluded.
In a recent study of the official B-C analysis presented for the Narmada Sagar Project and the Sardar Sarovar Project. Ramesh Billorey and Claude Alvares have shown how the B-C ratios have been periodically altered to maintain their healthy look. The most recent such attempt seems to have been to counter the DOE’s new estimates of environmental loss. The DOE valued this loss at a colossal Rs. 300,000 million for the Narmada Sagar Project and Rs. 100,000 million for the Sardar Sarovar Project. These figures would have completely ruined the B-C ratios resented earlier, so the Project authorities modified their ratios. Billorey and Alvares claim that many benefits are shown twice over, and that a number of irrelevant issues have been accorded huge values, e.g. Rs. 170,00 million as, “Saving in various costs because they have a hydel instead of thermal plant.” This and other modifications have ensured that the B-C ratio remains at least 1.5 (i.e. a return of Rs. 1.50 for an expenditure of Rs.1.00).
Billory and Alvares have come up with their own B-C ratios which are startling. We are not yet aware of their detailed arguments or their methods, but if they are to be believed, the B-C ratio of the Narmada Sagar Project is 0.17, and that of the Sardar Sarovar Project, 0.38. In other words, these dams are financially unviable, a drain on the economy.
Even if these figures are not accepted, there remains one inescapable conclusion: the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat can with no justification claim these dams to be beneficial. This has just not been established. As the DOE said in the late 1986, “In an objective sense, the Narmada Sagar Project is not ready for clearance from an environmental angle. Even though the Sardar Sarovar Projecat is in a fairly advanced stage of preparedness, it is neither desirable nor recommended that the Sardar Sarovar Project should be given approval in isolation, on technical and other grounds.”
The DOE report submitted to the Prime Minister, however, ended on an ambiguous note. It allowed for the possibility of the Narmada Sagar Project and the Sardar Sarovar Project being cleared if a Narmada Management Authority was set up, with to halt work on the dams if environmental measures were not proceeding on schedule. The Central Government has now agreed to do this. It seems to us inconceivable, however, that any authority will ever stop the dams once construction commences and large sums of money are spent. ‘Conditional clearance’, as it has been termed, is as good as ‘final clearance’ in this case.
What form to development?
Quite naturally, the Narmada Project raises a host of more general question, especially those on the nature of the development process it represents. Must development necessarily entail violence –violence on people and on nature? Are such ‘trade-offs’ in evitable? And how long can we go on destroying forests and uprooting people without annihilating the physical and social base of our society?
We do not claim to have the answers to these question, or to the more specific problems of providing water to the drought-affected area of the Narmada valley. We can only argue against the unquestioning acceptance of the Narmada Project-type development process, and urge for a closer, deeper look at alternative processes. For any development project taken at present, let us at least make sure that we make ourselves aware of all its implications, positive and negative, so that we choose with wisdom. It is this wise choice that environmentalists are asking for, not a stop to all development.