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Gujarat govt "revives" controversial 2009 plan to lay down underground Narmada pipelines in command area

By Rajiv Shah
Rattled by its failure to take on hand the work to construct what are called “sub-minor” canals to take Narmada waters right up to the farmers’ fields, the Gujarat government is all set to revive its 2009 plan, devised by then Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) chairman NV Patel, who said an underground water pipeline grid network alone was the solution of the tangled problem. Patel’s view was rejected later by a high-level committee appointed by the state government, which dropped it like a hot potato, declaring it is not implementable. However, now the state government wants to once again return it to irrigation 18 lakh hectares (ha) of Narmada command.
A top Gujarat bureaucrat has told Counterview that, despite best efforts to complete rest of the canal network, its decision to construct sub-minors overground “cannot be implemented” because of two problems – one, it would mean huge amount of land acquisition cutting into farmers’ fields, which private contractors cannot tackle; and two, the plan to construct sub-minors through farmers’ water users’ associations has simply not taken off. Worse, the official conceded, whatever sub-minors that have been constructed in about 5 lakh ha in Central Gujarat are of “poor quality” and would require reconstruction.
The official said, “Narmada canals up to minors, that is, up to the mouth of the farmers’ fields, have already been constructed in about 40 per cent of the 18 lakh ha of land. Things have been happening on war footing. About 9 lakh ha of area would be covered by March-end. Farmers are picking up waters informally by sinking diesel pumps and laying down long pipelines. They are picking up all the Narmada waters free. In order to regularize the whole operation, we must lay down underground pipelines in place of sub-minors wherever farmers do not form water users’ associations. This would circumvent the problem of land acquisition.”
Significantly, the Gujarat government decided to drop the idea of laying down underground pipeline idea because it was found to be an “extremely costly affair”, as power would have to be used to push water through the pipeline. It was also suggested by the committee, formed on advice from Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s water resources advisor Babubhai Navlavala, that a large number of overhead tanks would have to be constructed to pump waters in them from the minors before pushing waters back into sub-minors.
All this happened in the backdrop of a 2011 study, co-sponsored by prestigious International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Colombo, and the Ratan Tata Trust, which strongly disputed the state government’s outright rejection of the ambitious plan to lay down underground pipelines to irrigate 18 lakh ha area in the Narmada command. The study found its place of prominence in a three-volume publication on Narmada, released by Modi on the World Water Day in March 2011. It was carried out by an experts team led by well-known water resources researcher Dr Tushaar Shah, senior fellow with IWMI.
The study said, one should not go in for surface irrigation as far as possible, pointing out that “in semi-arid climates with high wind speeds, surface storages and canal networks suffer from high non-beneficial evaporation.” Calling surface irrigation in western India a “vast evaporation pan”, it said, in North Gujarat and Kutch, “standing water exposed to sun loses two metres per year to evaporation”, and Sardar Sarovar project’s (SSP’s) 37,000 ha of reservoir and 20,000 ha of canals are “likely to lose 0.5-06 billion cubic metres (BCM) of water annually.”
Giving point-by-point refutal of the state-sponsored expert committee’s recommendation which led to official rejection of the pipeline idea, the study said, in case underground water pipeline is implemented, evaporation could be contained at least for the waters that are supposed to flow in the sub-minors. No doubt, it would mean an additional burden of Rs 20,000 crore on state coffers, but there have been several “success stories of pipeline irrigation” in southern US, Canada, Spain, North Gujarat and Maharashtra. Once implemented, it alone would take waters to the tail-enders and promote drip and sprinkler irrigation, apart from savings to villagers who are currently heavily dependent on “unauthorized” pipelines to draw water from the Narmada main canal.

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