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New book on Narmada is quiet on reports to decommand 4 lakh hectares

By Rajiv Shah
In sharp contrast to several water resources experts, such as Dr Tushaar Shah, who have long held that increase in groundwater levels witnessed in some parts of Gujarat has been caused by tens of thousands of checkdams built in the late 1990s, a just-published book, “The Sardar Sarovar Project: Assessing Economic and Social Impacts”, authored by an ex-bureaucrat and a senior expert, have insisted that this has taken place because of the availability of the Sardar Sarovar-supported canal network. The book has been coauthored by S Jagadeesan, who was managing-director of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) till about two years ago, and M Dinesh Kumar, executive director, Institute for Resource Analysis and Policy (IRAP), Hyderabad.
In a paper Dr Shah wrote in association with Ashok Gulati, Hemant P, Ganga Shreedhar, and RC Jain, “Secret of Gujarat’s Agrarian Miracle after 2000” (“Economic and Political Weekly”, December 26, 2009), the senior experts had stated, “Several exogenous factors have helped Gujarat’s exceptional agricultural growth performance after 1999-2000. Much of Gujarat – especially the drought-prone regions of Saurashtra, Kachchh and North Gujarat – have received above-normal rainfall during all these years.” This, the paper suggests, helped replenish checkdams across Gujarat.
The paper laments that the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), “called the lifeline of Gujarat… has been mired in controversies and disputes”, adding, Gujarat may have raised the Narmada dam height to 121.5 metres, and there is “enough water in the dam to irrigate 18 lakh hectares (ha) as originally planned”, yet “SSP irrigation development is stuck because of the slow pace of command area development.” It added, while the main and branch canals were nearly complete, “the government is facing major road blocks in acquiring land for creating the network of distributaries, minors and sub-minors.”
Despite this clearcut view expressed by the group led by Dr Shah, the book is singularly quiet about the whole controversy. This despite the fact that the authors claim that the book is the “first attempt (sic!) to mainly highlight the positive side of the SSP in order to generate a more informed debate”. There is reason to wonder why it does not bother even once to recall what these scholars had said and why. Worse, the years of study the authors have chosen, from 2004 to 2009, for justifying sharp replenishment of groundwater levels, were also the years when Gujarat received excellent rainfall. What was the impact of rainfall on groundwater levels, on one hand, and Gujarat agriculture, on the other, has also not been discussed.
Based on the choice of the years, the authors say, “There has been significant difference in groundwater behaviour in the designated command areas of the SSP between the two time periods, that is, pre-command and post-command.” The districts covered in the analysis are Banaskantha, Mehsana, Ahmedabad, Surendranagar, Vadodra, Bharuch and Kheda. They add, “Season-wise analysis shows that everywhere water level either started rising at a faster rate or got reversed from the lower trend (pre-Narmada) to the rising trend (post-Narmada).”
At the same time, the authors admit, at least in Kheda, which was a recipient of Narmada waters during this period, while in the pre-Narmada period water levels showed “significant rise at the rate of 4.34 metres per year”, in the post-Narmada period they “dropped significantly … to 1.53 metres per year”, suggesting Narmada had no impact in this Central Gujarat region. However, the authors give no reason as to why this happened. Yet, at one place, they go far as to declare that total dissolved solids (TDS) in Kheda district, despite groundwater levels falling, showed a positive, “sliding trend”!
The authors give SSP full mark for groundwater recharge for the period 2004-09, when the Narmada command area development had not even begun. Even they declare that, thanks to the waters available from Narmada, agriculture boomed, leading to a situation when the “net income increase” rose for such cash crops like cotton across all the locations taken up for analysis. The incomes, they say, relying official sources, increased to Rs 49,586 per hectare (ha) in the Panchmahals and Rs 94,279 per ha in Bharuch.
Is all this because of the Sardar Sarovar Project? One has only to read this in the backdrop of, Dr Shah’s paper, written in 2009, which points to how, as “against a target of 18 lakh ha”, the SSP was then being “irrigating only 80-100 thousand ha mostly in the Narmada, Bharuch and Vadodara districts”!
Despite this, the authors seek to insist, “Area under irrigation has increases substantially in all the selected locations after the introduction (sic!) of water by gravity through the Narmada canal system.” In fact, contradicting Dr Shah (as also government’s own reports of those days), the authors say, “With the introduction of water from the Narmada canal, farmers’ dependence on wells and water purchase has reduced. Well-irrigation has become non-existent in all the four selected locations which are receiving canal water by gravity.”
Even here, interestingly, they do not even seek to examine whether this could also be due to good rainfall!
What is even more shocking is, while the authors devote one full chapter on what they call “environmental externalities of the SSP”, pointing to huge “ecological benefits of introducing Narmada water”, at another point in the same chapter (“Social Benefits and Impact”), they declare rather loudly, that the book “does not attempt to relook at the ecological damage (loss of forest, wildlife, and biodiversity) due to reservoir submergence and canal work”! The strange declaration has been made even as pointing towards the need to “examine” whether there were any “negative impacts”, as anticipated, in the Narmada command area.
The refusal to have a look at the “ecological damage” because of the SSP comes even though sharp questions have continued to be raised by social activists led by Medha Patkar, on one hand, and the World Bank, on the other, on destruction of environment because of the Narmada reservoir at the dam site, and sharp increase in salinity levels along the riverbed downstream of the Narmada river, up to the Gulf of Khambhat, making agricultural lands arid, unirrigable.
Worse, the authors refuse to compare the districts they have chosen for their study with other districts which do not fall under the Narmada command, but where because of rainfall water levels went up in the second half of the 2000s. Even then, they proclaim, “The study did not intend to capture changes in the dynamics of farm economy in the neighbouring areas/ regions due to due to changes in agricultural practices.”
And last but not the least, the study – despite its loud-mouthed intention to “generate a more informed debate” – is quiet about the allegation being leveled by social activists and media reports about reported “efforts” by the Gujarat officialdom to decommand whopping 4 lakh ha of land out of 18 lakh ha of the Narmada command area in anticipation of industrialization and urbanization in the Narmada command area.
Interestingly, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), whose more than 40 per cent the area falls in Gujarat, overlaps the more than 500-km-long Narmada main canal. There is no discussion how this major change would impact, if at all, the whole Narmada command area.

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