The Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project (SSP) is showing substantial benefits although it has not been implemented the way it was designed. Activist NGOs agitated against closing the gates of the dam because this would flood the backwaters as the reservoir fills up. Some politicians have already given this a political hue although Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath has maintained a dignified, studied silence.
This year, the onset of the kharif monsoon was delayed by over a month in Gujarat, causing much misery. Drinking water was scarce. The sown crop withered away and kharif area was at one time a tenth lower. By now the deficit is wiped out, but the losses are there in terms of non-preferred crops grown and loss of potential yield. The reservoir filling up has high socio-economic benefits.
Memories of the original (SSP) plan dim and a number of exciting new alternatives are visualised. In a water scarce area, the possibilities are many. Given the passage of time, redesigning the plan is of some importance. New crops are possible. Scarcities change. Gujarat and Indian agriculture is now trade dominated. Resource-based planning is important to keep us anchored. A more serious reason for this caution is the fact that central resources have been an important part of financing the project. Resource-based planning is the only way of accessing them. The conditions of central assistance for the project are still as set up 25 years ago when it was approved by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who, after he was convinced of its merits, became a great supporter of the project. These may need review.
Gujarat has correctly stated that after the reservoir fills up, if water is still flowing into the dam, the largest main canal of the world will be used to take water to Saurashtra and will fill up the many small dams in the plateau. This was modelled as a benefit of the project in the original blueprint of the SSP in 1984. It has been said that some of the unique features built into the planning of the project are "concrete-lined canals to reduce conveyance losses, use of control volume concept for design of distribution systems, efficient water-use allocation with optimised crop planning for 13 different agro-climatic zones of the command, extensive irrigation to a 1,80,000 ha area… deepening of village tanks for borrowing soil for canal embankments, computerised automated operation of canal system, participatory irrigation management through water users associations, and promoting micro-irrigation systems like drip and sprinkler for efficient water use."
The benefits of the SSP project will be more when this is done. Without it, the coverage of beneficiaries is less; we must issue the SCADA contracts so that the largest number of farmers benefit. Mathematical models have been developed using the services of Indian consulting firms for the command area at different time stages. These need to be used.
There is some urgency to getting back to the original design configuration of the SSP plan. As long as upstream use of Narmada waters was not according to MP’s full entitlements, Gujarat as the lower riverine state was entitled to all the water flowing down from the Sardar Sarovar Dam. This was more than the water which would be available as Gujarat’s share when MP uses all its share. The SSP plan had anticipated all this.
The SSP plan is not cast in stone. Planning is meant to be a flexible business in its best variants. However, in some of the great social decisions, pursuit of objectives with tenacity is also a virtue not to be scoffed at. It is quite obvious that completion of the SSP plan is of great priority.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 21, 2019 under the title ‘More than a dam’. The writer, a former Union minister, is an economist.