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Sardar Sarovar Dam Dispute: Waters of Discord

Sardar Sarovar Dam Dispute: Waters of Discord
The Sardar Sarovar Project/Photo: en.wikipedia.org
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Above: The Sardar Sarovar Project/Photo: en.wikipedia.org

The Congress government in Madhya Pradesh has dug its heels in over the Sardar Sarovar project and is refusing Gujarat’s plea to release more water to test the strength of the dam unless displaced people are rehabilitated

By Rakesh Dixit in Bhopal

For 15 years, Madhya Pradesh behaved like Gujarat’s obedient younger brother over sharing the Narmada water from the Sardar Sarovar Dam. With Narendra Modi as the Gujarat chief minister and then prime minister, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan could not summon enough courage to look into the plight of thousands of villagers who had been displaced due to additional water being released by it under pressure from Gujarat.

But now with a Congress government in power in Madhya Pradesh, political dynamics over water-sharing have changed. The Kamal Nath government has not only denied more water from the Narmada river to Gujarat as was set down by the Narmada Water Distribution Tribunal, but even sought monetary compensation for the loss suffered due to suspension of hydel power generation from the dam.

Peeved over “defiance” shown by the Madhya Pradesh government, Gujarat has accused Nath of playing politics over water.

Madhya Pradesh has sought the Union water resources ministry’s intervention to resolve the dispute arising from Gujarat’s pressure on it to release 4,000 million cubic metres (MCM) water for testing the gates of the dam. Madhya Pradesh has taken the stand that it has already released 1,600 MCM and cannot release more water. The Congress government has also complained to the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) in Delhi that Gujarat has flouted the 40-year-old Narmada Water Distribution Tribunal accord by denying it 57 percent share of the 1,200 MW power generated by the dam. Reeling under severe water crisis, Gujarat too has sought the intervention of the NCA, reiterating that it needs to store water during the monsoon to meet its drinking water and irrigation requirements.

The Narmada is deemed the lifeline of Gujarat as it caters to 80 percent of its drinking water and 45 percent of its irrigation needs. It is also critical for supplying water to parched Saurashtra.

In three letters to the NCA chairman, Madhya Pradesh Chief Secretary SR Mohanty has said that Gujarat has neither supplied power nor paid compensation in lieu of power as was agreed upon in the accord. As a result, the state government is forced to spend an additional Rs 229 crore to purchase power, the letters said.

However, Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel has clarified that as no hydel power was generated from the dam for the last two years, sharing electricity with MP was out of the question. Gujarat has contended that for testing the gates of the dam, it was essential that it be filled to its optimum level of 138.68 m. The water level has stood at about 124 m for over a week.

The Narmada Valley development minister of Madhya Pradesh, Surendra Baghel, told India Legal that releasing additional water for the dam was fraught with the grave risk of inundating 6,500 families in 76 villages in the catchment area. “Until and unless rehabilitation of the affected families is completed, additional water cannot be released,” he asserted. The state government is worried that relief and rehabilitation (R&R) of thousands of families affected by the project is pending, and if Gujarat fills the dam to its capacity, there would be further submergence of villages.

The dispute between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh escalated after the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) sought a nod from NCA to stop power generation in the Riverbed Powerhouse (RBPH) in order to fill the dam to its fullest level. There are two power houses for the Sardar Sarovar Project—a 1,200 MW River Bed Power House and a 250 MW Canal Head Power House. Power generated is shared between Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the ratio of 57:27:16, respectively.

While the Canal Head Power House releases water into the main canal of the dam after generation of power, the water used by the turbines of the RBPH is drained into the sea without being channelled for use. The RBPH has been shut down since June 2017 as Gujarat has been facing a rain deficit.

While the Sardar Sarovar reservoir filled up to 130.75 m in 2017, it reached just below 129 m in 2018. As the reservoir has not been filled to its Full Reservoir Level (FRL), it is impossible to test the dam’s thrust of full capacity. Engineers of the dam say this is essential as construction of the dam lasted close to five decades with a gap of several years. Filling the reservoir is possible only when the RBPH is closed as water used for generating hydro power cannot be reused.

The Madhya Pradesh government has raised an objection to the NCA’s consent to Gujarat to stop hydropower generation at the RBPH until the dam is filled to its FRL level. The NCA had convened a special inter-state meeting in April this year to discuss the issue and advised all states to do their bit for filling the Sardar Sarovar reservoir to its FRL.

After Gujarat suspended power generation, Madhya Pradesh is deprived of more than 700 MW of power every day. Gujarat has offered about Rs 250 crore to it for the loss of power. But Madhya Pradesh wants it to pay an additional Rs 229 core as “opportunity cost” as it was forced to purchase costly power from the market.

Baghel said: “Gujarat wants to create a crisis in Madhya Pradesh. But we will ensure that all the rights of Madhya Pradesh are safeguarded. All the rights of the people in the Narmada Valley, including those of farmers, will be protected.” The minister said that the erstwhile BJP government’s claim of completion of the R&R works was false. “We found that the ground reality is different.” Baghel belongs to Kukshi area in Dhar district where many villages are affected by the project.

Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) said that at least 16,000 people affected by the backwaters of the project are yet to be rehabilitated. According to the NBA estimates, R&R of more than 30,000 people is yet to be done. Petitions of thousands of families are pending with the Grievance Redressal Authority regarding compensation. Patkar has urged the MP government to ensure strict “regulation and monitoring” of the R&R work and to seek Rs 3,600 crore from Gujarat for refusing to give power from RBPH.

Though the issues of compensation for power and rehabilitation are yet to be resolved, Gujarat continues to store water in the dam, while Madhya Pradesh is against discharge of any additional water. Nath has indicated that the state will follow NCA guidelines in letter and spirit. In other words, it will give Gujarat only as much water as stipulated by NCA unlike the past when Madhya Pradesh released more water.

In 2018, Gujarat had mounted pressure on Chouhan to release more water. He was in a spot of trouble as assembly elections were due at the year-end and giving in to Gujarat’s demand could be political hara-kiri. After some dilly-dallying, he caved in despite poor rainfall, badly hitting irrigation. All dams on the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh—Bargi, Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar—were filled below capacity. When voluntary organisations and the Opposition raised objections to the state’s alleged capitulation, Chouhan indicated that as rehabilitation work of Project Affected Families (PAF) in Narmada’s upstream had been completed, there was nothing objectionable in meeting Gujarat’s demand.

In 2017, Gujarat had tested the dam’s capacity up to 131 m following consent from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the other states which are part of the Narmada water-sharing agreement. All three had BJP chief ministers then. Now the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh has dug its heels in and said it will not yield to Gujarat as claims about rehabilitation of the oustees are false. Baghel said that after the Congress took over, irregularities in the R&R process and gaps in funds given by the Gujarat government and the actual requirement were found. He said that Madhya Pradesh would seek more money from Gujarat after fresh survey of the oustees was over. Gujarat has contended that it has already paid Rs 400 crore upfront for the rehabilitation of PAF after the dam height was raised.

Rajiv Gupta, additional chief secretary, forest and environment, and managing director, SSNNL, reportedly said: “We got the permission to construct the dam up to FRL level and even closed the sluice gates only after consent of all three stakeholder states. There was no major issue then.”

If the rain deficit continues in Gujarat, the impasse over water sharing is unlikely to be resolved.

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