A monumental failure

The report on the Sardar Sarovar does not address crucial issues like water-saving technologies, lowering the dam height and reducing the size of the reservoir

By M N Buch
Published: Friday 31 July 1992

THE REPORT of the Independent Review (RIR) of the Sardar Sarovar was expected to look at Sardar Sarovar and other projects on the Narmada not only from the viewpoint of displacement and rehabilitation, but more holistically to see whether submergence itself could be reduced to manageable proportions. Instead, the committee has restricted itself to two issues only -- resettlement and rehabilitation, and environmental protection and compensatory afforestation.

This is a matter of great disappointment, especially because technologies are available to deliver water for irrigation much more efficiently than the present system of flood irrigation by canals. These alternative technologies would reduce water requirement by as much as two-thirds, prevent waterlogging and soil salination, and require a much smaller storage area.

If the reservoir size is reduced, Sardar Sarovar and all upstream dams would be much lower, and the area of submergence would be reduced to about a third of what is now being proposed. It follows from this that the displacement of people would also be brought down to easily manageable proportions. By refusing to comment on these issues, the Morse committee has done a disservice to India.

Page 21 of the report carries a quote from the Narmada Waters Dispute Tribunal Award which places the main burden of rehabilitation on Gujarat. However, the report finds that, "Gujarat is unlikely to aim at resettlement of a large proportion of oustees from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Even if land were available for relocation sites, rehabilitation and resettlement at these sites present major problems."

Oustees from Madhya Pradesh are likely to encroach on forest land rather than agree to disperse to distant places. There is no way in which the state can prevent such encroachment. The forests above the submergence line already provide for village nistar (traditional community rights) and, through encroachment and the additional nistar needs of the oustees, will come under even greater biotic pressure. These are the forests which are proposed for improvement through compensatory plantation. Forests under biotic pressure cannot be closed for the purpose of plantation and, therefore, the afforestation programme is likely to fail. The cumulative effect of displacement by Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Sagar is likely to be a further deforestation of about one lakh ha of good forest. The only way to avert this tragedy is to substantially reduce the submergence, which brings me back to my first point about technology of delivery of water and reduction of reservoir size.

A report which is monumental on account of the ground it fails to cover is also irrelevant because of the attitudes of the World Bank, the Indian government and the governments of the three affected states. Need more be said?

---M N Buch is the chairperson of the National Centre for Human Settlements and Environment, Bhopal.

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