General Elections 2019

Has the Narmada dream been oversold by Gujarat politicians?

The Narmada project continues to be an effective political tool that has been used by all the parties whenever polls come near

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Tuesday 26 March 2019

The Narmada canal project has been Gujarat’s dream for almost six decades now. It has been sold by the politicians as a magic wand that would end majority of the socio-economic problems of the state.

But now it appears that the dream was oversold, particularly by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — which has been in power in the state for more than two decades.

It continues to be a very effective political tool that has been used by all the parties whenever polls come near, knowing very well that the aspirations of the common people are connected with water, that they believe would address their drinking and irrigation needs.

There is no denying that the project has helped quench the thirst of millions, particularly those in the parched Saurashtra and North Gujarat that often experiences rain scarcity. But the wait continues for a large number of villages as far as irrigation needs are concerned.

There is also a second dimension to Narmada that often goes under reported and this is from the central and south Gujarat region where its estuary is located. An ecological crisis has set in, pushing the administration and authorities into a corner.

Starting from the second dimension, it needs to be pointed that the downstream water flow from the catchment in Madhya Pradesh has reduced considerably.

“This has been partially been on account of rain deficiency in the last two years, and Madhya Pradesh improving its own canal network and utilising that portion of the additional water that was earlier available for Gujarat. There is insufficient flow downstream although the government claims that it is maintaining the prescribed limit of 600 cusecs,” said an observer based in Bharuch.

“But what has been happening is that sea water is rushing upstream whenever there is high tide. It has been bringing along salinity ingress, that has led to fertile land getting destroyed and fishes perishing.”

He added that the phenomenon has also spelt doom for the industries in Bharuch and Ankleshwar which have often been accused of usurping Narmada water that could have been used for irrigation.

The borewells supplying water to industries have also been impacted by the salinity ingress and chemical units cannot accept the water with high chloride content.

Sources say that as a result the industry is experiencing a water cut of 20 to 45 per cent. They point out that even development of the Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemical Investment Region (PCPIR) has been impacted.

“Did you even hear the ‘C’ word (signifying chemical industry) at the recent Vibrant Gujarat Investor Summit? It is because the government is well aware of the problem. A desalination plant is being set up in the area to address the concerns, but it will be an expensive affair given the high turbidity of sea water,” the observer said.

He said the problem of potable water in the region has been addressed by tapping water from the Karjan canal and now people are getting supply from this canal as well as the borewells on Narmada bank.

“We want the government to get a scientific study done on how much downstream water flow is required to keep the ecology of the area alive. The e-flow movement across the globe calls for 20 per cent of the total flow of the river in the estuary area. The officials themselves accept that it has to be at least 1,500 cusecs in Narmada,” said Jayesh Patel of Narmada Pradushan Nivaran Samiti.

“The riparian rights of the population living on the banks have to be protected and only surplus water should be diverted elsewhere. The hilsa fish has almost vanished from the area apart from the salinity ingress,” he added.

Looking at the other aspect, it needs to be pointed that while the work on Sardar Sarovar Dam along with Narmada canal has been executed towards completion, the distribution network in terms of  minor and sub minor canals remains to be completed.

This along with scarcity in the water availability from the catchment is stalling the availability of water for irrigation purposes, although the drinking water concerns in parched Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat have largely been addressed. 

There have been reports in the recent past about Narmada facing an existential crisis as it has started facing dry spells along with its distributaries. In Gujarat, almost 4.5 crore of the total 6.5 crore population is reportedly dependent on Narmada waters.

Activists say that they are scared of the scenario when there is no Narmada water to feed Gujarat in the near future. They say that there has been no thought to an alternate water plan other than Narmada as it has served both political as physical needs till now.

“We are comfortable as far as drinking water is concerned but the scene is totally different when it comes to irrigation. Water being provided is only for irrigating 6,40,000 hectares while the promise is for 17,92,000 hectares,” said Sagar Rabari of Khedut Samaj.

“Except for a few odd years, Gujarat has been regularly getting its share of 9 million acre feet of water. By this count the farmers should have been getting irrigation water. Instead of debating the issue in terms of actual irrigation, people are being misled by coinage of terms like irrigation potential created,” he added.

He further said that there is also reluctance on part of the authorities in linking the minor canals to the branch and main canal as this would make water supply mandatory for irrigation. Rabari added that the issue of breaches in Narmada canal network needs to be probed.

The Narmada Control Authority (NCA) in its status report, filed in August 2018, said that the work on Narmada main canal is almost complete. It said that partial irrigation benefits are being achieved by releasing Narmada water from the Sardar Sarovar Dam since it has been raised up to 121.92 metres. It claimed that Gujarat government has created “irrigation potential” of 11.57 lakh hectares.

On the issue of preserving downstream environment, the report said that an integrated plan for environmental management is in progress and the government is ensuring a discharge of 600 cusecs for downstream from Godbole Gate for environmental flow requirements.  

Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel had told media in August last year that Narmada canal network will be fully commissioned by December 2019, after construction is completed on the remaining minor and sub-minor canals as well as the pipeline connecting farms.

Till July 2018, out of the total planned canal network of 71,748 kilometres, 59,878 km had been reportedly completed.

Now, it’s poll season and the heat is on once again with farmers — particularly in Bhavnagar, Botad, Surendranagar and Rajkot districts of Saurashtra and Kutch — seeking answers.

Sources say that officials have been trying to pacify them by releasing water from local dams and making further promises. This was the area that had mainly voted for the opposition in the last assembly polls. Water for irrigation will be an electoral issue in parts of rural Saurashtra and Kutch that have nine parliamentary constituencies out of 25 Lok Sabha seats.

The questions being asked is: why is the government moving ahead to set up a desalination plant in Jamnagar when the farmers were promised Narmada water for irrigation. The people are also questioning the claims of Gujarat being a ‘tanker less’ state while this is not the truth.

Gujarat is among the most urbanised states, with urbanisation of around 38 per cent. Sources say Narmada water is being supplied to more than 9,000 villages and 165 urban settlements for drinking purposes.

Similarly, sources say the issue of downstream ecology being impacted can have a bearing on voting in Narmada, Bharuch and a small part of Vadodara districts.

In the last two decades, Narmada waters and politics have been going hand in hand. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his earlier avatar as Gujarat chief minister used it as a potent political weapon, right from the 2002 state assembly polls when he ended his Gujarat Gaurav Yatra speeches with ‘Narmade Sarvade’ slogans.

Bringing in Narmada waters to the Sabarmati river front was another event that he had played up. The Narmada project assumed centre-stage in national politics once again when Modi went on a fast on the issue of releasing the dam height.

Passions were roused when Bollywood actor Amir Khan commented on the Narmada project and the release of his film Fanaa was stalled in the state. In fact, anyone raising the simplest of questions on Narmada project gets labeled as ‘anti Gujarat’.

Such is web of dreams that the politicians have spun among the masses. Nobody acknowledges the fact that the Narmada Bachao Andolan has been one of the most peaceful movements witnessed in the country.

Activists like Sagar Rabari had stirred the hornet’s nest when they accused the BJP of wasting Narmada waters ahead of 2017 assembly polls while knowing that there would be water scarcity in the coming summer months.

Allegations were also made that more water was being diverted to Madhya Pradesh that went to polls a few months ago. The assembly polls in these states also saw Narmada Yatras being undertaken by Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and Congress leader Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh.

Narmada will once again be part of the campaign narrative of political contenders for the Lok Sabha polls. But, this time it’s not expected to dictate the voting pattern.

“Our reach and resources are limited. Yet it has always been us and not the opposition that has put the governments on the defensive over the Narmada issues related to the common people, including farmers,” said Rabari.

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