Defending the indefensible

NARMADA AND ENVIRONMENT: AN ASSESSMENT Y K Alagh, M Patha, and D T Buch Har-Anand Publications Rs 695

By Ashish Kothari
Published: Saturday 30 September 1995

The book claims to be a "counter-factual" rebuke to the critics of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). But both the claim and the title of the book are misleading.

First, in 5 short pages, the book devotes itself predominantly to the command areas and glosses over the submergence and downstream impact zones, and completely ignores the catchment and resettlement areas; which does no one any good, since the SSP has a substantial environmental impact in these regions.

Second, with the dubious help of a 1983 study carried out by the M S University, Vadodara, and of several subsequent studies, the book refutes the claim of critics that the SSP is being built without an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and an environmental management plan (EMP). Unfortunately, the university team has itself admitted that the assessment was preliminary; and that even several years after the construction began, many later studies remain incomplete, or still ongoing. Alagh et al state, in the foreword, that the "findings presented in the book are being utilised to frame out an integrated EMP".

The bulk of the book limits itself to environmental impacts in the command area. Here, critics have raised the spectre of largescale waterlogging and salinisation. The authors attempt to refute the criticism by pointing to a "revolutionary" new combination of drainage, conjunctive use of ground and surface irrigation, computerised monitoring of groundwater levels, irrigation management by farmers' organisations, restricted water supply, and strictly controlled cropping patterns. The problem with veracity is that the authors do not identify a single place in India where such a package has worked even on a pilot scale, let alone in the massive 2.1 million hectare command area of the SSP.

Other criticisms are also left hanging fire: that the budget allocation for drainage and conjunctive use is 1/6th of its estimated cost, says a study commissioned by the project authorities themselves; that the powerful big farmers of central Gujarat are likely to switch to lucrative sugarcane, which can cause extensive waterlogging and restrict water availability in the Kutch and Saurashtra canal reaches (not least because the state government is allowing several sugar mills to come up in the area); that there has been no "sensitivity analysis" of what will happen if any of the new measures fails.

In the command area, 3 wildlife sanctuaries are going to be affected: the Nal Sarovar wetland, the Rann of Kutch desert, and the Velavadar grassland. Full EIAs for these areas are still not available. Yet, for no good reason, the authors reach the unwarranted conclusion that any and every adverse impact can be taken care of. On the contrary, a recent study by the Wildlife Institute of India, commissioned by the project authorities, concludes that the canal network poses a major threat to the wild ass (a severely endangered species) which, ironically, is picturised on the book's jacket.

Wildlife has been given short shrift in the project, and this is reflected in the book; thus, the authors carelessly say that "sweet water flora may replace saline water fauna" , or report the presence in the command area of "wild goats" (found only in the Himalayas), "rabbits" (not found in India at all), and, of all things, the Green sea turtle!

The SSP's advocates are trying to defend the indefensible.

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