The Narmada Issue: An Overview


The Narmada Valley Project (NVP) is made up of plans for 30 major, 136 medium and 3,000 minor dams in India. In Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) in the state of Gujarat and the Narmada Sagar Project (NSP) in the state of Madhya Pradesh are, at present, the NVP's major constituents. Estimates show that the cost of the whole project would be around US $19 billion over the next 25 years. The present estimate for the NSP and the SSP is US $3 billion and $9 billion, respectively.

The state governments of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh claim that the SSP and the NSP would irrigate 1.9 million ha and 0.14 million ha of land and generate 1,450 megawatts (mw) and 1,000 mw of power, respectively. The hydroelectric power of the SSP would be shared by the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh; the irrigation benefits would accrue to the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. All irrigation and power benefits of the NSP would go only to Madhya Pradesh. Without the NSP, the SSP would not be able to achieve its full irrigation and power potential - it needs regulated water supply from upstream.

These projects had been treading water for many years for want of environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Recently, the Indian government gave clearance for the construction of the SSP in Gujarat and the NSP in Madhya Pradesh. But very few dispute the fact that the ecological impacts of these projects have not been properly studied.

Both environmentalists and social activists have raised serious questions about the projects. The studies done thus far have been found to be inadequate, or the follow-up actions to rectify the damages not up to the mark. The government of Gujarat commissioned a study of the projects carried out by the department of botany, M.S. University, Baroda, in just six months. The study did not take into consideration the seasonal temporal variations in the climate and many other important parameters. This study was commissioned only after the work on the project had begun. Moreover, much of the information in this study derives from government data, rather than from recent, independent, empirical data.

Similarly, the Environment Planning and Coordination Organization (EPCO), in Bhopal, carried out a study to assess the environmental impact of the NSP. This study is an almost worthless exercise; it is based on secondary data, which were at times found to be contradictory. Such a report can hardly be passed off as legitimate environmental research.

Other studies, conducted by Consulting Engineering Services Pvt. Ltd., in New Delhi, and the Indian Institute of Sciences, in Bangalore, can only be considered a piecemeal approach to the whole project, because they only examine one or two dams.

Submerging Forests and Agricultural Land

The Sardar Sarovar Project will submerge about 10,000 ha of forest land. The case of the Narmada Sagar Project is even worse: it will submerge 40,332 ha of forest land.

The forests to be submerged are basically teak, with excellent strands of bamboo and other woods. The only pure stand of anjun left in India is located in the Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh. Many of these species no longer naturally regenerate.

Although the Madhya Pradesh state policy guarantees that "for all forest areas submerged in the project, an equal area will be taken up under compensatory forestry," the same document also states that big chunks of land are not available in the districts close to the submergence area. The question then is: Where is all the land for afforestation going to come from?

An amount of US $238,000 has been allocated for the afforestation in Madhya Pradesh. A conservative estimate would allocate US $1,150 for replanting trees on one hectare of land, meaning that US $238,000 can be used to replant a mere 206 ha.

These projects will also flood a large amount of agricultural and grazing land. Most of the agricultural land, situated close to the river Narmada, is highly fertile and produces fine yields of wheat, jowar (barley) and cotton. The official document for the NSP says, "big chunks of cultivable land are not available in Khandwa, Khargone, Dhar, Jhabua, Dewas Hoshangabad and other districts...In these circumstances the only course left is to allot the affected families small bits of government land available in the nearby districts of the submergence area." This policy would lead to serious sociocultural disruption in the life of the area's residents. A report carried out by National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), in New Delhi, mentions that adequate areas in every district would be available for the residents. However, the project authorities have made no serious attempt to find cultivable land for the residents.

Loss of Wildlife

The project report of the NSP states, "the impact of the project on the wildlife shall be nil. Since wildlife has got natural characteristics of shifting to nearby jungles wherever it is felt unsuitable to them." In other words, the wildlife will relocate itself. Similarly, the policy document prepared by the government of Madhya Pradesh says, "wildlife in submerged forests will be guided to adjacent localities. Protection of the wildlife will be the responsibility of the forest authorities." These statements not only contradict each other but also reflect the irresponsible attitude of the project authorities toward the fate of the area's wildlife, which consists of several rare and endangered species. To date, no one has taken an inventory of the species of plants and animals found in the forests; these studies have only just been commissioned.

Displacement and Rehabilitation

Both these projects will displace nearly 200,000 people from their homes. Officials sources state that, in the case of the SSP, 182 villages in Madhya Pradesh, 36 in Maharashtra and 19 in Gujarat will be under water, and the NSP will submerge an additional 254 villages in Madhya Pradesh. These figures, however, are incorrect, because they only include revenue villages, with no mention of forest villages. A recent field report by Multiple Action Research Group (MARG), a nongovernmental organization in New Delhi, mentions six forest villages of Tehsil Barwani (Dhar district, Madhya Pradesh) that will go under Sardar Sarovar's waters. Similarly, no attempt has been made to list those villages that will fall victim to the backwater effect.

Out of the more than 25,000 people affected by the SSP in Gujarat and Maharashtra, more than 90 percent of them are members of the Bhil and Tadavi tribes. Most of them are landless, and fall into two categories: traditional tribal cultivators with no land titles, and the real landless agricultural laborers found in many villages of Madhya Pradesh. For the forest-dwelling tribals, the most serious impact of displacement will be the separation from their natural surroundings. The forest and the river play central roles in their cultural and economic life; neither will be present at resettlement sites.

The families to be displaced by the SSP are to be rehabilitated through the directives of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. Although these directives are a marked improvement on past rehabilitation polices, they contain serious loopholes and omissions. First, the policy applies only to those resettled from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Second, only those families from whom more than 25 percent of their land holdings are acquired will be entitled to irrigable land, with a minimum of two hectares. The directives contain no mention of any resettlement and rehabilitation of forest dwellers, who eke out a living on common property resources. Most of the potential oustees of Madhya Pradesh are not aware of any of these directives, and, according to MARG's report, the directives have been misquoted by project officials.

In the case of Maharashtra Gujarat, the initial phase of resettlement and rehabilitation has been far from satisfactory. According to activist Medha Patkar, the land-for-land policy has largely failed in the state of Maharashtra, and in Gujarat, the state government has not bothered to find adequate land for the residents. Many people in Gujarat have complained that the lands sold to them came with heavy debts. Many others received lands which the same SSP was about to acquire for the construction of canals. In many cases, the cash compensation has been inadequate. According to a news report, the lands acquired in the village of Panchmuli, in Gujarat, were to be compensated at the rate of US $438 per acre; the villagers received only US $354 per acre. The resettlement sites do not have adequate drinking water supplies. To date, civic amenities like electricity, schools and panachayat ghar (town halls) have not been provided in one resettlement village, Suka.


Every year, a large portion of good, fertile land is rendered unproductive and barren by almost all the irrigation projects. The annual increase in soil salinity and waterlogging was as high as 50,999 ha and 27,000 in Ramganga project area in Uttar Pradesh. About 25 percent of the arable lands of Punjab and Haryana have been affected by waterlogging and soil salinity, too. The problem of waterlogging and soil salinity in the Narmada projects is expected to be serious because the command areas of the projects have largely black soils, which have very good water retention capacity. A study by Indian Institute of Science, in Bangalore, found that about 40 percent of the NSP's command area will become waterlogged unless stringent preventive measures are taken. Significantly, the cost of these measures does not figure in the original cost-benefit analysis for NSP-the analysis submitted for funding approval.

Catchment Area Treatment

There is no denying the fact that the catchment areas of the river Narmada are subject to heavy ecological degradation. If this is not properly checked, the increasing soil erosion will lead to salutation and sedimentation, thereby reducing the life span of the reservoirs. No comprehensive study has been commissioned on the existing state and future demands on the catchment forests in the Narmada Valley. However, an expert committee has looked into the matter for part of the area, and has suggested a US $38 million scheme to treat the catchment. As the Department of Environment report points out, however, this study was commissioned several years before the projects were sanctioned.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

A project is sanctioned by the planning commission only when the cost-benefit ratio is 1 to 1.5 - that is, for every rupee spent, there must be a return of at least Rs. 1.50. It has been found that this ratio is often distorted by exaggerating the benefits and underplaying the costs. Environmentalists have made the following points, among others, on the NSP and the SSP:

1. The costs of land acquisition have been underplayed.

2. The allocation of money for compensatory afforestation is inadequate and distorted. For the NSP, it is US $238,000 for afforestation of 40,332 ha. It is US $4 million for afforestation of 10,000 ha in the case of the SSP.

3. The value of the forest land has been calculated only in terms of commercial products. The analysis does not consider the loss of ecological benefits of forests.

4. The loss of wildlife is omitted from the cost-benefit analysis.

5. The cost of preventive measures for waterlogging is also omitted from the cost-benefit analysis.

6. Due to delays in the clearance of these projects, present costs of construction run much higher than anticipated.

Other Impacts

Environmentalists and social activists have anticipated many other negative impacts of these projects. Some of them are:

1. Seismicity - a hotly debated issue that seems to produce more confusion than clarity.

2. Contamination by pollution, pesticides and minerals.

3. Saltwater ingress at mouth of river due to reduced water flow.

4. Spread of waterborne diseases in the command area.

5. Impact on aquatic ecology.

On the basis of these serious inadequacies and distortions, we strongly demand that all the initial assumptions and ideas be reevaluated before pushing ahead with these projects.

The following steps should be taken to prove inadequacies and distortions in the existing assessments:

Independent Assessments:

Detailed sociological and anthropological studies on the existing sociocultural lifestyle of those to be relocated are desperately needed in order to assess the likely impact of the changes. Equally vital are studies on the environmental impacts of the projects. Independent cost-benefit analyses must be carried out to judge the feasibility and viability of these projects.

Public Awareness and Mass Media

The full utilization of communication techniques, including mass media, would help create widespread awareness and understanding of these issues. Exhibitions plays, film shows and publication of articles and books can bring awareness at many different levels.

Local People's Action

The people Maharashtra and Gujarat have been able to organized themselves to demand better rehabilitation with the help of Narmada Dharangrasht Samiti/SETU and Chattra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini. Little sign of this mobilization is evident among the people of Madhya Pradesh, however; out of the total 491 villages to be submerged (from the NSP and the SSP), 436 (more than 90 percent) are situated in Madhya Pradesh alone. Two local organizations in the state - Narmada Ghati Sangharsh Samiti, Harsude and Narmada Ghati Nav Nirman Samiti, Tavlai - are working in these areas, but the existing sociopolitical situation has not allowed these samitis (organizations) to organize the potential oustees.

Legislative Measures

Both the projects involve displacing nearly 200,000 people, many of whom make their livings from common property resources. There is no comprehensive resettlement and rehabilitation scheme for them in the directives and rules laid down thus far. A petition on behalf of these people can be filed under Article 21 of India's Constitution, which says, "no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law." A position proving the inadequacies and distortions in the existing assessments can also be filed in the court.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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