Sardar Sarovar Dam Becomes a Reality, at Last

The Sardar Sarovar Dam has finally become a reality nearly 56 years after its foundation was laid. It was mired in controversies and faced stiff opposition from affected villagers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the plaque at Kevadia in Gujarat, thereby dedicating the mega project to the nation amidst chanting of vedic hymns on his 67th birthday on September 17.

The foundation stone of the dam, which could prove to be a boon for the people of the perenniallyparched areas of Gujarat like Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat and even few districts of Rajasthan, was laid on April 5, 1961 by first the country’s first prime minister Jawharlal Nehru. However, it took 56 years to finally complete its construction due to court cases and protests by the affected villagers.

The project was dogged by controversies and faced impediments from pro- and anti-dam activists, till finally the Supreme Court gave the nod for its construction in 2000. The dam on the river Narmada has been described as ‘Gujarat’s lifeline’ by the BJP leaders, as it aims to provide drinking water to 131 urban centres and 9,633 villages (53 per cent of total 18,144 villages of Gujarat) and irrigation facilities for 18.54 hectares of land covering 3,112 villages under 73 talukas in 15 districts. The delay in the completion of the dam was due to a variety of reasons. After its inauguration, there was a dispute between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh on the sharing of the water and electricity.

In 1964, to resolve the dispute over sharing of the Narmada water between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the Government of India had appointed an expert committee under the chairmanship of Dr A N Khosla, as per the website of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd. The Madhya Pradesh government was, however, not agreeable to the sharing of Narmada water as per Khosla Committee report and hence the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal was constituted in 1969, said the website. “The tribunal gave its final award in December 1979,” after which the construction was started in 1980, it said. But, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), led by activist Medha Patkar, soon launched an agitation against the dam and took the matter to the Supreme Court over environmental concerns and the rehabilitation of tribals from their dwellings as their lands were likely to be submerged in the dam water.

The NBA launched an aggressive agitation on the issue and also pursued the matter in the court. The Gujarat government promised in the court to give a robust rehabilitation package to those affected by the project, but the NBA would not accept that. In 1996, the Supreme Court stayed the project, further delaying the work on the dam. The apex court, on October 18, 2000, in a 2-1 majority judgement, allowed construction of the dam up to the height of 138 metres subject to completion of the rehabilitation process.

However, even after the court verdict, the construction of the dam faced many hurdles over rehabilitation issues. In response to the NBA, the pro-dam people of Gujarat also launched many agitations citing its benefits. Modi, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, sat on a 51-hour fast in 2006 as the UPA government had refused to give permission to raise the height of the dam citing incomplete rehabilitation work.

In just 17 days after becoming the prime minister in 2014, his government gave the final permission to raise the height of the dam to 138 metres and install the gates. The work on raising the height of the dam to 138.68 metres was recently completed, which will allow maximum ‘usable storage’ of 4.73 million acre feet of water. Apart from Gujarat, the Narmada canal will also irrigate 2,46,000 hectares of land in the desert districts of Barmer and Jalore of Rajasthan. The two hydel electricity generation plants at the dam have an installed capacity of 1,200 MW (river bed power house) and 250 MW (canal head power house).

The power generated from it would be shared by three states in which Madhya Pradesh will get 57 per cent, Maharashtra 27 per cent and Gujarat 16 per cent. The project intends to take water for drinking and irrigation purpose to the parched areas of Saurashtra, North Gujarat and Rajasthan by canal networks. The Narmada project is one of the 30 major, 135 medium and nearly 3,000 dams planned for full utilisation of the river’s waters, benefiting Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

The height of the Sardar Sarovar dam causes heartburn in Madhya Pradesh, where much of the incremental submergence takes place. Submergence displaces people, mostly poor, sinks cropped land and kills off wild fauna and flora. Yet, India must build large dams, to harness the monsoons’ bounty that drains away. Let’s not miss the big picture. The Sardar Sarovar is the last of India’s big dams as large dams are no longer hailed as modern-day temples. Sardar Sarovar Dam is a historical gift to the nation. Politics must be kept at bay

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