New Internationalist

At the end of the line

Issue 336

The Sardar Sarovar Project is justified on the grounds that it will solve water scarcity in drought-stricken Gujarat. But will it? At journey’s end it seems most unlikely.

The canal leading from behind the Sardar Sarovar to take Narmada’s waters north into Gujarat is touted as the largest of its kind in the world. Viewed from the bridge at Undwa village, the canal is a vast unnatural concrete non-river stretching away into the distance. It goes on for 460 kilometres, up to the Rajasthan border.

This concrete extravaganza, like the Sardar Sarovar itself, has none of the beauty of the biblical wonder. Cracks and weeds have already appeared. How will this grandiose trunk waterway and all its dependent streams ever be maintained – let alone managed properly – over their 75,000 kilometre length? Many believe that Narmada water will never reach the end of the line.

The canals and the dam have cost the Gujarat Government a whopping 80 per cent of their irrigation budget over the past ten years. In the 2000-2001 annual plan, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) was allocated $811 million – half the state’s entire budget. So there is little for other water-related schemes. The expenditure is justified by talking up the SSP as the ‘lifeline of Gujarat’ – the only thing to redeem water scarcity in the remote districts of Saurashtra and Kutch. Yet no water can enter the canal by gravity until the dam reaches 110 metres.

The authorities have put millions of rupees into contractors’ pockets, plus created a speculators’ paradise in canal-side land and so far ended up with a vast, empty canal network. Meanwhile their poorest citizens are desperate for water – and angry. So they recently decided to pump water into the canal from the Sardar Sarovar reservoir, and with a great fanfare send it up to Saurashtra and Kutch. In April, the Mayor of Rajkot in the drought-stricken heart of Saurashtra described this as ‘a cruel joke’. The waters from Narmada are a trickle.

In Undwa village we call on Bhaijibhai. This elderly farmer belongs to one of 100 local families displaced to make way for the canal – and not given ‘project-affected’ status. ‘In 1979 the Collector sent a notice that our land would be taken. He said we would get a lot of benefits, that one family member would get a job. But until now no-one has a job. For a while we became labourers on the canal, and after this, nothing. From Khatedars [land-owners] we became day-labourers and paupers.’

‘We have applied, and struggled, and put up petitions to each and every officer. To no avail’

What about compensation for their land? ‘We were paid Rs 2,800 ($61) per acre in two instalments. Our family owned 19 acres with 17 in the canal path. Of the remaining two, one and a half were since taken for a branch canal. So now we have half an acre left.’ On this they grow food crops, fertilized from the manure of their remaining six cattle. Bhaiji has done better than some of the other families. Seven have absolutely no land left at all. ‘We have applied, and struggled, and tried to get replacement land. We have put up petitions to each and every officer. To no avail.’

In 1979 land cost Rs 6,000 an acre, so the Rs 2,800 they were given could not possibly purchase new land – especially as it came in instalments. Now land costs Rs 70,000 an acre. This inflation stems from speculation against the day when the waters flow. ‘Only the rich people along the sides of the canals will get water,’ says Bhaijibhai. ‘There will be bribes to get take-off. The engineer will be paid, the person who gives a license will be paid. What about the person who has lost all his land? All the Government has to do is to obey their rule to give one hectare to that person so that he can at least grow some food. But so far no-one has been given anything.’

Despite his venerability – he is in his late 70s – Bhaijibhai regularly takes part in Andolan activities. He has been as far as Mumbai and Delhi. He is unused to traffic and crowds and has sustained three accidents. ‘But I believe in the power of our Mother Narmada to save us from harm.’

The Narmada did not save Bhaiji’s mother or his wife. ‘Within seven months of losing our land, my mother died of a broken heart. My wife died three years later.’ Nor has the river saved other family members. ‘My own son and my nephews have gone to Baroda to find work on building sites. They have become daily labourers. This is what we are reduced to.’ For Bhaijibhai the loss of his pride, and his family’s pride, is the hardest thing to bear. The Narmada struggle has given meaning to the last years of his life. Will he live to see any retribution? That is another matter.

Illustration: Lucy Willis
Bhaijibhai Illustration: Lucy Willis

The dislocation of communities by the dam and canal in Gujarat has been going on for more than 20 years. But the first displacement took place nearly 20 years before that, at Kevadia, a town built to house project managers and staff.

In 1961 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to inaugurate the dam. The authorities needed a helicopter pad where he would land. So the people at the site were given Rs70 an acre, less than $2 in today’s values. Their crops were flattened. After the inauguration, buildings started springing up all over their land. They asked what was happening. They assumed the money was to compensate the loss of their crops for that season. No, they were told. This is our land now. The papers they had signed – and they were mostly illiterate – had forfeited their land in perpetuity.

The oustees at Kevadia have been with the Andolan since it first took up the struggle. But people from the earliest villages in Gujarat to be re-settled did not join initially. During the 1980s, with assistance from an NGO called ARCH-Vahini, they took the rehabilitation deal in good faith and tried to make a go of it. ARCH-Vahini was in favour of co-operation with the authorities and pushed them hard on the oustees’ behalf. Some did get good land. Many did not. ‘Housing’ often consisted of tin-sheet huts, cramped and cruelly hot. Many communities were fragmented in violation of state policy and faced all sorts of difficulties. In the early 1990s some gave up and tried to return home.

We visit a place called Washa. The tribal families here came from Vadgaon, the village right at the dam site, and were resettled 70 kilometres away at Malu. They have nothing good to say about Malu, which they have abandoned. Narmadaben, mother of five, tells us: ‘Life was impossible at Malu. The water was salty and useless. Our cattle died after drinking it, and the health of many women and children suffered. And the land was uncultivable, covered in stones.’ To make things worse, the local people at Malu were hostile. ‘Those people came and stole our silver and gold ornaments. They even took our grain to their own houses – the little grain we could harvest.’

LUCY WILLS
LUCY WILLS

So they applied for other land. ‘The officials created many problems – they wanted us to stay. But we could not.’ So they decided to return to Vadgaon, now semi-submerged. On the long journey back, the monsoon began. They happened to find some empty land, so they stopped and put up some shelter. But the landowner tried to throw them off. The police tried to force them back to Malu. They refused. ‘They treated us like rubbish to be thrown away.’ In the end, with reluctance, the Government mollified the landowner by purchasing the land.

They have been here for three years, but still they have no katar – title. ‘Every male adult with a birth certificate is entitled to land, according to the tribunal. But until today no husband or son of ours was given land.’ How do they live? They work as day labourers on local farms. ‘If on any day there is no work, there is no money, no food.’ They are now again thinking of going back to Vadgaon. They would rather die at home than carry on like this. ‘We see death as a friend.’

So many sacrifices for ‘the common good’, in aid of ‘the lifeline of Gujarat’ – the common boast of Gujarat politicians, and a desperate boast it may turn out to be. The justification for the SSP is that it will banish drought from Saurashtra, Kutch and Northern Gujarat. A glance at the map of the command area for the SSP shows that the main share of canal waters will flow to the already water-rich ‘golden corridor’ up to Ahmedabad. Sugar-cane plantations – incredibly water-thirsty – are being planned here. Out of a proposed 1.8 million irrigated hectares, only 37,000 are in Kutch, 1.6 per cent of the cultivable land. In Saurashtra, Narmada waters will reach 9.2 per cent of cultivable land. The earliest date at which this will happen is 2020. Even if it does happen, and the water is well-managed and equitably shared – all very big ‘ifs’ – what about everyone else in these drought-stricken districts?

No-one who is not a Gujarat politician and is capable of analysis of water scarcity in the state seriously believes that Narmada waters can solve its water problems. Even UNICEF – not an interested party – has pointed out in its recent Gujarat Water White Paper that Narmada waters can be no panacea. It takes only common sense to realize that for vulnerable Saurashtran and Kutchi communities to depend on politicians, bureaucrats and contractors to provide them reliably with adequate water from hundreds of miles away is crazy. It assumes an official competence, a dedicated will and a perennially abundant monsoon for there to be a cat’s chance in hell.

The people in Washa are at the end of their tether. The people in Kutch are at the end of the line. Are there no other solutions? Of course there are [see box]. Will they be employed? It is hard to be optimistic.

Illustration: Lucy Willis
Illustration: Lucy Willis

But the Andolan never gives up. Medha Patkar, Chitaroopa Palit, Alok Agarwal, Mahesh Patel, Keshav Vasave, Urmila Patidar and many others, they do not give up. From July to September they will be at Domkhedi welcoming people from all over India and the world to this year’s satyagraha. Go there, go and take part. They need all the support they can get. If you go, you will be inspired and amazed and humbled by what the people of the Andolan do to assert their rights, the rights of the excluded.

You may find it poignant too. I think of so many brave people we met in Narmada and how I often fought back tears. Take Narayanbhai, a farmer in the Nimad. His village will submerge when the Sardar Sarovar reaches 95 metres. After a long discussion, he said to me: ‘Tell me what you think. Will we win?’ I looked at him and I knew I ought to say yes, to be optimistic. At that moment I couldn’t. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘But I do know that the struggle is worth it.’

Translators: Geeta and Ardwind.

Illustration: Lucy Willis
Illustration: Lucy Willis

If no big dam, what?

Leaving aside the question of whether the Sardar Sarovar could be down-sized – serious proposals have been made – there are alternatives to large dams to achieve the same objectives. They are based on watershed development: planting of trees to hold water on bare, eroded slopes; small dams and rainwater harvesting – to provide surface water and replenish groundwater – on a locally managed scale. True, these would not give vast quantities of water for large-scale irrigation on the California model which central planners like to play with in their spread-sheets. But rural India farms on a mini-scale. Its farmers need relatively small quantities of water, locally.

In desperation, because the ‘lifeline of Gujarat’ is not doing anything for them and maybe never will, some villages in drought-stricken areas have set about their own rainwater harvesting and watershed development. The results are impressive (see below). These small-scale approaches are beginning to be taken seriously. But it is very hard to persuade the water establishment and the vested interests. No big projects, no big money, no big graft. It may take a major disaster to bring them round. A reservoir-induced earthquake, with a dam breached and millions drowned? Experts are warning that, if certain big Indian dams go ahead, this is on the cards.

Micro-watershed development in a village in Gujarat

Thunthi Kankasiya village before 1991 1999

Perennial drinking water wells Nil 23

River dams Nil 1

Months of water availability 4 12

Land under cultivation (hectares) 85 135

Number of crops per year 0-1 2-3

Agricultural production (quintal/hectare) 900 4,000

Migration rate 78% 5%

Average period of migration (months) 10 2

Income per household (Rupees per year) 8,590 35,620

Source: Sadguru Water and Development Foundation Dahod, Gujarat; quoted in Down to Earth magazine, 15/1/2000

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on At the end of the line

Leave your comment