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The Narmada Dam Controversy

June 26, 2014

India takes pride in the Sardar Sarovar Dam also commonly called the Narmada Dam. Located over the Narmada River near Navagam in Gujarat, it is the world’s second largest concrete gravity dam, by volume, after the Grand Coulee in the United States.

The Narmada Dam Controversy

The dam’s foundation stone was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 and since 1979 when it became operational, it has irrigated large parts of water starved regions of Kutch and Saurashtra. Besides irrigation, the dam has an installed capacity to produce 1450 MW of power.

The dam has been a subject of much debate and controversy with regard to its impact on the ecology and disruption of traditional homes of people living in the affected area. The environmental activists led by Medha Patkar, who launched the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’, have been very vocal in their protests against the dam. Even the World Bank, that funded the project initially, withdrew its support in 1994.

The controversy has been accentuated by repeated increases in the dam’s height, since it became operational. Ever since 1999, the dam’s height has been raised progressively over the years, from the initial 80m to 138.68m.

In June this year, the Supreme Court allowed the height to be raised from the present 121.92m to 138.68m. The anti-dam activists had fought hard against further raising of the height by 17 metres but with the ruling coming in its favour, the Narmada Control Authority now proposes to go ahead.

The then state government headed by Narendra Modi, had been consistently following up with the central government to raise the height since the beneficiaries would be the people of four states; Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, with Madhya Pradesh being the biggest beneficiary. All four states will immensely benefit from the increased water flow for irrigation and the power that will be generated.

The state government’s position is that the benefits outweigh the inconvenience of shifting villagers to an alternate location. The most affected are the tribal people living in Madhya Pradesh who have been displaced from the areas where they have lived for centuries.

Narmada Dam Issue

Out of the controversy, there are two basic issues that have been raised by those opposing the project:

  • Inadequate rehabilitation measures for displaced persons.
  • Lack of optimum utilisation of existing water due to incomplete water distribution infrastructure.

Inadequate rehabilitation measures

The respective state and central governments have failed in providing suitable areas for rehabilitation of the displaced persons, due to poor planning, lack of adequate funding and improper utilisation of resources.

This has been a perpetual problem with the various governments in offering alternate solutions to displaced persons across the country for various projects. India needs to learn from China which follows the below given procedure before resettling affected persons :

  • The government notifies the people of the plan for acquiring the land and the associated timelines to the people. This is backed by adequate and attractive financial compensation.
  • For instance, if the land is going to be acquired for redevelopment of residential accommodation, then compensation offered is based on two options;

1.  Accept full financial compensation and relocate elsewhere, as per their choice.

2.  Accept part compensation and a flat in the same area. The flat offered is in ratio to the existing covered area and the alternate flat and the quality of lifestyle offered is significantly better than existing conditions. This along with better compensation gets people’s approval in most cases.

During the time of development, these people are offered alternate temporary accommodation based on family size in an area that offers all conveniences like shopping, schools, medical care etc.

The Indian government needs to take a leaf out of this. The living conditions of persons relocated to new areas are appalling in most cases. This has also been seen in slum rehabilitation programs in metro cities.

The living conditions of the displaced tribals of Madhya Pradesh relocated to Dhar, Khargaon, Alirajpur, and Badwani is terrible and the government has not offered suitable infrastructure that actually improves their living conditions or offers an improved solution to make a living.

The activists are rightfully highlighting this problem and unless the government takes suitable corrective measures, agitations like the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ will always happen.

Ground reality about existing water resources

This is the ground situation. The activists against raising the height of the dam are highlighting the fact that the existing water being stored in the reservoir is not being fully utilised due to incomplete distribution canals in the planned area. In fact the ground reality is that while the installed capacity to irrigate is 18 lakh hectares, only 1.8 hectares are being irrigated with waters from the dam. This is a gross underutilisation of capacity.

Poor planning and project implementation has resulted in cost escalation in building the requisite canals to optimally distribute water to the areas that need it most. Therefore, the argument against the raising of the height seems to be justified.

While this may well be true, there is acute need for water in parched areas of the four mentioned states, while the need for power continues to grow. Therefore, in the long term it is imperative to raise the height of the dam to enhance the irrigation capacity of the dam as also generate additional power. The delay in implementing the raising of the height has resulted in the projected cost to increase significantly. The final cost of the project is expected to exceed Rs 90,000 crore, that’s a significant increase over the initial projected cost of Rs 650 crore.

On its part, the state and the central governments need to get their act together and implement a plan that offers a holistic living solution that betters the existing conditions of the people. Unless this happens, people’s movements against such projects will continue despite their obvious benefits.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed are of those of the author and do not represent the views of

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