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Sardar Sarovar: Don't forget the environment

By Ashish Kothari

In the current debate over the rehabilitation of those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project, the fundamental question about the environmental impact of the dam, and whether such a dam should be built at all, has been forgotten, says Ashish Kothari

The Narmada dam controversy has once again awakened the nation to the contradictions of a path of development which considers one section of the population expendable in order to benefit another. Unfortunately, the current debate has got stuck at the issue of whether those being displaced are being properly rehabilitated or not. It is as if all will be well with the Sardar Sarovar Project if by some miracle state governments can do what they have not done for the last two decades, or more likely, if they can cleverly manipulate the records to show that they have done it.

In the process, other equally vexed questions about the project have been forgotten. One such is the environmental impact. Back in 1983, when a group of us took a trek through the Narmada valley to ascertain the impacts of the (then) proposed series of dams on the river and its tributaries, we had raised the question of the wisdom of such development. We had pointed to the fact that already the project was in violation of the country's laws. For instance, nearly 2,500 hectares of forests in the area to be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) had already been cut, even though the project had not obtained the necessary environmental and forest clearances. In 1987, when the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) was forced to give these clearances by the prime minister's office, it had clearly recorded that the projects "were not ready for clearance". The mandatory environmental impact assessment was not ready (only a preliminary study had been carried out), and there were enough concerns about forest and biodiversity loss, displacement, seismic impacts, waterlogging and so on, to justify holding back the decision. The PMO's diktat to over-rule its expert ministry's opinion was governed by political considerations (the Congress was losing ground in a number of states), just as the current PMO's dithering over stopping the construction of the dam despite a clear opinion to this effect by his water resources minister, is due to political expediency.

Over two decades later, have the environmental aspects been dealt with? No, not by a long stretch. Upstream, over 13,700 hectares of forest in the submergence zone have mostly been cut. While nothing can replace the loss of forests that have evolved over millennia, some sort of compensation is supposed to be effected through afforestation. But rather than direct that this should be done in an area that is ecologically similar to the valley, so that one can at least try to recreate some semblance of a mixed deciduous forest, the MoEF has allowed afforestation in Kutch! Apart from this being an ecological farce, there are widespread complaints that the government has taken over common grazing lands of communities for the purpose.

Downstream of the SSP, water flow patterns have changed. Fisherfolk are reported to be hard-hit, though a systematic study of the impacts on aquatic life is needed. Eventually, what this will do to the coastal area in the Gulf of Khambhat, can only be estimated. In many other areas where river flows into the sea have been reduced by dams, there has been devastating erosion of the coast, entry of saline seawater several kilometres inwards affecting drinking water and farms, destruction of mangroves or other natural ecosystems, and loss of livelihoods of marine fisherfolk. Several thousand families in this zone should also be considered project-affected, but are nowhere in the SSP's rehabilitation package. Hopefully the rehabilitation review committee set up by the prime minister will take stock of these affected populations also, not only of those displaced in the submergence zone.

And what of the command area, where the dam is supposed to benefit millions of people? In a detailed study carried out in the late-1980s, using figures available in studies commissioned by the government itself, Kalpavriksh (an environmental action group) estimated that 40% of the area to be irrigated by SSP may eventually face waterlogging and salinisation. In similar semi-arid and arid areas of Pakistan, and over substantial parts of the Indira Gandhi Canal area in Rajasthan, these impacts are widespread and debilitating. Farmers might find their joy at getting copious amounts of water turning into a nightmare, especially if there is the inevitable shift to water-intensive crops like sugarcane. The large-scale transfer of water could also skew the delicate ecological balance in the wilderness areas of northern Gujarat, with wildlife unique to the arid areas giving way to generalist species found everywhere in India where there is water. The Wildlife Institute of India had long ago warned of the SSP canals causing irreversible damage to the wild ass (a subspecies found nowhere else on earth), but its report was conveniently ignored.

Meanwhile, SSP authorities continue to flout environmental laws and norms. When it was given clearance, one of the conditions was that environmental mitigation measures will go "pari passu" (in pace) with construction. This has never been followed. In 1993, after a sustained agitation by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a review committee set up by the ministry of water resources concluded that the full magnitude of catchment area treatment had not been understood, that compensatory afforestation would face resistance from people whose lands were being taken away, that the governments were complacent about waterlogging and salinisation, and that downstream impacts remained understudied. Shekhar Singh, the only independent environmental member of the Narmada Control Authority's Environment Sub-group (set up to monitor the compliance of these conditions), has repeatedly provided evidence of how compliance is not taking place. None of this has made a difference to the political forces pushing the construction ahead. Technically, the SSP's construction has continued in violation of the Environment Protection Act. On rare occasions a bold MoEF secretary has threatened to halt construction because of this violation, a warning never carried through.

Both the environment and local people get short shrift in projects such as SSP, which are the juggernauts of a suicidal vision of development, crushing everyone in its way. But while we may think this particular battle seems lost, we have to continue pointing to these and other aspects. Even while we struggle for better rehabilitation because we cannot stop the displacement, we have to fundamentally question whether such a dam ought to be built at all. Surely this cannot be the vision of 'sustainable development' our country is supposedly committed to? And while we question, we also have to work towards an alternative vision of development that is gentler on the earth and on people. Power, irrigation, drinking water, agricultural productivity, employment...all these can be provided (indeed in many parts of India have been provided) without building mega-projects that cause so much misery and destruction. But environmentalists have so far failed to raise the ethical and political force necessary to transform alternative visions and scattered experiments into a powerful movement. That is the larger challenge before us, even as we struggle to ensure that every family displaced from the Narmada Valley gets what it should rightfully get without having to ask for it.

InfoChange News & Features, June 2006