For more than 56 years, farmers in Gujarat have been waiting to get water, but work on the most crucial aspect of Sardar Sarovar dam—distribution of water—is not even complete

 Tankers are the main source of water for many households in Gujarat, like these women collecting their daily quota on the outskirts of Ahmedabad (Photo: Photographs: Amit Dave)
 Tankers are the main source of water for many households in Gujarat, like these women collecting their daily quota on the outskirts of Ahmedabad (Photo: Photographs: Amit Dave)

Sixty-five-year-old Chhaganbhai Sankhavra does not remember for how long it has been drummed into his ears that his village, like thousands others, will soon have waters from the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). Since his childhood he has seen politicians of all hues selling the dream of irrigation water from SSP.

One might have been tempted to think that his dream would at last be fulfilled when SSP was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 17, 2017; more than 56 years after the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had laid down the foundation stone. Sankhavra though points towards the irony that there is water in a Narmada canal a few kilometres away but his village can’t get it. “You can see the water, but you don’t get it,” Sankhavra, who is the sarpanch (village head), says wryly.

Just a shout away from Rajkot city, the hometown of Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, Madhapar, is no way a village with as many as 44 housing societies and a population of over 40,000, but in every other way it is one of the hundreds of villages of Saurashtra region where you can see the water but can’t get it. The source of this irony lies in the failure of the Gujarat government to build the most crucial part of the project, the canal network to distribute water from the Sardar Sarovar dam.

Distribution glitch

A large dam’s essential purpose in irrigation is storage of water and aiding its distribution. The canal distribution network takes the water to the farmers’ fields. For the distribution of SSP’s water in Gujarat, it has a 458 km long main canal and 38 branch canals which spread into distributaries that further branch into minor and sub-minor canals. Field channels form the final stretch of the delivery system. The extent of this network also defines the command area of the project within which the irrigation water can be supplied.

The Gujarat government has brought down the originally planned length of the canal network from 90,389 km to 71,748 km, according to the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited’s (SSNNL’S) latest status report released in August 2017. SSNNL, owned by the state government, executes SSP’S work.

But why did the government reduce the canal network when farmers like Sankhavra are waiting for the water? Tushar Shah, a senior fellow of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), tells Down To Earth that “many former command areas are now urbanised and have been decommanded”. This could be a possible reason for the revision of canal length.

Suresh Mehta, the Chief Minister of Gujarat from the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) from October 1995 to September 1996, is highly critical of the move. He says, “It goes without saying that a reduction in the canal network means reduction in the area under irrigation.” He also cites a lapse of procedure. “The government has to take the permission of the Narmada Control Authority for any change, but who bothers,” he says. He quit the BJP in 2007 in protest against the “entire party leadership succumbing to the whims and fancies of one person (Narendra Modi)”.

As of August 2017, according to SSNNL, 31 per cent of even this revised canal network is still to be built. If we use the originally planned length this percentage shoots up to 46 per cent. Most of this network is of the minor, sub-minor and field channel types without which farmers at a distance from the main and branch canals will remain without water for a much longer time.

As per a Memorandum of Under-standing signed by the Central and the state governments under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP) in 2015 the canal network had to be finished by 2016-17 for which the work needed to be carried out on “war footing”, according to the Central Water Commission (CWC) which monitors SSP for central loan assistance under AIBP. This clause has not been fulfilled with the canal work still ongoing.

The length and expanse of canal network also indicate the irrigation potential of a project which is the area that can be irrigated by it at full potential. According to SSNNL, for SSP, this currently stands at 1.42 million hectares up to minor level, while up to sub-minor level it is 1.09 million ha as against the planned 1.79 million ha and 1.84 million ha respectively. The actual area irrigated by the project is given by the utilised irrigation potential, which is often a fraction of the irrigation potential. For example, in 2013, CWC found the irrigation potential of SSP to be 0.76 million ha while the actual area irrigated was only 0.21 million ha, roughly 25 per cent.

According to the annual reports of the Narmada and Water Resources Department of the Gujarat government, this figure remained unchanged at 0.21 million ha in 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15.

The Gujarat Government’s Development Review of 2017-18, part of the state’s annual budget document, projects that the actual area under irrigation from the Narmada project will increase to 0.33 million ha in 2017-18 and 2018-19. This means that only 18.42 per cent area would have been covered by the end of financial year 2019.

Mehta cites a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India from 2009 to point out that “very few areas are being irrigated by the SSP as against the network that has been completed because the government had not followed, what is called, the vertical integration approach. This is lack of planning and skewed priorities”. Vertical integration approach is to simultaneously construct the canal network along with the raising of the dam height and proportionally irrigating the fields. “This has not been done and this would also pose the problem of flooding beyond a point,” Mehta argues.

Money matters

Finances are also a major issue for the completion of the project’s canal network. Against the original estimated cost of Rs 6,000 crore, a cumulative expenditure of Rs 56,286 crore was already incurred on it as on October 2016. According to a 2012 estimate by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), the project cost would be Rs 72,000 crore. Sources claim it may not be less than Rs 90,000 crore when all the canal work is done and water reaches the fields and homes of all the beneficiaries.

In 2013, a CWC monitoring team had found problems with land acquisition to be the major roadblock to the canal works. The Gujarat government had later proposed some measures, including participatory irrigation management to overcome this. The registration of Water User’s Associations (WUAs) was started under this programme but it still remains on paper.

According to SSNNL, out of the total 4,552 WUAs roughly half have been registered and none of them are functioning right now. This is when the regions which were originally intended to receive SSP’s water don’t even have a canal network.

Many minor and sub-minor canals have been found to be damaged like this stretch near Patan, North Gujarat
Many minor and sub-minor canals have been found to be damaged like this stretch near Patan, North Gujarat

The Supreme Court’s major argument for allowing the construction of SSP’s dam and later increasing its height was bringing water to the dry regions of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat. It had held in its ruling of October 18, 2000 that there was no other alternative for ending the water woes of these regions. However, Shah says, “Though large parts of central Gujarat and some parts of north Gujarat (Banaskantha district) are enjoying the benefits of SSP water, there is still little or no irrigation from the project in Kutch.”

Looking at some districts in the regions provides a clearer picture about the status of canal works. Up to March 2016, in Botad district of Saurashtra region while the branch canal and half the distributaries had been completed, the sub-minor network stood at a meager six per cent. In Kutch, up to the same date, half the branch canal had been completed but the status of distributaries, minor and sub-minor canals all stood at zero.

Perhaps to tackle this scenario, Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation (SAUNI) project, worth Rs 12,200 crore, was inaugurated by Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister in 2012. The Sujalam Sufalam Project was also started for North Gujarat and Kutch. The projects envisage diverting as much as 3 million acre feet (MAF) of Narmada floodwaters overflowing from the Sardar Sarovar or the Narmada dam to distribute equally to the three regions.

Under SAUNI, water would be carried from the Narmada dam through a 1,125 sq km network of pipelines to fill up 115 major reservoirs in the Saurashtra region and through the existing network of these dams to irrigate 0.41 million ha of land. The deadline to finish this project is 2019. For Sujalam Sufalam, the work on filling up nine reservoirs in North Gujarat was taken up in 2014 and the government claims to have completed the work.

A senior official explains that once these projects are completed, assuming that the overflow of floodwaters continues, the idea is to divert the “spare waters” to industries and residential areas in the urban centres in Gujarat.

The water is in fact already being diverted to the industries. Official sources, requesting anonymity, have cited that an estimated 20 million litres a day (MLD) of water is being supplied to the Tata Nano, Ford and Suzuki projects in Sanand and Bechraji in North Gujarat, while a Coca Cola bottling plant has been committed 30 MLD. In all, an allocation of 90 MLD has been made for industries coming up in Sanand area, nearly 25 km from Ahmedabad.

While industries enjoy the canal water, the people of the water deficient regions have taken to water thieving and increasingly depend on water tankers to meet their needs. “For the last 15 to 20 years, we oft and on illegally drew water from the Narmada canal,” Sankhavra is upfront in admitting. “At most places the rough estimate is that 40 per cent of water is being drawn illegally from the main canal, where it is close,” a top government official, requesting anonymity, says. Even in North Gujarat water is being pulled out at many places close to the main canal of the Narmada dam by illegal motors sunk into the main canal.

Madhapar completely depends upon the 22 water tankers that visit the people twice a day. Expanding it further, the Rajkot taluka’s 0.2 million population in 96 villages get water from 170 tankers each of 5,000 to 10,000 litres capacity. Experts have believed for a long time that the real challenge in achieving the irrigation objective of large dams like SSP does not lie in the dam itself but developing an efficient and affordable distribution network. “Distribution systems are a problem in all large irrigation systems in India and elsewhere in Asia,” Shah says, excluding China for its recent modernisation programme for irrigation systems.

Groundwater conundrum

It has been argued that better irrigation outcomes can be achieved by developing a hybrid distribution network through regular recharge of local storages and groundwater sources rather than increasing the height of the dam.

An IWMI working paper from 2010 titled, “A case for pipelining water distribution in the Narmada irrigation System in Gujarat, India” argues fervently for a pipeline-based irrigation system as against a canal-based one. It lists a slew of advantages for this shift including cost cuts for the government, creation of irrigation cooperatives with farmer participation, creation of 150,000 to 200,000 rural jobs and conjunctive use of ground and surface water in water deficient areas.

In spite of protests like the ªRally for the Valley 2017ºin Madhya Pradesh, the intended beneficiaries are yet to get water from the Narmada canal (Source: Narmada Bachao Abhiyaan)
In spite of protests like the ªRally for the Valley 2017ºin Madhya Pradesh, the intended beneficiaries are yet to get water from the Narmada canal (Source: Narmada Bachao Abhiyaan)

In Gujarat, farmers have already taken up the initiative to irrigate their lands with pipelines, even when they have to do so illegally. Pradhan Thakor of Kotharpura of Bechraji taluka in Mehsana district doesn’t mince words when he says he draws from a pond which has Narmada waters. “I spent I1.25 lakh three years ago to install a pump and a 2-km pipeline up to one of my fields to fetch water,” he says. Such a scenario calls for a full-fledged farmer participation for ensuring irrigation by the government.

In 2014, taking cue from water experts, CWC and perhaps illegal water lifting the government of Gujarat started its own under-ground pipeline network for the sub-minor level. But it handed this job over to contractors, limiting farmer participation. CWC in 2015 noted: “Work of sub-minors is in progress in 0.5 million ha of 12,452 km length as Under Ground Pipe Line (UGPL) with 10 per cent cost participation from farmers.”

According to an Indian Express report from December 2015, a review on UGPL by B N Navalawala, advisor to the Chief Minister on water, had criticised the move. It had said that this project will not be able to provide water to all villages because of conflicts arising out of the choking of pipelines from the upstream farmers. It also cited that silt deposition from the open canals from where the underground pipelines emerge will choke the pipelines downstream. Even this work is only 47 per cent complete, while private investments are being made to illegally draw from UGPL with the use of privately installed pipelines.

The nature of agriculture and irrigation in Gujarat has also changed since the SSP was first envisaged. Shah says, “Gujarat is growing its dairy and high-value farming. These need frequent irrigation that canals are unable to provide.”

According to the State of Indian Agriculture 2015-16 report, Gujarat grows the highest share of spices in India at 18 per cent. This includes black pepper, chillies, ginger, turmeric, garlic, and cardamom. The share of Gujarat’s fruit production among Indian states is at 9.27 per cent, which is the fourth-highest in India. Gujarat is fifth in vegetable production as well. All these crops require an on-demand irrigation mechanism which is not possible in the case of canal-based irrigation systems. The production of all these crops in Gujarat has increased four times between 2000 and 2015. This is why farmers are attracted to the on-demand water supply from tube-wells and pumping water from canal commands and distributing it through underground pipelines.

But groundwater is also not an inexhaustible resource. In many regions which are solely dependent on groundwater for their agricultural purposes, groundwater levels have fallen drastically. Development Support Centre, a non-profit in Ahmedabad, and Western Sydney University conducted a pilot study which found that extraction of groundwater in many of the villages in North Gujarat is no more viable.

Similarly farmers working with non-profits and local administrations have shown great resolve in building check dams and desilting old reservoirs and tanks to recharge aquifers. Shah praises Gujarat as it “has pioneered the management of aquifer storage and recovery in small holder setting”. There is a case for replicating such initiatives in water deficient areas.

Recharge of aquifers in water deficient regions can be carried out by spreading SSP’s water over them. For this Shah suggests to “expand the distribution system, ensure water reaches tail ends and promote conjunctive use of surface and groundwater.” In the changed context of agriculture in Gujarat, if farmers like Sankhavra’s dreams are to be fulfilled the government needs to work closely with farmers, aiding their initiatives rather than splurge on an inefficient canal network.The article was first published in October 16-31,2017 issue of Down To Earth magazine under the title “Sardar Sarovar’s tanker trail”