Raising the Sardar Sarovar dam to its full height will result in more large-scale submergence of habitations

Since Independence, between 25 and 60 million people have been displaced from their homes and uprooted for India’s development projects. Most end up living in abysmal poverty and deprivation. That we do not even know the exact numbers of those affected — in a country that prizes bureaucratic record keeping — is a clear indication of the callous disregard we have for these lives.

Disregarding years of sustained non-violent protest and an iconic mass movement that drew national and global attention, the Narmada Control Authority decided on June 17, 2017 to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam to its full height, by ordering the closure of 30 gates. It was announced in time with the arrival of the monsoon. Once the dam is at its full height, it will submerge one town and at least 176 villages, displace close to 20,000 families, flood productive agricultural land, and destroy hundreds of acres of biodiverse forest. Proponents argue that (someone else’s) sacrifice is essential for (their) development. They tout the benefits: the dam will generate hydro-energy, extend irrigation and bring drinking water to drought-affected, arid areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat. But beyond the hype, the facts are in question. Ecologists, hydrologists, economists and engineers have produced detailed documentation that brings into doubt the claims of water provisioning, economic growth and safety made by the project.

Choked with silt

Siltation is one of the biggest challenges faced by dams worldwide, and constitutes one of the biggest challenges to the long-term success of this dam. The steep slopes of the Narmada valley are prone to erosion: they have been protected so far because of the dense forests that line the sides of the valley. Once these trees are lost, soil from the denuded slopes will flow unchecked into the river, turning the water muddy. The Central Water Commission’s 2015 compendium on siltation of India’s reservoirs reports alarming figures. For instance, in 85% of India’s dams, the actual rates of siltation are higher than those anticipated during their design. An alarming one in four dams has sedimentation rates more than five times as high as expected! Siltation is most rapid in the early years after dam construction and quickly begins to take effect. The problems are likely to be especially severe for giant dams such as the Sardar Sarovar, which cannot be easily desilted. Apart from directly reducing water storage capacity, siltation also decreases water capacity due to increased evaporation loss. As a result, the capacity to generate hydropower is affected. A dam choked with silt creates a river prone to risky situations of potential flooding in the backwaters.

A poor record

Compensation to the displaced, when given, has often come in the form of land unsuitable for farming or living, located either on riverbeds at the risk of flooding, or in rocky areas which cannot be ploughed. Resettlement sites lack basic facilities: no wells, drinking water pipelines, or grazing land for cattle, let alone schools or road facilities. The poor track record of the past is clear. Despite this, tens of thousands of additional households are now being asked to rely on resettlement without an adequately provisioned place to move. This leaves the once self-reliant people of the valley with no option but to work as daily wage labour and crowd into urban slums — often to be resettled again for other developmental or smart city projects.

The Narmada valley is one of the most fertile ecosystems in India, brimming with biodiversity, and with abundant fish, birds and trees. The dams along the Narmada have changed this, blocking normal water flow, leading to downstream habitat change and impacting biodiversity. The Narmada estuary, where the river meets the sea, has become increasingly saline because of the decrease in fresh water flow after the dams came up. Fish catch of some species has now declined by as much as 75%, signalling the almost complete collapse of the once famous fishing industry. Thousands of commercial and subsistence fishermen affected by this change are not classified as dam-affected though. Neither are the people who and industries which depended on the once-abundant supply of fresh water in the delta. (Water has now suddenly turned saline even to the depth of borewells.) Neither will the invisible tribal communities who depend on the lush forests of the valley — forests that will now be submerged. Only those who can produce evidence of losing homes or agricultural plots are counted as “project-affected”, and can lay claim to compensation.

There has to be a clear, transparent public accounting of livelihoods lost and jobs created, of profits accrued at the expense of great misery and injustice. For who are we to decide who wins and who loses? Large dams have forced the displacement of millions of India’s small farmers and landless peasants from across the country, forcing them into urban slums and shanties, breaking apart families and sending them into a downward spiral of degradation and penury. The tragedy of the Sardar Sarovar Project is that it has failed to learn from history, condemning tens of thousands more to the same fate.