The Sardar Sarovar project was billed as a solution to the irrigation woes of Gujarati farmers. But it is another scheme named after Sardar Patel that has come to their rescue.


On Thursday, the central government gave its approval to Gujarat to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam from 121.92 metres to 138.72 metres.

While this would increase the storage capacity of the dam, in order for the water to be useful, Gujarat would have to construct the network of canals that would take the water to the fields of farmers.

So far, the government has built less than 30% of the canal network planned as part of the project. In response to a question raised in the state assembly in October last year, the Gujarat government said that 22,285 km of canals had been constructed through April 2013, as compared with the planned length of 74,626 kilometres, the Times of India reported.

“For the vast majority of Gujarat’s farmers, water from the Narmada is worse than a mirage – they can actually see it flowing by, without legally being able to make use of it,” journalist Hartosh Singh Bal wrote in an article published in Open magazine in July 2009. At that time, 25% of the canal network had been built. In the next four years, not more than 5%  has been added.

Successive governments in Gujarat, both of the Congress and the BJP, have sold the dream of Narmada waters to farmers. Irrigation, the state has claimed, would make their fields more productive.

According to a study by leading agricultural economists and water management experts, improved irrigation has played a role in raising farm output in Gujarat. But this has less to do with the Sardar Sarovar Project, they say, and more with another government scheme also named after India’s first home minister – the Sardar Patel Sahakari Jal Sanchaya Yojana.

The water conservation scheme, which came out of a long-running movement, has funded the creation of more than 500,000 rainwater harvesting structures like check dams and percolation ponds. The scheme has performed best in Saurashtra and Kutch, which are the areas at the forefront of “Gujarat’s agricultural rally”, the study found, and not the canal-irrigated areas of central and south Gujarat.

The study, titled Secret of Gujarat’s Agrarian Miracle after 2000, was published inEconomic and Political Weekly in December 2009. It pegged the annual agricultural growth rate in Gujarat since 1999-2000 at 9.6% – a rate that was criticised as too high by some economists and that even invited the charge of being sponsored by the state government. But while the study unequivocally praises the state government’s agricultural policies, it takes a less favourable view of the state’s big dam projects.

“Gujarat’s large government dams store over 25 BCM [billion cubic metres] of water but spread it only on a meagre 6.5 lakh hectares,” it says. “In contrast, farmers use 11.5 BCM of groundwater storage to irrigate over 27.5 lakh hectares.” While the absolute yields are higher in the canal irrigated areas, the productivity of land rose at a higher rate in the groundwater fed farmlands, the study found.

The productivity – captured by the value of crops and milk per hectare – in the canal-irrigated Central and South Gujarat rose by just 20.9% between 2000-2006, while the increase in Saurashtra and Kutch was more than double at 43.6%. The canal-irrigated areas saw almost no increase in the gross cropped area, while the rest of the state added around two lakh hectares of farmland per year.

“The success of agriculture in Gujarat in recent years has been founded on groundwater irrigation. If Gujarat fails to manage its groundwater, its agrarian gains will evaporate,” the study concludes. “Gujarat must consider spreading its large reservoir storage on a much larger area as a strategy of securing its agricultural future.”

But the government has instead chosen to store more water at the Narmada dam even though it does not have a network of canals to utilise

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