"I am helpless. Tell me what to do", said P K Laheri, Chairman and Managing Director of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, giving vent to his exasperation while speaking on July 1 to a journalist with The Indian Express.

His helplessness didn't refer to the scenes of waterlogged Gujarat per se, but from what he termed "the colossal wastage of water overflowing from Sardar Sarovar Dam". He went on to elaborate: "All this water could have been saved. Two months of storage in the dam has been lost. If the level had been five metres higher, the curve of power generation would have been optimum. We could have filled up reservoirs in scarcity-prone areas of Surendrangar and Banaskantha, or released water into more rivers like the Sabarmati. We wanted to do all this in this monsoon. It is unfortunate ... we will have to wait for the next season".

The implication was clear: if the dam had been built to a higher level, the water now clogging the streets of Vadodara, not far from the corporate office of SSNNL, might have instead been used to generate power and serve the arid parts of the state, but now without the additional height, the water has simply overflowed into a needless catastrophe. This is a bland claim; a closer look at the events preceding the flooding suggests that the story is considerably more complex. Consider these:

  • June 15. A transformer at the riverbed powerhouse of the Sardar Sarovar Project burst. Two of the generating units came to a stop. The damage was estimated at Rs.20 lakhs. This "not so significant" accident - as Chief Engineer, D M Oza described it - didn't come under the scanner from the local, regional or national media in a big way; it only merited one-column reports in Sandesh and The Indian Express.

  • June 26. A bulletin from the Central Water Commission on the storage position of the 76 major reservoirs in the country - of which as many as 31 reservoirs have significant hydro-power benefits - was prepared. A press release on the same, dated July 1, noting the basin-wise storage position in Gujarat, states that the Mahi river basin has recorded better storage than the average of the last ten years, whereas the Narmada, Tapi, Sabarmati and the rivers of Kutch have all reported less than 80% of the average of the previous 10 years.

  • June 30. Heavy rains in Gujarat left 2600 villages in a state of black-out as the power lines in over 2500 villages were snapped. Revenue Minister Kaushik Patel told reporters that people have been shifted to safer ground in Surendranagar, Dangs, Navsari, Valsad, Bharuch, Surat, Vadodara and Anand districts.

"All this water could have been saved. Two months of storage in the dam has been lost. If the level had been five metres higher, the curve of power generation would have been optimum."
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Thus, the generators were down, and the transmission lines were cut; together these had already ruled out the possibility of any significant power generation from new rainfall. Moreover, the storage prior to the flooding was exceptionally low, there were no heavy rains in the Narmada basin in the upstream of the Sardar Sarovar Dam site, nor was the river in spate in upstream reaches in Madhya Pradesh.

The Express report didn't challenge the Chairman's claims. Nor those of agriculture expert Y K Alagh; he is quoted as saying this: "Villages in Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat are facing water shortage and here water is flowing away from the very dam that is supposed to provide water to these villages ... If nothing, you could have saved and released this water into dry rivers. It would have been excellent for recharging the groundwater table." Nor did the paper raise eyebrows when the State Director of Agriculture, R A Sarsia, spoke of his grandiose plans. The Express report quotes Sarsia saying, "At present 35 percent of the agricultural land in the state gets irrigation ... we want to increase it to 50 percent. This monsoon we were hoping that we could bring 10 lakh (1 Million) hectares of new land under cultivation by providing irrigation from the Narmada canal. We will have to wait now."

These expressions of rue were similar to those the Chairman had made, and just as indefensible. Dams aren't built to recharge ground water, and delivering water to new areas isn't simply a matter of collecting more at the dam site - any number of command area concerns have to be addressed before the water can be properly distributed, and as Tushar Shah pointed out in his article for Economic and Political Weekly, there exists an institutional vacuum in the command area to be served by SSP canals.

But the Narmada did overflow, so what did cause this? The answer, ironically, was to be found in the Indian Express itself, on June 25. "The Narmada district collector K.K.Balat ... said that the dam was overflowing due to release of water in the upstream from the Indirasagar dam where the Madhya Pradesh government had a hydro-electric power plant. Tremors were felt for more than a minute at the dam site around 3 pm on Friday. The tremors recorded 3 on the Richter scale."

This explanation puts things in a different light. Tremors at one dam site might - and should - reasonably raise questions about the safety of other dams. Already, a crack in one dam was responsible for overflow elsewhere in the state. But in the event, prompted by the attention state officials were drawing to the 'colossal waste', this was not the focus. Instead, this turned into an opportune moment to attack activists who - rightly - have been working hard to protect life and livelihood throughout the valley.

Thus, the Express pressed on with the official view of 'colossal waste', but assigned the blame away from the upstream dam and its potential rupture from an earthquake.. Within two days of the report appearing on the front page, the newspaper carried an editorial on the matter. Emphasizing that "Gujarat's present dilemma goes beyond the agony of the present floods", this editorial pointed out that "all that water from the unprecedented rainfall the state has experienced over the last few days will after swirling around city streets and rural hutments flow away into the sea". And from there to the question of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, with this, "the 20-year campaign by assorted activists and busybodies has not only delayed it considerably, it has led to a scaling down of its height ... It is nobody's case that communities affected by the project should not be properly rehabilitated. But a great deal of energy that should have been channeled in this direction has been dissipated in the battle for the dam, besides of course the crores of rupees in escalation costs."

The editorial closed with this admonition in the final paragraph: "Every project has costs and benefits and it becomes important to look for ways to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs. But this rational process gets derailed in a situation of over-exuberant dissent. As indeed it did on the Narmada dam issue, which is now costing Gujarat, a whole lot."

What the reporter and the editorial writers passed along from official sources without adequate challenge, was however not so easily lost on the readers. A few days after the Express published the various soundbites from the government, a reader challenged the reporting. The reporter's response - which he clarified he was providing in a personal capacity, and not at the Express's behest - came in the form of a six-point reply by email, which dealt with many questions from the reader. And in item number 5, he had this to say, "Downstream, the Narmada has not caused any flooding. Bhrauch has been affected by flash floods caused by heavy rains, not the Narmada overflowing. In fact, it has not even touched the half way mark."

Now the pin drops. Why, then, did he not press on with his question to its logical source - pardon the pun - at the other dam? Why did the editorial writers follow this up with their own castigation of activists holding up further raising the height of the dam were 'busybodies'? If anything, the people so easily labeled by the paper might have saved the Sardar Sarovar too, and downstream communities, from catastrophes caused by mindless construction in seismic zones.

This confluence of reporting with the official view has been a repeated problem through much of the history of the controversial dam, and indeed in numerous other large projects. Far too often, the research behind the report is inadequate, whereas even moderate scrutiny of the claims made by officialdom would have revealed many of the claims made to be patently false. In the case of the Narmada, such reporting is especially eggregious; there have been volumes written on the project detailing its failures - in planning, respect for the rights of the displaced, in finances, in the operations of the dam - so much so that the natural reaction of an informed journalist and his editors to any official view should be a large dose of healthy skepticism. It is unfortunate - even deeply troubling - that what we witness instead is the opposite - an unchallenged repetition of the views that the government would prefer us to have.