A front page news item in The Times of India dated February 5th, 2004 by Raja Bose posed a question with surprise in its headline: "Turning Gulf of Cambay into a lake?" However, within a wink, Bose embraced an official line, in a willing suspension of disbelief, penning sub-headline as, "Fulfilling the Kalpsar dream: The bill Rs. 54000 crores, benefits to Gujarat manifold". In the lead paragraphs of the news, we were told that "work on Kalpsar project kicks off at Bhavnagar on Thursday, February 05, 2004. The National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) will begin the work on fixing dam alignment and mapping the ocean floor". In other words, the survey will draw a line in the seabed between Ghogha (Saurashtra) and Hansot (South Gujarat).

Farzana Cooper The Kalpsar lake project entails a 64 kms long dam to turn what has been known as Gulf of Cambay for centuries into a 2000 square kms Kalpsar reservoir, with a promise to store three times the water of the Sardar Sarovar (Narmada Dam) reservoir and produce 5580 MW of electricity from tidal waves. The reservoir is said to have potential to store the surplus waters of the Narmada, Sabarmati, Mahi, Dhadhar rivers and the rivers of Saurashtra that flow into the gulf, all in all some 12 rivers.

A release by the news agency IANS on February 06 called it “a Dam with difference”. On the same date, The Times of India carried a news item again by Raja Bose drawing a headline from a popular Hindi movie: “Bees Saal Bad, Kane shows he can do it”. I stopped for a moment to think whether Bose wished to make a subtle observation that the project was much like the popular Bollywood movie, more a figment of imagination rather than a vision that paid heed to complex functioning of riverine, estuarine and marine ecology.

The project may very well turn out to be a figment of imagination, if you go by the information that comes up when you dig deeper.

The Kalpsar project lists Salinity Ingress Prevention as its objective. And yet the track record of state governments on this problem is not inspiring. In coastal villages ingress salinity has led to the rate of Total Dissolved Solvents (TDS) in drinking water reaching much above the permissible limit. Reverse Osmosis plants have provided the only possibility to decrease the amount of TDS for water potability. And yet, not one of the 28 Reverse Osmosis plants installed by state's water supply board (GWSSB) in 1980s is working. Also, in the eighties the govt had chosen to ignore a comprehensive salinity ingress prevention project. This Rs.800 crores project was recommended by four expert committees after detailed studies. Gujarat's governments have continually failed to commit themselves to the cause of Salinity Ingress Prevention.

Take NIOT itself, which is to begin the work on the project. The technology agency considers Khambhat and Bhavnagar talukas as toxic hotspots, in a study it did along with National Ecological and Environmental Research Institute, Nagpur. A combined report of the NEERI and NIOT has identified 15 talukas of Gujarat as toxic hotspots. Talukas like Khambhat, Lalpur, Choryasi, Rajula, Kodinar, Ankleshwar, Lakhpat, Mundra and Bhavnagar have been identified as major source of Sulphur and Nitrogen oxides. Navsari, Pardi, Olpad, and Mangrol have been identified as source of wastewater and solid waste.

Many of the rivers in estuarine zone have a tendency to accumulate chemical waste as sufficient dilution and dispersion is not available. Hydrological analysis of Amlakhadi, a local river that passes through Ankleshwar and Narmada river, done by NEERI has already indicated this. Senior officers from Gujarat Ecology Commission agree with the revelations of NEERI-NIOT survey that the Narmada and Tapi estuarine area have been carrying so much effluent load that has made it impossible for the soil bacteria to survive as it has become highly alkaline and rendering the soil infertile in turn.

There's more. While the state talks of creating an artificial sweet water lake at Gulf of Cambay, natural wetlands in Gujarat have shown a decreasing trend. From 3.36 Million hectares in 1972, the area under natural wetlands got reduced to 2.27 Million hectares in 1992. There is a conspicuous absence of any data on this front after 1992.

Has the feasibility of the project been established? The state govt claims of having done six volumes feasibility study. One wonders what is in stock for the delicate marine ecology of gulf of Cambay. The news that work on project has started has shocking impacts on our ecological concerns.

But even as you try to voice these concerns, there comes a high-pitched question, "where is the human cost?". Anil Kane, former vice chancellor of M S University, Baroda, who has been heralded to have envisioned Kalpsar, claims reassuringly, “no human displacement”. The brochure is even more subtle, “no involuntary human displacement”. One needs to read it with much attention when the same brochure says one of the many objectives of the project is “to reclaim land for settlement”.

But from the floodplains to delta and estuarine zones, rivers have cradled communities who have had an intrinsic link with resources in a subsistence economy. With a structural intervention of engineering a lake from a gulf, the subsistence economy is certain to receive more blows. The change of land relations and its effect on claims on estuarine and marine resources must be studied.

The numbers don't add up. It is claimed that 80% of the projected water in Kalpsar is to come from Narmada. The same government is already building a massive dam, upstream, with an eye to divert 9 MAF Narmada water for irrigation.
For some of the twelve rivers flowing into gulf of Cambay, the Dam-centric development model pursued by the state has already effected a severe blow to the downstream communities due to reduced carrying capacity. People have had to struggle to regain their rights on riverine resources after the Sipu - Dantiwada Dams came up. The issue of decreased flow in the downstream reaches of rivers flowing into gulf of Cambay seems to be a pertinent point. For example, almost 80% of the projected water in Kalpsar is to come from Narmada, a river on which Gujarat is already building a High Dam with an eye to divert 9 MAF water for irrigation. What would be the impact of decreased flow in the downstream of Narmada on the Kalpsar?

Anil Kane claims “there would be an overflow even after all 3000 Dams on Narmada are built”. That remark made by Kane in an informal conversation with a journalist seems to be quite a flippant one. For once, the Narmada Valley Development Plan proposed to build four mega dams, 30 big dams, 165 medium sized dams and 3000 small dams. Again, if one goes by the data available from Central Water Commission on the annual flow in Narmada, the picture that emerges is not very inspiring, least for a development project around estuarine zone.

Himanshu Thakkar, the director of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, New Delhi opines in an answer to an e-mail query, “Narmada, as per the Narmada Tribunal, has 28 MAF water, ALL of it is distributed among the states. The lowest riparian state, Gujarat, is building the largest project in terms of irrigated area and that is planning to divert ALL of the river water to command area. NWDT had asked Gujarat to decide itself how much water to release downstream from the dam and allocate the same from Guajrat's share. Gujarat has allocated ZERO water for downstream areas. In fact, the command area of SSP is so ambitious that even if all of Gujarat's share were to be diverted, there, there will be room for more. And to top it all as per the actual observed flow data of last 50 plus years, Narmada has only 23 MAF at 75% dependability. So in essence, the claim that Narmada water will be the main source of Kalpsar will not sustain."

There seems to be inadequacy of planning on the financial front too. We already know the financial vortex gripping the Sardar Sarovar Project. When asked how will the state meet the step financial requirement, Kane replied, “We have successfully experimented in people's participation in developmental projects like building a series of check-dams. We will implement the Kalpsar project with people's participation”. Official sources however indicated that talks were on with international aid agencies including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Japanese Development Bank.

The CM Narendra Modi seems to be burning midnight’s oil by excavating ambitious projects and unfurling them as flags to flock the fire in electoral euphoria. Within a week of inaugurating the Kalpsar at Bhavnagar, he suffered a setback on the Narmada dam project front. The Review Committee of Narmada Control Authority did not permit the further increase of the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam as Maharashtra sought more time to finish the rehabilitation process. Modi immediately packaged several schemes announced earlier and called that instant mix, the Rs. 6088 crores “sujalam sufalam” project. Even Gujarati language newspapers - like Gujarat Samachar - criticised this move calling it a hotch potch of earlier schemes.

It seems that mere announcements are all in our country. Feasibility and financial planning lies buried far away from that charismatic three word phrase, “feel good factor”.