A fresh controversy is brewing around the Sardar Sarovar Narmada project, with the Ministry of Environment appearing to have given a go-ahead for further construction at the dam. This goes against the recommendation of its own committee set up to assess the compliance of the Sardar Sarovar and Indira Sagar projects with the environmental safeguards they were supposed to meet during earlier construction. The committee had recommended that there should be no further filling of the reservoirs or construction of canals until the projects first comply with their existing obligations.

The committee's report was considered at a meeting of the Environment Sub-Group of the Narmada Control Authority (ESG) on 26 March 2010, but apparently the meeting was inconclusive. It is reported that during this meeting, the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh questioned the legitimacy of the committee itself. Subsequently, another meeting was held on 1 April 2010. There are also indications that intense pressure was mounted by the states at the political level in the interim period, and unofficial sources say the ESG has cleared further construction of the dam during the second meeting.

What is significant is that neither the ESG, nor the MoEF has issued any official statement regarding its decision on the report of its committee and on the clearance to further construction. The MoEF also did not respond to my email queries. Given that the findings and recommendations of the committee report are unequivocal and strong, the entire episode appears to be another instance of a weak environmental monitoring mechanism succumbing to political pressure. This is of concern, as it could be a huge setback to the efforts of the Minister to give some teeth to the blunted environmental governance regime and change the image (and reality) of the MoEF being a mere rubber stamp.

The MoEF report under discussion is the Second Interim Report by the expert committee, headed by Former Director-General of the Forest Survey of India Dr. Devender Pandey. The report has highlighted the failures in the environmental safeguard measures at the two projects in the strongest terms, concluding that "the project authorities (SSNNL and NVDA, Government of Maharashtra) have grossly violated stipulations in respect of catchment area treatment, flora, fauna and carrying and command area development causing irreversible loss to the environment." These are the very measures that the MoEF had mandated as conditionalities when the projects were originally given environmental clearance in 1987 - 23 years back.

It has also recommended that "no further reservoir filling either at SSP or at ISP be permitted till the catchment areas of both SSP and ISP are fully treated and all the outstanding requirements to protect and conserve flora and fauna including preparation of master plan and creation of wildlife sanctuaries are put in place." The committee has also called for a halt to all construction on the canal network till the environmental measures become pari-passu.

The Pandey Committee

The expert committee was set up by the MoEF, on the decision by the Environment Sub Group (ESG) of the Narmada Control Authority. The NCA is the interstate body mandated to implement the award of the Narmada Tribunal. It set up two sub-groups, one on environment and another on resettlement and rehabilitation to monitor these two aspects. Among the tasks of the ESG is also to monitor the compliance and implementation of the conditions of clearance of the projects. In 2000, the Order and judgement of the Supreme Court in the Sardar Sarovar case further strengthened this arrangement as the Supreme Court directed that the two sub-groups would need to first clear any further construction, following which the Narmada Control Authority would accord the final go-ahead.

The 45th Meeting of the ESG, held in April 2008 discussed and allowed a request of the Gujarat government for the construction of piers at the SSP dam. However, in the next meeting in June 2008, this clearance was put on hold pending a detailed assessment of the implementation of the environmental safeguard measures as envisaged in the clearance given by the MoEF. It was then decided to constitute an expert committee to carry out this review. This committee - the Devender Pandey committee - was constituted by the MoEF on 9th July 2008.

It is significant that one of the strong complaints against the ESG has been that it has functioned essentially as a desk-top monitoring group, basing its work on the data submitted by the respective state governments. Thus, the implementation has mostly been monitored based on the data submitted by the implementing agencies themselves. Only occasionally has the ESG set up independent teams for field verification of the implementation.

One of the most serious violations documented by the Pandey Committee relates to the catchment area treatment. Treating the catchment area of the reservoir is important to control silting and for regulating the inflow of water. The MoEF clearance to the SSP and ISP imposed the condition that the catchment area would have to be treated ahead the filling of the reservoir. The committee found that "The compliance by the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) in Madhya Pradesh has been highly unsatisfactory." In case of the SSP, only 38 per cent of the catchment to be treated has been done by the state while for the ISP only 9 per cent has been treated. On the other hand, the impoundment of ISP has been almost completed with the dam being constructed to its full height, and in SSP the impoundment has been to the tune of 80 per cent.

The committee reported that "The condition on ... CAT [Catchment Area Treatment] works has been partially fulfilled by Gujarat and Maharashtra, but grossly violated by MP." (Emphasis in original)

Another important part of the environmental safeguard measures mandated was an approved Environmental Action Plan (EAP) for the command area. This includes the drainage plans which are crucial. When a canal network is constructed, two impacts occur. One, the canals can cut across, block or divert natural drainage channels. This can lead to accumulation of rain water leading to floods. Second, canals bring to an area huge quantities of water - usually in excess of the capacities of its natural drainage which has evolved over centuries adapting to the local precipitation levels. Thus, canal irrigation can lead to waterlogging. To address both these issues, a drainage plan is particularly important.

The environmental action plan for the command area should have been ready before the start of construction of the canal and should have been implemented ahead of the start of irrigation. "But this has not happened in both the projects (SSP &ISP) and in all the three states [Gujarat and Rajasthan for SSP and MP for ISP]", says the report, adding that "all the three states have violated the stipulations and not complied on EAP." (Emphasis in original).

Circumventing clearances?

The Gujarat Government has been actively considering a piped network for the distribution of irrigation water, instead of the canal network. The ostensible reason for this is that farmers are not ready to part with the lands that need to be acquired to build the canals.

However, there may be another motive as well. Recently, the Chairman of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, Gujarat's agency to implement the project, was quoted as saying "The Narmada Control Authority keeps bothering us about environmental clearance in the command area by raising the bogey of hindrance to the natural flow of water during monsoon due to the canals. Now, no environmental clearance for the command area will be needed, as the pipelines will go on an average three meters deep below the farmers' fields".

 •  Wilful breaking of promises
 •  A moral breach in the dam

Violations are par for the environmental course

The Report once again brings out gross violations of environmental conditions and safeguards at the SSP and ISP. This is not an exception, but rather just one more episode in a continuing saga. It may be recollected that the Minority judgement by the Supreme Court in the Sardar Sarovar case had found such gross violations in the environmental studies, plans and implementation and had asked the project to seek clearance once again. This report of the expert committee, coming almost ten years later shows how little things have changed.

The report also raises - once again - the very serious issue of environmental accountability. The MoEF accords environmental clearance to a large number of projects, and many of these clearances include important conditions. However, there is little monitoring in terms of whether these conditions are being followed and whether environmental action plans are being implemented. More important, even when it is found - or brought to the notice of the ministry - that this is not being done, there is little action taken against the project. This absence of accountability has had serious consequences for the environment, and for the population in turn. It has also created an atmosphere that sanctions and gives legitimacy for violating environmental norms with impunity.

The apparent decision of the ESG to allow construction at SSP in face of such a unambiguous report shows that little may have changed at the Ministry of Environment and Forests, in spite of some refreshing indications earlier.