The recent decision by the Narmada Control Authority to allow the Gujarat government to raise the height of Sardar Sarovar Dam from 100 mts to 110.64 mts has led to spate of speculations regarding benefits. There has been a number of print advertisements sponsored by corporate houses during the last few weeks hailing three political leaders - Vajpayee, Advani and Modi - who made this decision possible, and extolling benefits to be harnessed at this height. At times they also claim to be speaking on behalf of 5 crore Gujaratis.

This time the Chief Minister didn’t fly in by government aircraft hitting the helipad in Kevadiya – one of six villages whose inhabitants lost their lands to the project colony, but who are yet to get their rehabilitation rights settled. Instead the CM was occupied with his election yatra. Fifty five kilometers from the wall of the Sardar Sarovar Dam - the most visible sign of the project - the Election Commission cried halt to the yatra, keeping Modi away. That didn't stop corporate stand-ins to send the same message of successful 'development'.

Three years after the earthquake hit Kutch and ravaged the irrigation infrastructure, the state is yet to come out with a progress report on how has it utilized multilateral bank loans towards strengthening quake ravaged dams in Kutch. The government was enthusiastic to divert Rs.540 crore from ADB’s post earthquake reconstruction assistance towards Narmada-based pipelines, while several quake ravaged Dams continued to lie without being strengthened. As a result, while the risk of catastrophic failure of damaged dams continues, what 5 crore Gujaratis have as their breakfast diet is corporate sponsored advertisements promising irrigation to 2 lakh hectares, 254 MW electricity generation and drinking water to 8215 villages and 135 towns.

However, the challenge of harnessing the benefits as per the original plans is immense. The promises made to Saurashtra and Kutch are for domestic political consumption; the current focus bears no relation to that promise. While the CM does not miss any chance to describe the Sardar Sarovar Project as a dream project of 5 crore Gujaratis, at Global Investors Meets all the language about drought-prone Kutch and Saurashtra is swiftly set aside. An official presentation at one such meet during last September described 'Canal tourism' as the future. Another presentation by SSNNL proposed to develop the Dam site colony as an “eco-tourism site” at a cost of Rs 170 crore.

In May 2003, the waters of the Narmada were promised to people in Kutch. Media then captured Kutchi men and women dancing, rejoicing and celebrating “Narmada water reaching Kutch” in the choicest idioms. One news magazine called the event “Ripples in Ran”. Beyond those ripples and celebrations there was deep current that remained unnoticed and unreported. Only four days later the event NCA was to allow Gujarat to raise the height of the dam from 95 mts to 100 mts, and four months later the Gujarati corporate community would discuss how to reap commercial benefits from the canal and the dam site.

Last year whatever irrigation could be noticed was done by pumping out waters from the Main Canal using diesel motors, since the command area has not been developed for irrigation by project authorities. Yet, a further increase in the height of the dam was sought, in the name of irrigation.
Meanwhile, in Bhuj, the last town to get piped Narmada water in August 2003, the dream supply lasted barely a month. Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board officials told various municipalities in Kutch that the supply was halted because the Narmada canal up to Maliya was yet to be cement lined. Gandhidham - located very close to Tappar Dam, which was filled up to brim – reported water scarcity in October, since the water supply schemes based on Tappar Dam were left unfunded.

Last year whatever irrigation could be noticed was done by pumping out waters from the Main Canal using diesel motors, since the command area has not been developed for irrigation by project authorities. Yet, a further increase in the height of the dam was sought, in the name of irrigation.

Using information now available, it appears that to complete the ambitious 66,000 kms canal network, it would require to raise Rs.17,000 crores – i.e. an amount equal to three times the annual state plan – and the progress made on this front is like the first step in the marathon. A senior official in the irrigation department, requesting anonymity, shows the TECS 1983 cost estimates and points out that proportionately 45% of finance was said to be consumed by the canal and distributory network even then. The fixation on getting the height of the dam raised while leaving the irrigation network unfunded has put the state treasury at great risk, without the promised benefits.

There have been talks aimed at instituting a separate Sardar Sarovar Command Area Development Authority, but the necessary legal permission is yet to be granted for this. Again, decisions are not yet taken about who would undertake the works on field channels, at what cost, and who will fund the expenses. Another purported focus is the formation of Water Users Associations in the command area that would monitor the distribution of irrigation water as per the original planning, and take care of maintenance expenses.

All this is quite far from reality. Even in the first phase of 144 kms of the main canal and branch and sub branch canals, at many places there are missing links, as well as leakages in structures. At some places there are disputesover land and in other places even the tenders for the said work are still under negotiations.

Even on the drinking water benefits, not even 12% of the villages claimed in those advertisements to be supplied drinking water have started getting reliable drinking water supply, as independent surveys show. Tushar Shah, co-ordinator of the International Water Management Institute says, revealing results of an independent study of 500 villages, “373 villages got water in varying quantities and 62 villages are yet to get a drop of Narmada water.” In the next three months or so, the institute will complete the survey of all the 1200 villages that the state government says are being provided water through the Sardar Sarovar Project, Shah promises.

If the already sampled villages are any indication, the whole picture isn't going to provide much comfort. The distribution network has been ignored and underfunded, and no amount of media management, or further raises in the height of the dam, can make water flow through pipes that don't exist.