The Sardar Sarovar dam that prime minister Narendra Modi inaugurated last week is no doubt a valuable addition to India’s infrastructure. The project will help irrigate over 18 lakh hectares of land (covering 3,112 villages) in Gujarat and 2.46 lakh ha in the desert districts of Barmer and Jallore in Rajasthan and 37,500 ha in tribal districts in Maharashtra. Given nearly three-quarters of the command area in Gujarat and the entire command area in Rajasthan is drought-prone, the project goes a long way in ensuring water security in these reaches. It is also expected to deliver 0.86 million acre feet of drinking water to 131 urban centres and 9,633 villages in Gujarat—that’s more than half the villages in the entire state—which together have a population of around 28 million. For many villages in the Saurashtra and Kachchh region that abut the sea, this would mean a welcome relief from the high salinity and fluoride content in ground water. Two hydro-power units that are part of the the Sardar Sarovar project will generate 1200 MW and 250 MW, respectively, to be shared between Madhya Pradesh (57%), Maharashtra (27% ) and Gujarat (16%). But, for these benefits to be truly meaningful, there has to be a resolution of the problems associated with the project. One of the reasons why it didn’t get complete for 54 years is the fact that rehabilitation and resettlement is yet to get a neat resolution—though the Supreme Court ordered earlier this year that those displaced because of the project must receive Rs 60 lakh each as compensation for losing their land and be provided proper rehabilitation, the number of oustees and those threatened by submergence is something that is hotly contested between activists and the government.
There have been claims of sub-par resettlement sites being offered, where there is no water and power connection. And even if these problems were to be resolved, the bigger problem is that much work still needs to be done on the canal network for the Sardar Sarovar project to be truly complete. Of the 71,748 km of the planned canal system, just 49,313 km will have been completed by 2017-18, though the bulk of the lag is concentrated in the sub-minor canal network. Consequently, a third of the irrigation potential will remain unrealised. With nearly a third of the canal system still to come up, the project risks losing a great volume of monsoonal rainfall to run-off. That’s bad news for a country that is water-scarce—despite getting 2,600 billion cubic metres (bcm) of rain even in a bad year, and needing just 1,100 bcm to meet its needs, India’s reservoir capacity stands at a mere 253 bcm. The excess water that could have been diverted through the unbuilt canals thus becomes a notional loss. That the Sardar Sarovar project has been realised despite funding constraints—the World Bank infamously pulled out of the project in 1996 citing environmental concerns—is definitely reason for cheer. But, the fact that India took 54 years to get here—and add to it a couple of more years till the project is fully complete, with R&R claims satisfactorily resolved—takes off some of the sheen.