Daily News Analysis, July 24 2017, Gujarat: Election fever is catching up in Gujarat. While the BJP leadership has a challenge on its hands, especially to reign in the Patidar leader, Hardik Patel, over 3 lakh people will bear the cost of this election. The dinosaurian Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), conceived of over five decades ago, is now the pivot around which Gujaratis will be mobilised to vote. It has already been reported that in early August, the Prime Minister will inaugurate the dam by performing a Narmada aarti with 2,000 priests — a religious ritual that may fruitfully blend politics, development and nature.

The February 2017 order of the Supreme Court permitted the Gujarat government’s Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd to close the gates of the dam and submerge 37,690 hectares of homes, farms, and forests by July 31. What is troubling about this project, one might ask, if the apex court, four state governments and scores of experts who have been involved in the decision-making are all agreeable?

Firstly, the SSP takes us back to the time when projects were determined on the basis of an unsophisticated and outdated tool, the Cost-Benefit Analysis. In most parts of the world, including in India, we have moved away from the jaded and often misused Benthamite principle that legitimises the sacrifice of some for the benefit of many. Instead decision-makers now seek projects that confer “win-win” solutions.

The SSP’s website claims that the dam will ensure irrigation to 15 districts and drinking water to 131 urban centres and 9,633 villages in Gujarat. But as Rajiv Shah, a senior journalist, observed in July 2016, even before any water is delivered, “sea water from the Bay of Khambhat has intruded up to 40 kilometres eastwards into the Narmada” affecting “10,000 hectares of agricultural land.” He adds that the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) had warned the Gujarat government about this. In addition to these impacts in Gujarat, this “largest irrigation canal in the world” will displace entire villages and towns. In Madhya Pradesh alone, the count stands at 2.5 lakh people across 192 villages and one township.

Secondly, the SSP received an environmental clearance in 1987 with requirements for detailed surveys and studies. A rehabilitation plan was to be completed “ahead of reservoir filling”. But even today, the families residing in the proposed submergence area are not assured of their rightful rehabilitation. Understandably, they have refused to move. The SC’s 2017 order on rehabilitation left the question of rehabilitation amenities promised under the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal to a “Grievance Redressal Committee”. Yet, the order concluded that if people don’t vacate by July 31, it is “up to the state government” to remove them “forcibly”. While this may be appropriate as per the court’s wisdom, an elected government’s willingness to practise a politics of coercion rather than persuade the project-affected people is one that should concern us all.

Thirdly, the urgency to close the dam gates prior to the Gujarat elections puts paid to all the safeguard studies and assessments painstakingly generated over years due to pressure from the residents of the Narmada valley. The NCA was pushed to set up an Environment Sub-Group to monitor the completion of these studies. For six years between 2010 and 2016, the sub-group did not meet. When it did for the 49th time in August 2016, it was in a mood to expedite project approval.

On May 1, 2017, it approved the safeguards despite doubts over their implementation, stating it had “assurances” from the stakeholder state governments. These paper exercises failed to observe the cracks that have appeared in the project’s canals. As Ashish Kothari noted in his article in July 2016, Gujarati farmers in the downstream areas of the dam have gone unrecognised as project-affected people since the 1980s.

Five decades and 137 studies later, the paperwork on the project is done. The dam gates may close come August, but the Sardar Sarovar reservoir will be a testimony to how successive governments, the judiciary and experts stuck to their idea of gigantism at the cost of the very citizens they seek to serve.

Web: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-sardar-sarovar-project-comes-at-too-high-a-cost-for-citizens-2511618