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Insights Into Editorial: Is the Sardar Sarovar Dam boon or bane?

Insights Into Editorial: Is the Sardar Sarovar Dam boon or bane?


Prime Minister inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat on his 67th birthday. PM called the dam an engineering marvel. “A massive misinformation campaign was launched against the dam project, which is an engineering miracle,” he said.

The foundation stone was laid by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru nearly six decades ago, on April 5, 1961. But, the construction began only in 1987. The Prime Minister said the Sardar Sarovar Dam will become a symbol of India’s new and emerging power. It is the second biggest dam in the world after the Grand Coulee Dam in the United States.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam is a gravity dam on the Narmada River near Navagam, Gujarat in India. The construction and development of Sardar Sarovar Dam lie between three states of India. They are Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. The Sardar Sarovar dam Project is said to be the lifeline of Gujarat, and a very beneficial resource for the rural areas in these states.

The dam is a case of development which affects the environment directly and indirectly.

Sardar Sarovar project

The Sardar Sarovar Project was taken up after the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal gave its final award vis-à-vis Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh in 1979.

The Sardar Sarovar project is the second biggest dam in terms of volume of concrete used in it. The project, on the Narmada River, is the third highest concrete dam in India.

The 1.2-km-long dam, which is 163 metres deep, has an installed capacity of 1,200 MW and 250 MW, respectively. Officials say the power generated from the dam would be shared among three states — Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The new gates raise the height of the dam to 138.68 metres. The Narmada Control Authority in June granted permission to the state government to close the gates, which will raise water level in the Sardar Sarovar reservoir, after being convinced that rehabilitation of the people displaced due to the project was complete.

The water level in the submergence area of the dam in Barwani and Dhar districts of Madhya Pradesh is rising steadily since closure of the dam’s gates began in July. The Narmada Bachao Andolan group claims that 40,000 families in 192 villages in Madhya Pradesh would be displaced when the reservoir is filled to its optimum capacity

Activists have been long demanding that the filling of the reservoir with water be stopped immediately and the dam’s gates remain open so as to reduce the water level.

How is Sardar Sarovar Dam Project is a lifeline for the drought-prone areas of Gujarat?

The Sardar Sarovar Dam Project (SSP) was proposed as a multipurpose dam and was intended to be beneficial to the four states. It has the third largest spillway discharge capacity in the world that is 87000 m3/ second.

The benefits from the project are immense. The following list of benefits shows how the SSP is a lifeline for the drought-prone and parched areas of Gujarat.

  • The waters of the Narmada river would flow into the sea being unused, and could be used for serving many dry towns, villages and districts of Gujarat. There was a tremendous amount of water flowing that could also serve the neighbouring provinces.
  • It was determined that after the successful completion of the project, the dam would provide water to 30 million people (including 9633 villages and 131 towns) that could be used for industrial and domestic purposes.
  • The SSP would employ about one million people starting from the start to end of the project.
  • There are many regions in Gujarat and Rajasthan that are out of electricity almost throughout the year. To overcome this issue, the powerhouse was installed with a capacity of 1450MW, which would provide electricity to those areas in the peak hours of the day.
  • The farmers would also get electricity to pump the water and water their farmlands. This will increase agricultural production.
  • The SSP will provide water for irrigation and benefit 1.8 million hectares of land. Besides, 2.46 lakh hectares in Rajasthan will be also irrigated.
  • Drinking water will be provided to 9,500 villages, 173 towns of Gujarat and 124 villages of Rajasthan.
  • The project will provide flood protection to an area of about 30,000 hectares which is prone to the fury of floods.
  • The Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary area is going to increase from 150 square kilometres to 607 square kilometres.

What are the shortcomings of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project?

The project was being conceptualised since the early 1940s but the dam construction could not be planned properly for a long time as there was no agreement on the sharing of waters. After the Narmada tribunal was instituted in 1969, and with the award announced in 1979, the project was operationalized in full swing.

For the initial stage of construction there were disputes within the states, and this dispute was referred as a Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, established under India’s Interstate Water Disputes Act, 1956. In 1985, World Bank financed India with loan of US $450 million as an aid for construction of the dam and canal.

  • According to the World Bank, the project started with very little assessment of resettlement and rehabilitation, and environmental impact.
  • People who lost their lands and were under submergence received little compensation, which was hardly sufficient to find a replacement land.
  • The states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra provided little land for resettlement.
  • The displacement of the people caused them to adapt a new and different lifestyle. Now, they were more dependent on public institutions and services than, living a non-dependent and isolated life.
  • The policy of resettlement was based on the 1979 Tribunal act, both by the SSP and World Bank. However, the tribunal act was just set for resolving the disputes with the states, not for the resettlement of the affected people.
  • The culture and heritage of those people being displaced has been lost.
  • In addition, farmers lost their land; huge cultivated land was removed and used for construction of the dam.
  • Farmers and tribal people who made their living from that land had nothing to depend on now; they were without a home and employment.
  • The livelihood of at least 10,000 families depending on the Narmada estuary has been affected.
  • Gujarat’s major attraction from the SSP was 11 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water to irrigate 1.8 million hectares of its parched land. But, the SSP irrigates less than a quarter of this area, benefitting little more land than was acquired to construct it
  • The Narmada Bachao Andoloan is formed by the group of people that represent all the tribal people, and take action for their rights. The Narmada Bachao Andoloan had many conflicts with the government of India, its policies and actions. There were constant protests and hunger strikes for bringing an end to the construction of the dam.
  • The political, economic and environmental negative affects went hand in hand, and continued simultaneously.

The need of the hour

Aquifers are omnipresent. Farmers access them through wells and tube wells. Increased storage in aquifers directly and immediately translates into benefits for the user. Not so with dams like the SSP.

  • Their benefits depend on an effective distribution system. All the incomplete canal network of the project should be completed.
  • The Sardar Sarovar Project needs to be reimagined in today’s context. Gujarat’s irrigation challenge is the annual ₹10,000 crore subsidy bill for farm power supply. Spreading SSP water on depleted aquifers can cut this bill down to a quarter, bolster the finances of distribution companies and cut power cost for the industry.
  • Task of rehabilitation and resettlement of affected people should be completed immediately.
  • There is a need of an independent review of the project on continuous basis in fulfil the real objectives of the project. There should be tracking of sufficient data starting from the scratch.
  • Much of the information about the project derived from government data, rather than from recent, independent, empirical data. Studies should take into consideration the seasonal temporal variations in the climate and many other important parameters.
  • Fluoride in groundwater that most Gujaratis use for drinking is a public health time bomb. Bringing SSP water to every home can defuse this.
  • With 11 BCM in live storage, Gujarat can ensure water for people and livestock for two successive droughts. But all these can happen only if it creates and masters a distribution system that carries dam water to every home and every field.
  • Along with half a million check dams and desilting old tanks and reservoirs, SSP should be utilised properly for the groundwater recharge.
  • Environment safeguards should be put in place.


The water security of the country depends on water storage. Our water storage is low when compared to Russia (per capita storage of 6,100 cubic metres), the U.S. (1,960 cubic metres), China (1,100 cubic metres); in India, it is only about 200 cubic metres. Unless we have water storage, we cannot have water security. As per the National Commission report of 1999, we should have storage of about 450 billion cubic metres; we have so far only developed 253 billion cubic metres of storage — dams and reservoirs taken together. About 50 billion cubic metres of storage is under development.

Our food security and energy security are also dependent on water security. Lastly, inter-linking of rivers is essential to addressing the problem of floods and droughts in the country because water from the basins of water-surplus Brahmaputra, Ganga and Mahanadi rivers can be channelized to deficit areas. This would require storage by means of large dams. Planners and Policy makers should ensure that the lives of affected people are well safeguarded along with timely completion of large projects like SSP.