Sardar Sarovar Project: Boon or Curse?

The distribution system needs to be reimagined to carry dam water to every home and field.

Tushaar Shah

After 35 years in the works, ₹48,000 crore in capex, 45,000 ousted families, 245 submerged villages and 250,000 hectares of land acquired, for Gujarat, the Sardar Sarovar Dam project (SSP) still remains just that, a promise. What would it take to redeem this promise?

Little gain so far

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. Sadly, the SSP irrigates less than a quarter of this area, benefitting little more land than was acquired to construct it. Is this benefit worth the costs?

Not yet. Since 1990, Gujarat has gained more from ₹800 crore invested in constructing half a million check dams and desilting old tanks and reservoirs. According to Central Ground Water Board data, Gujarat is the only State that has improved its groundwater levels since 2000. Many give credit for this to the SSP. But waters from the SSP circulate on less than 3,00,000 hectares of Gujarat’s 19.6-million-hectare landscape and cannot possibly have improved groundwater recharge all over the State. It is the check dams and desilted tanks all over the landscape that did the job. If Gujarat’s agriculture grew at 9% every year since 2000, it was largely because of decentralised community-driven groundwater recharge.

Distribution system failure

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. The SSP has been let down by the failure of its distribution system.

Back in the 1980s, SSP planners had proposed that beneficiary farmers would volunteer land and labour to build last-mile water courses to their fields. This was realistic in 1980 but not so today. Between then and now, Gujarat and its agriculture have morphed. Tube-well irrigation with subsidised electricity has emerged as the backbone of agriculture. Even in canal commands, farmers prefer tube-well irrigation-on-demand than waiting for occasional canal water release.

No wonder farmers have refused land for last-mile canal connectivity. Instead, farmers invested their own funds to install close to 1,00,000 pumps and millions of meters of over-ground and underground pipelines to lift SSP water and take it to their fields.

This surfeit of private pipelines was a godsend for SSP managers to innovate a farmer participatory regime for water distribution. Instead, Gujarat treated entrepreneurial pipeline irrigators as ‘water thieves’, unleashing police on them. It was only after a decade of failure in building water courses that Gujarat finally settled for underground piped distribution. But even then, instead of letting farmers do this in a regulated and planned manner, it gave the job to contractors unaware of the local dynamics. It is early days, but the results do not look promising.

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 cutpower cost for the industry. Flouride 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.

Tushaar Shah is a senior fellow at the International Water Management Institute