Magazine article New Internationalist

At the End of the Line

Magazine article New Internationalist

At the End of the Line

Article excerpt

At the end of the line

The Sardar Sarovar Project is justified on the grounds that it will solve water scarcity in drought-stricken Gujarat. But will it? At journey's end it seems most unlikely.

THE canal leading from behind the Sardar Sarovar to take Narmada's waters north into Gujarat is touted as the largest of its kind in the world. Viewed from the bridge at Undwa village, the canal is a vast unnatural concrete non-river stretching away into the distance. It goes on for 460 kilometres, up to the Rajasthan border.

This concrete extravaganza, like the Sardar Sarovar itself, has none of the beauty of the biblical wonder. Cracks and weeds have already appeared. How will this grandiose trunk waterway and all its dependent streams ever be maintained - let alone managed properly - over their 75,000 kilometre length? Many believe that Narmada water will never reach the end of the line.

The canals and the dam have cost the Gujarat Government a whopping 80 per cent of their irrigation budget over the past ten years. In the 2000-2001 annual plan, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) was allocated $811 million - half the state's entire budget. So there is little for other water-related schemes. The expenditure is justified by talking up the SSP as the `lifeline of Gujarat' - the only thing to redeem water scarcity in the remote districts of Saurashtra and Kutch. Yet no water can enter the canal by gravity until the dam reaches 110 metres.

The authorities have put millions of rupees into contractors' pockets, plus created a speculators' paradise in canal-side land and so far ended up with a vast, empty canal network. Meanwhile their poorest citizens are desperate for water - and angry. So they recently decided to pump water into the canal from the Sardar Sarovar reservoir, and with a great fanfare send it up to Saurashtra and Kutch. In April, the Mayor of Rajkot in the drought-stricken heart of Saurashtra described this as `a cruel joke'. The waters from Narmada are a trickle.

In Undwa village we call on Bhaijibhai. This elderly farmer belongs to one of 100 local families displaced to make way for the canal - and not given `project-affected' status. `In 1979 the Collector sent a notice that our land would be taken. He said we would get a lot of benefits, that one family member would get a job. But until now no-one has a job. For a while we became labourers on the canal, and after this, nothing. From Khatedars [land-owners] we became day-labourers and paupers.'

What about compensation for their land? `We were paid Rs 2,800 ($61) per acre in two instalments. Our family owned 19 acres with 17 in the canal path. Of the remaining two, one and a half were since taken for a branch canal. So now we have half an acre left.' On this they grow food crops, fertilized from the manure of their remaining six cattle. Bhaiji has done better than some of the other families. Seven have absolutely no land left at all. `We have applied, and struggled, and tried to get replacement land. We have put up petitions to each and every officer. To no avail.'

In 1979 land cost Rs 6,000 an acre, so the Rs 2,800 they were given could not possibly purchase new land - especially as it came in instalments. Now land costs Rs 70,000 an acre. This inflation stems from speculation against the day when the waters flow. `Only the rich people along the sides of the canals will get water,' says Bhaijibhai. `There will be bribes to get take-off. The engineer will be paid, the person who gives a license will be paid. What about the person who has lost all his land? All the Government has to do is to obey their rule to give one hectare to that person so that he can at least grow some food. But so far no-one has been given anything.'

Despite his venerability - he is in his late 70s - Bhaijibhai regularly takes part in Andolan activities. He has been as far as Mumbai and Delhi. He is unused to traffic and crowds and has sustained three accidents. …

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