(Above: Protest in Bharuch on Oct 8, 2017 when Prime Minister laid foundation stone for Bhadbhut Dam on Narmada)
“Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe” is these days a super hit song in Gujarati, which literally means “Development has gone mad”. In the just concluded Garba (form of traditional social dance in Gujarat) festival, this was hugely popular this year through out Gujarat. The song became popular, even before Prime Minister of India celebrated his birthday on Sept 7 by declaring completion of an incomplete Sardar Sarovar Project, heaping totally unnecessary, unjustified and unjust displacement on 40 000 families of Narmada Valley and killing the largest west flowing river of India. So much for the river rejuvenation claims his government has been making since May 2014. As if to complete the process, they have started another dam on Narmada, few kilometers downstream of Sardar Sarovar Dam, at Garudeshwar, even without any environmental impact assessment.
Downstream of Sardar Sarovar Dam there is 150 km of Naramda river that has been killed, since no freshwater is flowing downstream of the dam in non monsoon months and this year even in monsoon months. That stretch of river and people on its banks are suffering salinity ingress, pollution, lack of freshwater, groundwater salinity, impact on fisheries and even on agriculture. Now in the name of stopping that salinity ingress, the Prime Minister is to lay foundation stone for YET ANOTHER Dam on Narmada, this time called Bhadbhut Dam, to cost another Rs 4000 crores. No wonder, the dam is hugely and publicly being opposed by the people of Gujarat, including over 10 000 fisherfolk families. Possibly it was this madness the people of Gujarat were celebrating this Navratri!
Days before the SSP function, in removing Uma Bharti as Union Water Resources Minister in early September and replacing her with Nitin Gadkari, the PM showed another sign of dam fundamentalism of his government. Media was almost unanimous in declaring the failure of Uma Bharti in Water Resources Ministry. Her almost regular, weekly statements that Ken Betwa work will start soon, could not be realized, nor Ganga had any better state than what Uma ji inherited as minister.
Can we expect better state of our rivers or any improvement in state of our water resources under the new minister Shri Nitin Gadkari? In his home state Maharashtra when Rs 70 000 crore irrigation scam was exposed media had raised many questions about Nitin Gadkari writing to the UPA govt, asking for release of money for contractor involved in corruption ridden projects. It was interesting that after taking over the portfolio from Uma Bharti, Gadkari’s first stop was Maharashtra, to offer the Chief Minister Rs 55 000 crores for same corruption ridden irrigation projects in three years, claiming to increase area irrigated in state from current 18.8% to 40% in two years, very unconvincing, to put it most charitably. Even as surface transport minister till date, his advocacy for using rivers for inland waterways has not considered the impact of the project on rivers or its biodiversity or livelihoods of millions dependent on the river or many other aspects of the river rejuvenation, govt’s declared priority. India’s rivers and water resources will need to wait lot more before they see ache din, it seems.
While the previous Swami, claiming to work for improvement of rivers, Sri Ravi Shankar is still battling a case in National Green Tribunal for destroying Yamuna floodplain, we have a new one that asks people to send miss calls to improve the state of our rivers. Rally for Rivers, unfortunately does not even start with sound understanding of what is a river, what threats they are facing and what state they are in. Its 700 plus page draft policy recommendation submitted to the government seems to be written by people who do not understand either India’s water resources challenges or our rivers. But their leader, Jaggi Vasudev seems to have the support of the government in power. He has not problems with dams or interlinking of rivers! He has been asking state governments for land along the rivers for establishing pilots of tree plantation. Seeing all this. Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh, who earlier supported the rally, has turned into a critique.
But the Union government continues to push Inter Linking of Rivers in general and Ken Betwa Project in particular. Niti Ayog has also set up a committee to push big hydro in North East India, even in the face of continued evidence that big hydro is no longer viable. India is power surplus nation, and is likely to remain power surplus for decades to come. With cost of power from solar and wind based projects coming down to Rs 3 per unit or below that, and when there are no takers of power beyond that price on power exchanges, with half the powers on sale finding no takers, where is the question of viability of large hydro, when cost of power from large hydro is more than Rs 6 at the most conservative level, with all the attendant social, environmental impacts, risks, long gestation period and cost and time over runs?
But the logic does not seem to work when fundamentalism comes into play. So the 5040 MW Pancheshwar Project on Kali river on Indo-Nepal border is also being pushed, in a highly earthquake prone, landslide prone, flash flood prone area, involving a dam much bigger than Tehri. It will be over Rs 50 000 crore project, with Non Performing Asset writ large all over it. The Environmental Impact Assessment of the project by WAPCOS is as usual shoddy piece of work, and public hearings involved massive violations in presence of armed police. Our Prime Minister is going to Nepal in second week of October, to lay foundation stone of yet another dam, Arun 3 this time.
But we have better, non dam options. The just concluded monsoon was far from normal for most of the country, even though IMD declared it was normal. The dam Prime Minister declared complete on his birthday could not even be filled. The monsoon again told us loud and clear: Ground water is water lifeline of India and the only way to sustain is to harvest rainwater where it falls. It can also actually help kick start the growth, pacify angry farmers all over India among many other benefits. if only we were smart enough to see that. And smart enough to get a government that understands these realities.