Book Review · Narmada

Book Review: Narmada Valley’s gripping story!

Guest blog by Abhilash Khandekar

BOOK: Rediscovering Narmada Valley; Author: Adil Khan; Publishers: Niyogi Books, New Delhi; 2020; Pages-208; Price: Rs 695/-

A life-giving organism can not be controversial, but in India rivers that ought to be naturally free-flowing have been made controversial by policy makers and politicians over the past few decades. Narmada is one of them!

RIVER BOOKS Rivers have been integral part of human civilisations since times immemorial. But well-researched books on rivers are a recent trend, especially in English, in India. In Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi and Hindi some river literature is available, however, in the past few years English language books are increasingly being written on various interesting facets of our rivers. Book lovers and environmentalists should welcome this phenomenon.

River of Life, River of Death (on the Ganges) by Victor Mallet; Living Rivers and Dying Rivers by India’s eminent river expert late Ramaswamy R Iyer and Unquiet River (on Brahmaputra) by Arupjyoti Saikia are among the recent scholarly additions towards enriching the river literature in India. There also are many coffee table pictorial books on rivers but they are in different category.

Each river has its own history, unique ecology and some of them have their share of controversies associated with that. Cauvery, Krishna, besides Narmada, are among them. I find river-writing as a rapidly emerging genre of literary pursuits although it is not an easy task for any author.

I being from Madhya Pradesh, the origin of Narmada river–among the very few major rivers that flows from east to west–was naturally attracted to a new book about the sacred river. ‘Rediscovering Narmada Valley‘ does not speak much about river ecology as the author is not a (river) scientist, yet it is a research work trying to trace the various important milestones and controversies related to dam building efforts across Narmada and the related issues. The author, a resident of MP, has taken several ‘dips’ into government archives, while dealing with Narmada Valley Development Authority. The focus of the author is on the need for power generation through dams, enhancement of irrigation potential, displacement trauma faced by thousands of people from the valley, the rehabilitation issues, water politics and the protracted bitter fight between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh over the height of Sardar Sarovar Dam etc. Unfortunately, understanding and sustaining the rivers & related issues are not reflected in this book.

The history of how the idea of dam building started in the British times (1901) and gained momentum over the next few decades makes the book little different from the ones named above. I remember having read many years ago a book,  ‘Cultural Heritage of Narmada Valley’  brought out as a collection of essays revolving around archaeology, heritage and culture of the river around Hoshangabad district. It was a collective effort led by the then collector Faiz Ahamad Kidwai. District collectors rarely do such works. Then, The Nature Conservancy, a New Delhi-based organisation, brought out ‘Common Plants of the Riparian Zone of the River Narmada’. This little scientific book is on scientific florae of Hoshangabad and Harda districts. Then Divisional Commissioner Umakant Umrao, like Faiz, a senior civil servant, who had worked on water a lot, was instrumental behind this beautiful compendium. Both are rare examples of bureaucrats’ interests in rivers.

The Narmada Dam History The book under review is entirely different from the above two. Packed with statistics and historical facts culled from official records over the past many decades, the author has sketched an absorbing profile of building dams on the Madhya Pradesh’s lifeline. Author Adil Khan was a publicity officer in MP Government but with a bent of scholarly mind and approach. He has written a Hindi book on Narmada related issues a few years ago. Khan has utilised his long years with the NVDA (Narmada Valley Development Authority) to understand the dams on the river from a perspective of government and narrated how the river became a bone of contention among political leaders in Delhi, Bhopal, Ahmedabad and Mumbai who wanted more share of electricity and water, but did not fight to lessen the plight of the people of the valley or the river. The author has subtly underlined the economic importance of the dams on the river while dealing with government agenda of building dams on the river.

World’s the biggest movement? As a journalist, I had had the opportunity to cover the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activities for many years. NBA, winner of Right Livelihood and Goldman Environment prize, was led by Medha Patkar. NBA had consistently opposed the construction of big dams and for three decades with information and documents that NBA gathered from the government as well as from the ground. NBA did everything possible to stop the unjust dams and get justice to peasants and poor tribals of the vast Narmada valley. The book briefly mentions how Medha was targeted by successive Gujarat CMs as well as Delhi Government. The author says that she was tacitly supported by MP CM Digvijaya Singh who ruled the state for 10 years, but that does not seem entirely right, as Singh supported NBA in a limited way trying to reduce the final height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam from 455 feet to 436 feet and not beyond.

It was, in fact, that stark contrast between MP and Gujarat borders at Ferkuwa in 1990-91 that raised the consciousness of the country and the world about the difficult struggle that the ragtag army of NBA was fighting against the might of the powerful governments and even the World Bank that signed agreement to fund the dam way back in 1985 which again triggered protests all over in the years to come.

It was during that long march of NBA, led by famous Gandhian leader Baba Amte and accompanied by the mobilization of the civil society in India and internationally that NBA had achieved over the years, that forced the World Bank to agree to set up an independent Review of the project. The announcement of the review lead to withdrawal of the indefinite fast by Medha and six others at Ferkuwa on January 30, 1991, Gandhi Nirvan day. That independent Review was known as Morse Committee (Bradford Morse, former UN official who headed it). All the state governments and central government did everything in their power to influence the Morse Committee, but ultimately truth prevailed. The Morse Committee submitted its report in June 1992 and said that the WB should dissociate itself from SSP. This gave NBA a shot in the arm. They quickly organised a big victory rally in Kasrawad, in Khargone district. Many social leaders like Baba Amte, Swami Agnivesh and the likes lent their support to NBA.

The World Bank even after the clear verdict of the Morse Committee was not ready to get out of the project, but the campaign of the NBA and international civil society solidarity groups continued and ultimately in March 1993 the Bank announced that the funding to the World Bank is withdrawn. This is historical, unprecedented victory of the NBA fight for justice. NBA could not stop the dam but achieved a lot. As Supreme Court Chief Justice M N Venkatchaliah said in 1994, while admitting NBA’s comprehensive petition against the dam, NBA had raised the national consciousness on the issue of dams and displacement. Over 5000 SSP displaced families actually got 2 ha of cultivable land, never before in history of independent India this has happened. NBA’s achievements are many from policy to practices, and author has tried to deal with some of this.

The book has given interesting historical data about irrigation, hydro power generation from major and minor dam projects across India’s holiest river and also significant events related to Narmada valley. And curiously, the author does not offer his comments or opinions on most of the events, political or otherwise due to his limitations being a government official.

Divided into 29 small chapters that make reading comfortable, the book starts from 1901 when the 1st Irrigation Commission of India, in its report, observed the desirability of constructing a barrage on Narmada near Bharuch in Gujarat. So, from 1901 to Sept 2017 when the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) was formally inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his birthday, one gets to read the parts of long and chequered history, if not in greater details, but adequately, in the small book. It may be added here that Modi may have declared the project complete on his birthday, the key component of canals that would help take the waters to real drought prone areas of Gujarat for whom the project was justified, is still incomplete.

After the Narmada Tribunal Award Reader gets to know ‘The Politics of Water’ in a separate chapter in which the author refers to the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) which had in its final Award in December 1979, decided that Gujarat would get 9 MAF (million acres feet) water and that the height of the SSP dam would be 455 ft (138.68 meters). The author could also have mentioned that Gujarat’s share in catchment area of Narmada basin at the SSP dam site was just 2% and yet got 32% (9 MAF out of 28 MAF water available at 75% dependability) water. This is because Gujarat claimed before the Tribunal that it wants to take that water to Gujarat’s drought prone areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat. But when it came to actual allocation of water, Gujarat allocated sufficient water to irrigate just 2% of cultivable land of Kutch, 9% of Saurashtra and 20% of North Gujarat. That too as tail end and not as top or first priority.

Quickly after NWDT award, the anti-dam groups in MP and Gujarat began nation-wide agitations. While Gujarat was happy that finally the dam height which they wanted (it was lower than what they demanded before the NWDT) was fixed by the tribunal, MP leaders were opposed to it as large tracts of irrigated land in the valley in MP would get submerged. The ‘Save Nimar Agitation’ was launched just before NBA had got its act together in 1985 onwards. In those days 5000 plus demonstrators, led by Congress leaders Arjun Singh and Motilal Vora, came on to the streets in Bhopal and forced the Janata Party CM Virendra Kumar Saklecha to give a statement in the Assembly that MP was opposed to the Award. When Arjun Singh  became the CM in 1980 and the Award came up before cabinet for approval, Shiv BhanuSingh Solanki, a senior tribal minister, opposed the approval of Award and the matter had to be sent to central government for review.

The story of Narmada valley, as described by the author, explains to its readers clearly how the dam in Bharuch was the first issue of contention–political, legal and otherwise-and how eventually it became a dogfight between two states over the height of the dam by few meters as it impacted large number of farmers from the central India. While all leaders and successive chief ministers in Gujarat (Suresh Mehta, Chhabildas Mehta, Amar Singh Chaudhary, Keshubhai Patel, ShankarsinhVaghela, Chimanbhai Patel and Narendra Modi) cutting across party lines, were for 455 ft height, in MP at least Digvijay Singh tried to get it reduced. Surprisingly, a very tall leader (literally too) from MP, VC Shukla, as Union Water Resources Minister, assured a delegation of Gujarat MPs, in February 1994, that the height of SSP Dam would not be brought down. But a month later, a new chief minister Digvijay Singh made a statement in the State Assembly that fertile land in large tracts in Nimar region and life of 30,000 plus families in MP can be saved only if Gujarat agreed to reducing the dam height to 436 feet. MP filed an affidavit in Supreme Court in the NBA petition, explaining why it wanted reduced height. The then Union Environment Minister Kamal Nath, unlike Shukla, sided with MP, writes the author.

Prime ministers Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, NarasimhaRao, Deve Gowda, all played important roles in negotiating truce between the warring factions but none could show the political will to arrive at right decision as agitations kept mounting pressures on governments of the day. One possible exception was Rajiv Gandhi. TN Seshan was then secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, and refused to clear the dam for four years, saying the dam has not done basic studies. Rajiv Gandhi supported him till early 1987, by when he was politically weaker and could not perhaps stand the pressure from the combined pressure of chief ministers of four western states of Gujarat, MP, Maharashtra and Rajasthan asking for clearance to the project, the World Bank pressure had already started in 1985.

Way back in 1972, MP had submitted a master plan to NDWT as per which 29 large, 135 medium and about 3000 small dams were proposed. Projects on Narmada tributaries were also planned at Barna, Tawa, Mann and Kolar etc. On the basis of share in catchment area, Madhya Pradesh had much greater right in share in Narmada Water. But NWDT had allocated only 18.25 MAF water to MP out of the total 28 MAF assessed water in Narmada basin that time. To complete the projects with multi-crore rupees budgets, more agencies such as NVD Department and Narmada Planning Agency were created in the 80s. Narmada Control Authority was created as per NWDT award to manage the interstate issues. Later on Rehabilitation and Environment sub-groups were also formed. The dam centric development continues, though in case of Maheshwar, after spending crores of rupees, the government has now, in 2020, realized it is not an economically viable project.

The Gujarat-MP conflict though came to an end, as it seemed then, due to the final order by Supreme Court on 18 October, 2000, which granted permission for filling the dam upto full height of 455 ft (138.68 meters), agitations for rehabilitation and environment issues continued and dam inauguration could only happen 17 years later by PM Modi, that too of still an incomplete project. But it was a judgement which was by a majority of 2:1. CJI AS Anand and Justice BN Kirpal were on one side, and that part had some rather disturbing suggestions about dams and tribals. Justice Bharucha was the lone dissenter who wanted construction stopped and a comprehensive independent review done. Author says this gave a setback to NBA but NBA continued agitation for the people and environment. SC had also said that environment aspects and rehabilitation be completed as required by NWDT and law.

Narmada Man (Photo from Adil Khan book)

The author also touches the aspect of archaeological assets of pre-historic and post-historic era. Excavations in places like Maheshwar, Navadatoli, Pantnagar, Khapakheda, provided evidences of copper-age culture in this belt. A 12th century Riddheshwar Temple in Harda district (Handia) has been preserved by erecting a wall around it. The valley also discovered around 86 million-year-old fossil of a rare species of an oyster, reconfirming marine life in Central India. A Narmada man Homo Erecuts Narmadensis) was also found there many years. (See photo) Historical evidences of lion, Panther, primeval elephant, rhinoceros and even hippopotamus have also been found in the valley millions years ago, according to a list given in the book.

India’s most talked about dam project still incomplete Wrapping up, this book covers one of India’s most talked about but least studied dam projects, India and possibly the world’s biggest movement, the lengthy legal disputes, environment angles etc and with that provides the readers a rare insider view into the politics of dam, how governments of the day handled (or mishandled) the mega project and what it ultimately achieved. Sardar Sarovar project remains to be completed and as the saga of Maheshwar dam shows, the struggle of the river to survive dam onslaught continues.

[The reviewer is a senior journalist who writes on environment, politics and urban issues. He can be contacted at and on his Tweeter-@Abhikhandekar1]

NOTE: A version of this has been published at:  on July 9, 2020.

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