Gujarat Government may have won the eight-year-long battle to install 30 sluice gates at Sardar Sarovar dam on the river Narmada, thereby increasing its height by 17 metres to 138.68 m, but its real challenge may have just begun.

The Sardar Sarovar project has been unique as it has seen a political ‘consensus’ among all parties in Gujarat. Off and on, there has also been a demand that the Centre declare it a “national project” of importance involving four beneficiary States. But different political parties ruling these States and the Centre at different times during the last few decades has taken its toll on timely completion of the project.

Interestingly, the then Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, had to sit on a 51-hour fast in April 2006 following which the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) allowed the dam’s height to be increased from 110 m to 121.92 m. With the height now set to achieve its full level of 138.68 m, the Narmada waters would irrigate an additional 6.8 lakh hectares and generate an extra 40 per cent hydel power, besides providing more drinking water.

Canal network So far, the State Government had completed construction of only 22,284 km of canal network, out of a total of 72,624 km planned. This means, now, the Government will have to rush through the construction of nearly 52,340-km-long canal network so that benefits of Narmada waters could reach across Gujarat.

Work on increasing the dam’s height remained stalled since the last few years as further approval from the NCA was awaited. However, expansion of the canal network, for which the State needed no approval, also remained sluggish with the Government taking shelter behind the height issue and a host of other reasons such as land acquisition, railway lines and forest land.

So far, only the Narmada Main Canal, having a total length of 485.32 km, has been completed, while 2,168 km out of 2,585 km of branch canals has been achieved. On the other hand, only 2,469 km of Vishakha or sub-canals (out of 5,112 km), 6,972 km of Prashakha or tributary canals (out of 18,413 km) and 10,216 km of Pra-prashakha canals (out of 48,058 km) have been constructed.

Clearly, the task is daunting: if the State Government could take about four decades to construct 22,284 km since 1982, it is anybody’s guess how long will it take to build the remaining 52,340 km. As of now, the State Government has spent about ₹40,000 crore on the mammoth project, while works worth ₹8,000 crore are in progress.

Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd Managing Director JN Singh said construction work on sluice gates is expected to commence soon after the monsoon. It will take about three years to complete this work and increase the dam’s height to its fullest. .

Veteran Congress leader and former Narmada Minister Sanat Mehta, who was the prime mover of the project in the 1980s, said the benefits of the increased height of the dam could be reaped only when the canal network is completed and the Narmada waters actually reach the parched farmlands of Kutch and Saurashtra regions.

The Narmada water from Sardar Sarovar dam would irrigate a total of 18 lakh hectares of additional land in Gujarat. However, with inadequate development of canal network, only about a 10th of this land is being irrigated now.

Opposition The mega-project, originally conceived in the early 1950s, took off in 1982. Soon, it got bogged down in multifarious issues related to environment, relief and rehabilitation of the displaced people, court cases, etc.

Taking exception to NCA’s latest decision, environmentalists have voiced concern again. Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar has reiterated the issue of inadequate efforts made for relief and rehabilitation of 2.5 lakh people displaced, mainly in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.

Similarly, Vadodara-based activist Rohit Prajapati said it would lead to submergence of thousands of hectares of land and displacement of lakhs of tribals and farmers in Gujarat, MP and Maharashtra. Even without increasing the dam’s height, Gujarat and Rajasthan could have got their share of water, although they are unable to use even 20 per cent of the water they are already getting. With the dam’s increased height, the only benefit will be in power generation in which Gujarat will get only 16 per cent while Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra will get 57 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively.