The Sardar Sarovar Project or the SSP or the Narmada Dam as it's commonly known has been the site of one of India's longest environmental struggle. The debate about the Narmada is long and complex. Here I will only node some relevant issues regarding the project. My biases in this matter will become obvious as you read this, but I have tried to introduce dissenting opinion whenever possible. This dam that will be built, on India's Narmada river, threatens to displace thousands in two states, while bringing benefits to a third state. There are various environmental, political and economic arguments both for and against the dam. Here I wil cover just a few.

A list of abbreviations might help while reading this node

GoI- Government of India
GoM- Government of Maharashtra
GoG- Government of Gujarat
GoMP- Government of Madhya Pradesh
SSP- Sardar Sarovar Project
FRL- Full Reservoir Level
NBA- Narmada Bachao Andolan or Save the Narmada Campaign
R&R- Resettlement and Rehabilitation


The Narmada is India’s fifth largest river and covers a length of 1312 km emptying into the Gulf of Khambat in Gujarat. It runs through three large Indian states- Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh (MP). Over the years, there has been talk of the waters of the Narmada being harnessed especially for the parched regions of Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat. The image of this powerful and holy river emptying its contents into the sea, when it could be used to quench the thirst of millions in Gujarat is an evocative one, and a vision to make this into a reality was born soon was after Independence in 1947.

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru saw dams as the ‘temples of modern India’, and the dams on the Narmada were to be the biggest and most ambitious mega project that India had ever embarked upon. Right from its inception, the Narmada project was thus much more than a series of dams, it was a source of national pride, a symbol of India’s achievements in the post-Independence period.

In 1957 a team sent by the Central Water and Power Commission visited the area and in 1959 put forth a firm proposal for a dam at Navagam, to be built first to 160 feet and later to 300 feet. The current plan envisages 30 major, 135 medium and 3000 small dams to be built on the Narmada and its tributaries. The centrepiece of this is to be the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), stretching 4000 feet across the river and rising to the height of a 45-storey building. With its associated canals, irrigation works and power transmission lines, the SSP is the biggest water development project in India. This multi-billion dollar venture is expected to irrigate 4.8 million acres of farmland and bring drinking water to an estimated 30 million people. But, most crucially, it will also take away the land of an estimated 320,000 people , and adivasis (or tribals) who have lived on this land for generations.

It is this displacement of thousands of adivasis that first caught the attention of activists, notably, Medha Patkar, a young graduate student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Her work among the people of the region revealed that they had little knowledge about the fate that was going to befall them. She began to agitate and organize the people of the region and in the 1980s the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the NBA was formed. As more and more activists got involved, other issues came to light- was the government lying about the actual benefits of the project? Would the water ever really reach the people of Kutch and Saurashtra? What were the environmental costs of the project? How would the government resettle and rehabilitate so many thousands of people? Who were these people who were being displaced, and would they benefit at all from the project? These were questions that were being asked in the early years of the struggle against the dam and continue to be relevant today.

The most crucial issue that has dogged the project is that of resettlement and rehabilitation. The issue of rehabilitation and resettlement is crucial not merely because the life and livelihood of hundreds and thousands of people are at stake, but also because it brings to the forefront important questions about the developmental model that has been followed in the country. Is it justified to ask hundreds and thousands to make sacrifices in the greater ‘national interest’ with little or no compensation? On the other hand, how does a country like India develop and construct mega-projects without displacing people and disrupting the lives of certain communities? Are the activists who claim that the tribal way of life is superior to the one that will be imposed on them by the new circumstances merely living in fools’ paradise; are they glorifying a way of life that is in fact untenable, unfair and oppressive? What sorts of rights should the development-induced displaced have?

Squabbling between the three principal states

Right from its inception the SSP was embroiled in the political shenanigans being played out between the politicians of the three states in question. That these are three of India’s largest states geographically, and contain a substantial portion of the total strength of the Indian lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, is an added reason why constructing the dam in favour of one state or another would have political implications. These were years of Congress domination in both state level and national politics. For the Congress, promoting dams such as the SSP were perhaps as motivated by political expediency as they were by the concerns of economic planning. Accordingly, large and multi-purpose projects were part of the Congress game plan to placate the politically powerful middle and upper peasantry- its traditional rural allies- who were angered by the excessive favours shown to industry. This was most in evidence during the phase of the Green Revolution, when the increased demand for power and water, as a result of the use of High Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds meant that large dams with their massive storage for irrigation and high installed capacities for hydro-power came to be seen as the perfect solution. While the SSP was designed to benefit states left largely untouched by the Green Revolution, similar concerns prompted the political support it received.

Planning and development are not politically neutral processes in India and more than administrative discretion it is political expediency that has driven the dam building effort in India. The large capitalist landowners and various sectors or organized industry have always benefited the most from large dams multi purpose projects. Dogra’s study demonstrates how in Gujarat and Mahrashtra the distribution of the benefits of big dams is particularly skewed. Maharashtra and Gujarat together account for 2066 of India’s 4291 large dams and the available data shows that cash crops, the preserve of rich farmers have guzzled most of the benefits of irrigation from the hundreds of dams in these two states. The sugarcane and tobacco farmers of Maharashtra and Gujarat are part of the political elite and need water and electricity for their fields, sugar mills and oil presses. The 2066 large dams in the two states are then not merely developmental projects but ‘sites of power’. The politics surrounding the SSP are no different from its predecessors.

The chief bone of contention over which the three states haggled for decades was the height of the principal dam at Navagam. Raising the height of the dam displaces more people, and submerges more land. Most of the displacement and the submergence will affect MP while a healthier chunk of the benefits from the project go to Gujarat. So at 90 metre FRL (the height to which the Supreme Court cleared further construction in its October 2000 judgement), no irrigation is possible, since water would not have begun to enter the main canal, and no power or drinking water can be produced, rendering the project entirely useless. At 110 metres, about 50,00 h.a of land will be irrigated, no drinking water will be generated and only about 250 MW of power. But this alone would displace 17, 145 families according to a conservative estimate. At the suggested final height of 138.6 metres (approximately 405 feet), it is believed that 2 million h.a. of farmland would be irrigated and drinking water would be available for 30 million people. An estimated 320,000 people, mostly from MP and some from Gujarat, would also be displaced. With such high stakes to play for, it was not surprising that the three states in question would drive a hard bargain.

The Narmada Waters Dispute Tribunal

The Narmada Waters Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) was set up in October 1969 to settle these differences. The final Award of this Tribunal, released in 1979 has shaped the nature of the Narmada Valley Project and the rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) provisions along with it. But right from the start, the NWDT was beset by problems and this is reflected in some of the clauses of the final Award. Engineers and bureaucrats from both Gujarat and MP kept inflating the number and size of the dams before the Tribunal in order to convince it that they had the best plans for harnessing the waters of the river, and should therefore be given the largest share of the water. Eventually the number of projects reached an astronomical 3200, a figure created principally to impress the Tribunal, but one that was never going to be a reality. The Tribunal was also hampered by constant wrangling between the three states and had to work within proscribed parameters with politicians making many key decisions. The work of the Tribunal was stalled so frequently that it was almost a decade before the final Award was announced.

The Award had three principal provisions with regard to R&R. It directed the GoG to bear the cost of land acquisition and rehabilitation even for those displaced in Maharashtra and MP. Next, anyone losing more than 25% of their holdings was to be entitled to at least 5 acres of land in the command area. Finally, major sons were to be treated as a separate family. But the Award ignored various key facets of the Narmada case. There were no provisions for landless labourers and the tribal communities, who constituted a bulk of the displaced and many of whom did not possess legal titles or pattas for their land. There are also no provisions to cater to the special needs of those who may not possess land but are engaged in traditional occupations like the Kevats, the Kahars and other fisher families.

Gujarat and the SSP

The SSP is a particularly emotive issue in the state of Gujarat. A state which has 6.39% of the country’s geographical area and 4.88% of the country’s population has been blessed with just 2.28% of the national surface water resources. Around 80% of the state’s surface water resources are concentrated in south and central Gujarat, whereas the remaining three quarters of the state has only 20% of the resources. An average annual rainfall of between 25-200 cm with a high coefficient of variance underlines the state’s dependence on regular irrigation for agricultural production. In most parts of the state, the rainfall is not only scanty but also highly unreliable. Under these conditions it is only natural that any permanent solution to the water problems of Gujarat in general and Kutch and Saurashtra in particular would be immediately popular with voters. This is also the explanation given to the displaced- that their suffering was necessary to alleviate the thirst of nearly 40 million people.

The centrality of Gujarat to the SSP is rather obvious. The dam site is within Gujarat, the drinking water and irrigation benefits are directed towards Gujarat’s drought prone areas and the Award directs Gujarat to provide R&R for those displaced in Maharashtra and MP who were to be displaced by the reservoir and who chose to leave their home state. Thus it is in Gujarat that we find the impacts of construction, at both the dam site and along the irrigation canals, and where we find most resettlement sites. It is in Gujarat that the capitalists, merchants and industrialists, stand to benefit from the SSP at the cost of the poor and landless who will be displaced. Since it is this class that forms the core vote bank of the both the BJP and the Congress, and being a limited one, must be wooed incessantly, it is obvious that both parties must strive to out do each other in their efforts to promote themselves as champions of the SSP.

Official lies and obfusction

Lies and obfuscation has dogged the project right from the start. There is controversy over the simple matter of how much matter flows through the Narmada canal. When the NWDT sat down to calculate the total amount of water, the Chief Ministers of the three states in question pushed through the figure of 28 MAF, which would be sufficient to ensure water reaches Kutch and Saurashtra and provide drinking water. The truth is that there is probably only 23-25 MAF of water in the river, and 28 is a politically fixed and arbitrary figure.

Power from Sardar Sarovar will be obtained via two powerhouses - the riverbed powerhouse will provide 1,200 MW and the canal head powerhouse 250 MW. Both these capacities are achievable only when the dam has reached its full height of 138 metres, and even then only at the peak season, that is, during the monsoon. Only the canal head powerhouse has been built. At the present height of 110.64 metres, the head powerhouse can produce a maximum of 90 MW during the monsoon and less than 40 MW, and for some time, no power at all, in the non-monsoon period. The canal head powerhouse, which is positioned at 110.64 metres, has five generators of 50 MW each. But the water has to be above this height to generate power. Since water is taken into the main canal through the Integrated Bypass Tunnel positioned at 89.7 m, the reservoir level will not remain at the required level beyond October-November. Three other dams that are required in this balance of water levels - Narmada Sagar, Omkareshwar and Maheshwar - are not operational. Without them it is impossible to maintain the dead water level in the Sardar Sarovar reservoir at 110.64 metres.

Therefore, for the Gujarat government to say that 110.64 metres is essential to provide power to the State is a misrepresentation of facts.

The World Bank steps in

In its early days, the World Bank stepped in to provide substantial amounts of loan for the SSP. In 1985 when the Central government began to raise questions about funding the project, the World Bank stepped in with a loan of US$450 million to India and to the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. A second application was made later by India for loans totaling US$350 million to complete the canal. Finally, a third application was made for an additional US$50 million for the Narmada Basin Development Project.

But as cries grew about the lack of R&R and poor planning and shoddy environmental reports, the World Bank came under increasing pressure. Various internal memos showed that the Bank had violated its own loan policy on guidelines for displacement especially of tribal people. The essence of the Bank policy was after all a requirement from the borrower country to gather detailed data and prepare a resettlement plan. Such a plan was to prepared pari passu with the main engineering proposals, an indication that at least on paper, the Bank gave as much importance to the people who were to be affected as it did to the actual project it was going to fund. However, contrary to its own guidelines, when the Bank signed the agreement, it adopted the definition of landed oustee as set out in the Tribunal’s Award, which did not include encroachers. Moreover, it did not address the question whether major sons were involved. This created the possibility of dispossession for the majority of tribal oustees.

The Long March and the World Bank withdrawal

The Narmada issue finally came to international attention on Christmas Day, 1990 after what came to be known as the Long March. Three thousand oustees and supporters set out to walk down the valley to the dam site. After a week of walking, the protestors reached the Gujarat border but were prevented from going any further. Medha Patkar and six others then embarked on a hunger strike, demanding that the government suspend all work on the dam and constitute an independent review of the project. After 22 days, the hunger strikers eventually broke their fast. The Long March did not stop the dam, but it made Narmada a national issue and Medha Patkar a national heroine.

In 1991, in an unprecedented move, Barber Constable, the Bank’s President agreed to an independent review of the project’s social and resettlement problems. Bradford Morse, a former head of the UNDP and Thomas Berger, a distinguished Canadian jurist were asked to conduct the review. At that time few realized what a radical step this was going to be. The Bank had never before asked or allowed outsiders to critique an entire project. It had occasionally hired consultants and the reports thus produced were either heavily edited or circulated privately within the Bank. In September 1991, the team embarked on nine months of research in India. What Morse and his deputy discovered and later compiled in their magnificent Sardar Sarovar: an Independent Review, shook the very foundations of the Bank.

In a damming paragraph, Morse laid out what he thought the Bank should do vis-a-vis the SSP:

"We think the Sardar Sarovar Projects as they stand are flawed, that resettlement and rehabilitation of all those displaced by the Projects is not possible under prevailing circumstances, and that environmental impacts of the Projects have not been properly considered or adequately addressed. Moreover we believe that the Bank shares responsibility with the borrower for the situation that has developed... it seems clear that engineering and economic imperatives have driven the Projects to the exclusion of human and environmental concerns... India and the states involved... have spent a great deal of money. No one wants to see this money wasted. But we caution that it may be more wasteful to proceed without full knowledge of the human and environmental costs. We have decided that it would be irresponsible for us to patch together a series of recommendations on implementation when the flaws in the Projects are as obvious as they seem to us. As a result, we think that the wisest course would be for the Bank to step back from the Projects and consider them afresh. The failure of the bank's incremental strategy should be acknowledged."

The Bank tried to backtrack for a while and gave the Government of India more time. But international pressure, including pressure in Washington, from Japanese and European donors was growing. Under enormous pressure, the board of directors of the Bank gave India five more months till April 1, 1993 to comply with the terms of the loan. On March 31, 1993, the day before the Bank’s deadline was to expire, the GOI asked the Bank to cancel the SSP loan. This was a face saving exercise and there was much bravado from the government, which claimed that, it could fund the project on its own, and that the Bank’s directives were impugning its sovereignty.

The situation in the Valley

A concurrent development has been the complete lack of progress on the R&R front. Part of this is linked to the fact that the R&R proposals of the major states are grossly inadequate, barring the Gujarat one. However, since Gujarat has the least number of oustees, it can afford to be generous. Gujarat has also agreed to resettle as many oustees from the remaining two states as would wish to shift. But most tribals do not want to move from their ancient land, to often foreign and hostile territory. This is where the Narmada Bachao Andolan has stepped in.

A huge organization with tremendous public support, the NBA has been able to galvanize the affected tribals. It's critics say it is anti-development and does not understand the plight of the thirsty in Gujarat. But the courage of many of the NBA leaders has won it international acclaim. However, the NBA has also been beset by international contradictions as one of its principal supporters are the Patidars, rich farmers of the Nimad region of Madhya Pradesh. But these farmers had for long oppressed the tribals, and even with meagre R&R plans, will be able to move to big cities and resettle themselves, options not open to the tribals. Many accuse the NBA again, of being a mouthpiece of Patidar interests.

Another aspect of what has been going in the Narmada Valley for several decades now is the severe police repression. Human rights Watch has meticulously documented this abuse by both the police, the central and the state governments. The aim is to terrify the tribals into leaving. There have been numerous instances of police brutality, custody deaths and peaceful marches have been fired upon. The NBA, despite its problems and contradictions, has always been committed to non violence, a creed it has successfully upheld. Despite this, its offices have been ransacked several times and its leaders arrested.

Supreme Court judgement and its aftermath

The NBA raised the issue of indadequate R&R before India's Supreme Court, asking for the construction of the dam to be halted. But in a landmark judgement in October 2000, the court agreed with the government and pro-dam lobby and directed that the construction of the dam ought to go ahead. It also expressed satisfaction with exisiting R&R proposals, resulting in a howl of protest from the displaced tribals.

Part of the aftermath of the NBA's defeat, has been the numerous attempts to defame the organization. The Indian government has never taken very kindly to dissent on environmental issues, and the case of the Narmada Valley is no different.

The SSP was the first developmental project in India where R&R was taken into account. But hearing officials speak. the sense that emanates is not one of obligation towards the displaced but almost a sense of triumph at having taken the displaced into their calculations at all. After all, in the first few decades of independence, rehabilitation was never a priority with India’s dam builders. That was the way in the ‘old fashion’ style of dam building. To an interested observer it would become clear that the SSP was not built because of, or after, a careful consideration of costs and benefits. It is above all a symbol of Indian ‘prowess. More recently and especially in Gujarat, it has become a symbol of a particular notion of progress, of that elusive idea of ‘development’.

So why are such symbols important? Because they help to enforce a hardly subtle, yet unstated piece of logic. Since every patriotic Indian must surely want his country to progress and develop, and the SSP is such a marker of progress, then it must be built. Such a link would mean that those who spoke out against the dams must then want India to be backward and undeveloped, and were hence anti-national.

As Dilip D’Souza puts it:

“Development is thus easily conflated with a concept such as patriotism- because this conflation also allows opponents to be branded as anti national, their arguments ridiculed for that reason rather than on merits…In fact, in Gujarat, criticizing the Sardar Sarovar dam is seen as akin to urging the secession of Kashmir. Not something to be done lightly, and certainly not something that any political party would indulge in.”

This link between development and patriotism was all the more evident in the events following the October 2000 Supreme Court judgement. The ‘victory’ was celebrated by prominent Ministers of the Gujarat Cabinet with much fanfare. But what stood out amidst the celebration were the snide and personal remarks against Medha Patkar and the NBA. It was almost as if the ‘victors’ having won their battle, were afraid that if they didn’t discredit their opponents in other ways, would find that they had in fact lost the war. So comments such about a childless Medha, “She doesn’t deserve any respect…How would Medha know about the pangs of delivery?” Then the home minister L.K. Advani took the stage and wondered aloud: ‘whether those opposing such projects were doing so…at the behest of some foreign nations.’ After all, Mr Advani noted, these were ‘the same people who had criticized the Pokhran blasts in May 1998.’ This explicit linking of the NBA with vague anti national forces out to destabilize the country was then carried over to the print media as well.

The attempt to tarnish all those who oppose any developmental project in India, with an anti national brush has dangerous connotations. The argument goes something like this: not only must you expect that a dam on the Narmada is for the betterment of the nation, you must also not raise your voice about the plight of the displaced. That this must happen is a given and must be accepted as such. If you do so, you are then ‘opposing the development’ of the country or you possibly imbibed these doubts, as Advani alleged ‘at the behest of a foreign nation’.

That you could a conscientious citizen, reasonably patriotic, and yet question the development paradigm is clearly totally alien. The most old fashioned and yet insidious allegation is of course the one about the ‘foreign hand’. It has been used numerous times by the Indian state to counter dissent and needs no substantiation or proof on the part of the accuser. But given that R&R in the Valley is incomplete while the threat of submergence looms, and given that the entire project is mired in political controversies it is only fair that we ask some questions and seek certain answers. What is this progress that the government constantly harps upon? Whom does it benefit? What has been its record over the last 55 years? Given our record, what does ‘development’ and ‘national importance’ mean? Who decides what it does, and how?

I'm not going to include a list of sources, because I wrote my thesis on this project and I cant possibly include the entire bibliography. So this is a very very abbreviated version of that. The headings you see above, roughly correspond to the chapter divisions. If you want more information about the struggle in the Narmada Valley, go to, which is an excellent resource base, but do bear in mind that they are anti-dam and pro-NBA. For a more readable (and slightly declamatory!) introduction to the issues involved, again from an anti-dam perspective, read Arundhati Roy's essay The Greater Common Good which is easily available on the internet and there is a link to it on the Narmada website cited above.

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