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Water Harvest

Water Harvest

Author: Uday Mahurkar
Publication: India Today
Date: September 9, 2002

Introduction: After years of litigation, the release of Narmada waters to Sabarmati brings with it the hope of rich agricultural yields and a better life

For many in Ahmedabad, the past few months have been a nightmare. But on August 28, dreams flowed along with the river's current-literally-when colourful boats and thousands of diyas floated in the till recently parched and putrid Sabarmati river. It was a sight witnessed perhaps only by the older generation in Ahmedabad. In a celebration of Narmada's gift to its "sister" Sabarmati, thousands of people thronged the river banks to join Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and Pramukh Swami Maharaj to herald the beginning of the festive season-no matter that it is a few months too early. The merriment was made possible by the diversion of water to Sabarmati from the overflowing Narmada dam, 225 km away, a few days ago. Slogans like "Narmade, Sarvade" (O Narmada, our lifeline) rent the air as firecrackers lit up the sky in myriad colours.

The spectacle was reminiscent of a promise made by two water experts-Dr K.L. Rao and Captain Dastur-over three decades ago. They had proposed to link India's major rivers, from the Brahmaputra, Ganga and Yamuna to the Krishna, Narmada and Godavari, through a network of canals. It was supposed to be their answer to the twin menace of droughts and floods, and would meet the country's economic needs through water conservation. Rao's project was called "Water Grid" while Dastur's "The Garland Canal System". Unfortunately, prohibitive costs of implementation rendered both the schemes unfeasible.

After years of litigation and mass movements, 10,000 cusecs of water was judiciously released from the Sardar Sarovar project and began to flow into the parched rivers, canals and lakes in water-starved central Gujarat. Farmers as well as people in urban areas who have learnt to live with water scarcity celebrated the harvest of water. The delight in the faces of the farmers, who had lost all hopes of a good crop after yet another year of scanty rainfall, was discernible in over 1,000 villages and 25-odd towns in Saurashtra-some as far as 500 km from the Narmada dam. Continuous supply of water for drinking and for the sun-dried fields was finally assured.

For farmers like Chandubhai Patel and his son Ramesh of Bhadka village near Matar in central Gujarat, the Narmada's water was a godsend. They could look forward to a normal harvest. They own over eight hectares of land but were virtually living in penury for the past three years. Scanty rainfall had rendered even their borewells bone dry. So when the Narmada waters started whirling across the Mahi branch canal near their homestead, their excitement knew no bounds. "We thank Goddess Narmade for saving our lives," says a grateful Chandubhai. "Otherwise we were doomed."

In many other villages, as soon as farmers saw the Narmada waters flooding the canals, they got down to work as if to make up for the time lost gazing at the sky expecting to see clouds carrying rain. They began sowing paddy while children splashed about in the canal. The effect of the surging waters on the women was unexpected. The devout among them demanded that the waters of the Narmada, considered among the holiest rivers in India after the Ganga, reach their doorstep.

Two years after the Narmada Control Authority allowed Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) to construct two irrigation bypass tunnels (IBPTs), water started flowing into the Narmada Main Canal (NMC) even though the first IBPT is yet to be completed. Construction of the NMC, at many places as wide as 103 m, is complete till Kalol in central Gujarat, 263 km from the dam. Work on the branch canals is going on. By next summer, the Narmada is expected to meet the drinking water needs of 2,500 villages and dozens of towns in Saurashtra. And the release of its water in as many as seven rivers besides the canals has already ensured irrigation of 1.25 lakh hectares of land in central Gujarat and some areas of Saurashtra. Says Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, chairman, SSNNL: "We have tried to revive seven rivers with Narmada's water. We will revive many more when the dam height increases."

When the dam and its entire canal network is complete, it will irrigate over 17 lakh hectares of land. In a few months from now, when the height of the dam is raised to 110 m, it will also start generating power, a major share of which will go to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Says Modi: "We have promised to share power in the quickest possible time. But for that Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra will have to cooperate with Gujarat whole-heartedly in taking the height of the dam to 110 m." It seemed a mild criticism, specially of Madhya Pradesh, where the issue of rehabilitation of people in submergence areas had delayed the completion of the project. In Gujarat, even as court cases filed by Medha Patkar's Narmada Bachao Andolan held up construction of the main dam for several years, work on the canals wasn't disrupted. So when the Supreme Court lifted the stay three years ago, the canals were almost ready to receive the Narmada flow.

The credit justifiably goes to Jainarayan Vyas, the Narmada development minister in the Keshubhai Patel government (1998-2000). When the Supreme Court placed limits on the dam height, Vyas and Keshubhai managed to get the Centre to sanction construction of IBPTs to divert the dam water to the main canal. Just how Narmada has changed the scene is evident in the Fatehwadi canal command area in Ahmedabad district. The canal used to get water from a small barrage on the Sabarmati. But as the flow in the Sabarmati reduced, the Government stopped releasing water into Fatehwadi. In the drought-like situation that ensued, the crop loss was estimated at Rs 1,000 crore. Most of the 100 rice mills in the area closed down too.

When water started flowing into the Sabarmati river again, the Government decided to release some of it into the Fatehwadi canal. Already 17,000 of the 33,000 hectares of farmland have come under cultivation. With an assured water supply, the people living around Fatehwadi are hopeful that the rice mills will also revive.

In many ways, the dam project and its network of canals is an engineering marvel. At several points along the main canal, which has the capacity to carry 40,000 cusecs of water, the dam has been linked to rivers and canals, which in turn intersect with smaller dams. So as long as Madhya Pradesh gets the showers, the people of Gujarat will continue to laugh their way to their paddy fields despite the scorching heat at home.

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