May 26, 2020
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The Life-Giving Narmada

Thanks to what is probably the world's single largest drinking water project, more than 30 million people will enjoy better health, quality of life and gender equity.

The Life-Giving Narmada

UNKNOWN to most people, probably the single largest water supply project in the world is taking shape in Gujarat. Such has been the understandable fascination with the expected spread of irrigation from the Sardar Sarovar Project that not much notice has been taken of its drinking water component. Of the 9 million acre ft of Narmada waters allocated to Gujarat by the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal, 0.86 maf has been earmarked for drinking and municipal water supply and another 0.20 maf for industrial use.

Critics have long scoffed at the prospect of Narmada waters providing succour to thirsty homes in north Gujarat and Saurashtra, let alone Kutch. However, water supply was always an integral part of Gujarat's case before the Tribunal. The specific allocation made is seemingly small in relation to the irrigation component. In reality, however, it will—by current standards of provisioning for rural and urban water supply, at 40-70 litres and 140 litres per capita per day respectively—meet the requirements of 28-35 million persons and their livestock over the next 25-30 years. Significantly, it can also be supplemented.

The Sardar Sarovar Project will only supply certain nodal off-take points along its canal network. Thereafter, the water will be piped to 8,215 rural habitations and 135 towns in 128 talukas under a separate water supply project that is being implemented by an independent project authority that is in the process of being formally constituted.

First deliveries are expected before the end of 1999, provided the stay on further construction of the dam is lifted. The grounds on which the stay was sought two years ago have virtually disappeared as a result of technical concerns about submergence and related issues of displacement and rehabilitation that have since been evolved.

The impacts on health, quality of life and gender equity will be enormous. People will no longer need to drink fluoride, nitrate or saline contaminants, nor will they have to migrate for weeks and months in search of water with every drought. Nor again will the prematurely ageing girl-child have to spend a lifetime walking endlessly to fetch water from ever-deeper wells.

A status report on ecological degradation around the gulf of Khambhat, commissioned by the Gujarat Ecology Commission in February 1977, should sound an alert. Satellite imagery as well as groundwater and soil observations indicate a rapid fall in the water table, saline ingress and growing soil salinisation in an area that increased from 1,420 sq km in 1960 to 12,279 sq km in 1993, or by a factor of eight times in 33 years. The SSP-fed water supply project will greatly ameliorate the drinking water situation.

Gujarat budgeted Rs 400 crore for the drinking water supply project (DWSP) in 1997-98 as against a total estimated cost of Rs 4,700 crore, at current prices. This is a very large sum and will have to be met with Central government support and international assistance. Yet, this will be a small price in terms of the human benefit it confers, obviating the need for 400,000-500,000 maldharis (cattle breeders) to move great distances in search of greener pastures in two years out of three. There will be an annual average saving of Rs 100 crore that would otherwise be spent on digging emergency wells, ferrying water by tanker over considerable distances and on relief works.

There are few perennial sources of water in this drought-prone region. Even these are depleting. The Sardar Sarovar Project will ensure a guaranteed source, especially in bad years, more so with carryover storage behind a terminal dam, when all else fails. The Narmada canals will replenish existing village tanks and ponds in north Gujarat, Saurashtra and Kutch and will recharge groundwater, even in hard rock Saurashtra and certainly in north Gujarat and Kutch, in the same manner as currently happening in the two latter regions in the Mahi and Kadana-Sabarmati commands. All existing dams, including 31 new schemes proposed in Saurashtra, as well as all existing drinking water schemes will be upgraded where necessary and dovetailed into the DWSP.

The Narmada Main Canal will reach Kadi, 260 km from Sardar Sarovar, by December 1997, with at least a third or more of the capacity of each siphon or aqueduct complete and able to carry water. The Saurashtra branch takes off near this point and will be ready up to the first lift at Lakhtar 67 km away not later than December 1999 along with two lift canals. Saurashtra being saucer-shaped, water will have to be lifted 70-80 m in five stages and dropped 40 m in three stages. The lift-pumps will require 130 MW of power, but up to 80 MW may be generated at the drops.

Mild steel-welded pipelines of up to 1.8 m diameter will take off near Lakhtar to Jamnagar-Okha and Morvi-Kutch. Other lower capacity pipelines will be of pre-stressed concrete. This part of the network could be ready by 2001. The trunk pipelines will be linked to concrete underground reservoirs and the entire system is to be automated and metered and supplies will be subject to volumetric pricing. Industrial users and urban households will cross-subsidise rural consumers. The corporations and townships concerned have been consulted and a master plan is in preparation with field surveys in progress for the alignment of the proposed 2,300 km pipeline network. Completion will be in stages, with the last segments being commissioned after 2011. The north Gujarat component is likely to be completed much sooner. Effluent discharge and recycling policies are under formulation.

The pipelines are to be laid along the roadside over 85 per cent of their total length, with only the remaining 15 per cent running cross country. This will reduce the cost and complexities of land acquisition for securing the right of way. The project authority will have to bear an annual burden of Rs 1,500 crore for 10 to 15 years, inclusive of operating and energy costs, until the loans are repaid.

The country has promised potable water and health for all Indians by the turn of the 21st century, the Narmada canals are going to make this possible. The DWSP is by itself a massive undertaking that will tax the resources and dedication of the government and people of Gujarat.

The proposed new authority, whenever set up, should lose no time in associating the concerned panchayati raj and nagar palika bodies, NGOs and specialised institutions with details of what is proposed. Public endorsement and support and appropriate amendments in the light of public hearings will speed the process of project implementation.

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