This month saw water authorities in Gujarat making a renewed attempt to sell the alluring promises of drinking water from the Sardar Sarovar project to the citizens of Saurashtra and Kachchh. On Dec 5th, the Business Standard carried a story 'GWSSB claims Narmada waters to 2.94 crores by 2021'. This is a fresh round of media management to evade serious questions surrounding the financial non-viability of the Sardar Sarovar dam. Where is the money to come from for the capital intensive pipeline project?

Let's rewind one year. In Aug 2002 the newspapers showed a triumphant Narendra Modi presiding over the inauguration of an irrigation tunnel at the Sardar Sarovar dam site. The absence of plans to actually carry the water to the parched lands of Kachchh and Saurashtra became apparent a few days later. When the monsoon rain began flooding the Narmada, its waters made their way not to the drought hit areas, but to the city of Baroda, and Ahmedabad. Amidst the images of Amdavadis enjoying the sight of their river come to “life”, no one stopped to ask if this was indeed one of the goals of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

In May 2003, Narendra Modi was once again visible in the press - this time presiding over the arrival of Narmada waters in the drought hit districts of Kachchh and Saurashtra. As always, euphoria masked important questions: How many of the towns and villages projected as beneficiaries had begun to receive the water? Did any of these municipalities possess filtration plants to treat it? To carry a pipeline of relief to a few token villages at very high cost is indeed possible, and that is what we have seen this summer. The relief that it brings to these villages is significant, and the political capital is priceless. And once again there was unthinking acceptance of the official line: a front page story in a leading national daily went so far as to say that 8000 villages were receiving waters from the Narmada, and had been doing so for two years!

The celebrations on water distribution were also presented as a final rebuttal of any doubts about the due standing for the Sardar Sarovar dam itself. Ends were seen as justifying the means. Only four days earlier, despite some niggling discomfort over the failure to resettle the displaced (250,000 according to official estimates), the Relief &Rehabilitation Sub-Group of the Narmada Control Authority had given the clearance for the increase in the dam height. This was despite the Maharashtra Govt officials admitting their failure to conform to the critical and lawful conditions -- rehabilitation of the displaced is meant to be complete 6 months ahead of the submergence. They gave an undertaking that they would complete this task before the arrival of monsoon.

In its long history, the drinking water “benefits” of the Sardar Sarovar project have always emerged strongest when the dam project has been gripped by controversy. The number of villages promised Narmada water has been mysteriously rising. In 1979 it was 0, in 1983-84 it was 4720, in 1990 it jumped to 7235, and more recently it has been promised to 8215 villages and an additional 135 towns and 6 municipal corporations.

CRISIL has advised Gujarat government to drastically revise the tariffs for bulk water transfer from SSP. They recommend anywhere between 300 to 800% over the prevalent rates.
 •  Related: Maharashtra's high price
 •  The Narmada saga
It is in this light that the latest water pipeline claims must be seen. The spin on waters reaching 2.34 crores by 2011 and 2.94 crores by 2021 seem to follow projections on populations. But where is the money for the Narmada water pipline going to come from? This is the question that remains unanswered. Have the costs ever been estimated? As early as 1992, when the World Bank appointed Independent Review committee inquired into the details of drinking water ‘benefits’ from the Sardar Sarovar; there was no plan, no allocation and no division of responsibilities. To the query on costs, a quite flippant answer went on record: “several thousand crores”.

To be fair, some authorities in Gujarat have opined on the costs. Recently the Chief General Manager of Gujarat State Drinking Water Infrastructure Co. Ltd. (GSDWIL) put the drinking water pipeline project cost at Rs 7230 crores (at 1999 prices). The enormity of this figure is best seen when placed against the Government of Gujarat’s total annual plan outlay for the year 2002-2003: Rs. 7600 crores. In the section on major project issues the GSDWIL paper agrees. "Can any Govt., with its total annual development plan of Rs. 6500 to Rs. 7000 crores, ever provide Rs. 7000 crores for the project?"

And for all the image management done to 'necessiate' Sardar Sarovar dam project itself in the name of the transportability of the Narmada waters, the costs of the pipeline have not been included in the revised cost estimates of the Sardar Sarovar project either.

The latest claims come at a time when the ever-deepening resource crunch of the government has repeatedly forced the state’s annual plan to shrink. In January 2003 a senior official source said that in view of paucity of funds, Gujarat may end up having a reduced annual plan of Rs 6100 crores. Another opinion projected final spending to reach even further down, to dip to Rs 5,500 crore”.

Missing altogether from the Govts’ calculations is a realistic assessment on how to keep such a centralised pipeline network running. How would they generate Operation & Maintenance (O&M) costs, estimated in the range of Rs 1000 crores annually? Already the debt obligation of Sardar Sarovar Nigam works out to be around Rs 945 crores annually. So, what will be the priority - to serve the debt obligations on the construction of the dam, or to pay the O&M costs?

None of the officials offer planning information on key questions of financing. A senior official confirmed the siphoning of funds meant for Post-Earthquake reconstruction in Kachchh, while admitting that even after resorting to such tactics, the future of the next phase of the pipeline is bleak. ‘‘Rs 380 crore from Asian Development Bank were siphoned for the first phase of Kachchh pipeline. For the second phase, we have no money,’’ says V T Mistry, Superintending Engineer of the Gandhidham section of GWSSB.

So, what impact will all this have on the water tariff regime in Gujarat? Tata Energy Research Institute and GSDWIL have been working on various reports on how this single authority will regulate the distribution of Narmada water. They maintain a meditative silence over it; their documents are being kept in the dark, avoiding public scrutiny of the real intentions behind the claims of the exercise of ‘putting price over water’. Meanwhile, CRISIL has advised Gujarat government to drastically revise the tariffs for bulk water transfer from SSP. The revision recommended is anywhere between 300 to 800% over the prevalent rates.

A single capital intensive project sucking away most of the resource allocation to the detriment of the bulk of the other areas of the state is not an uncommon phenomena in India. Michael Goldman records that the Indira Gandhi Canal in Rajasthan covers only three districts (and less than 10%) of the state, but it “sucked critical resources from Rajasthan’s 23 remaining districts”.

The endless repetition of the idea that there is no alternative to bulk water transfer from the Sardar Sarovar Project has systematically silenced any attempts at the assessment of options. The looming water scarcity has been projected as a “natural given” rather than as arising from lopsided development policies. And pushing capital intensive projects has ensured the quick death of many local alternatives. The bottom line is that serious financing issues have always plagued the Sardar Sarovar project itself, and the latest promises made on the water pipline are no different.

In the pursuit of power, these promises are flags taken out of cupboards, dusted, and waved aloft to generate euphoria.