Even as The Indian Express reports on the steadily rising water storage in the Sardar Sarovar Dam over the river near Kevadiya in Gujarat, farmers who have been waiting for the last three decades for Narmada waters to irrigate their farms intensify the stir. However, they are not shouting slogans against Narmada Bachao Andolan this time around. They are protesting because the state government has notified their farm lands under the command area of Narmada Dam to be acquired for a Special Investment Region.

The Times of India quotes a protesting farmer Mayur Patel saying, “We have been promised Narmada water for the last three decades. The government wants to increase the height of the Narmada dam in the name of the farmers but the same government is de-commanding thousands of hectares from the Narmada canal command area. We want Narmada water for irrigation and no SIR.”

In a series of moves over the last few years, wherein the state government has notified the land in command area of Sardar Sarovar for carving out Special Investment Regions, 2922.68 hectares of command area land in Mandal and Detroj taluka in Ahmedabad district is proposed to be acquired for setting up Maruti Suzuki’s car plant. In a move that resembles slogans and strategy adopted by affected people in the Narmada valley, villagers here have resorted to wall writing that announce their resolve to ban entry of land acquisition officers, reports The Times of India.

Similarly, farmers of Vagra and Bharuch, were in effect asked to forget about the dreams of irrigation water from Narmada, when state government notified their agricultural lands to be acquired for the “Petroleum, Chemicals and Petro-Chemicals Special Investment Region” at Dahej. Now, the Special Investment Region eats up 14,927 hectares of land that falls under the command area of the Narmada dam.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat. Pic: Wikimedia

Earlier this year during the months of summer, when newspapers reported about the drinking water scarcity in Saurashtra, several journalists had dwelt upon the fact that the grandiose irrigation canal network has not been completed to extend irrigation to Saurashtra and Kutch. Congress leader Arjun Modhwadiya questioned Narendra Modi on his populist tune on the issue of Narmada and reminded that even as he keeps blaming the central government for not allowing a rise in the height of the dam, “only 15 per cent of the work on 80000 km canal network has been completed in 18 years of BJP rule.”

On 13 February, in a written reply to a question by Gadhada MLA Atmaram Parmar, the state government stated, “484.92 km of branch canal and 2,818.14 km of sub-branch canals were yet to be completed. Also 12,319.52 km of minor and 37,887.55 km of sub-minor canal works are yet to be completed.” On 25 April, even as Hiral Dave reported in The Indian Express on the progress on canal construction moving at snail’s pace, she quoted an official of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL) that the Maharashtra government had submitted an action report on R&R (Resettlement and Rehabilitation) of affected people in January 2013 and the R&R sub group of Narmada Control Authority (NCA) was scheduled to review it soon, in order to grant permission to raise the dam height to the final level of 138.62 metres.

In order to hide the abysmal performance on this count, Narendra Modi started to sing about filling dams in Saurashtra with Narmada water, and even marketed it as if it were a new project by calling it the Saurashtra Narmada Avataran Yojna (SAUNI); however, the cost figures touched the sky. Keshubhai Patel of Gujarat Parivartan Party questioned the propaganda, when he asked, “First, in Bhavnagar, Modi had said that at a cost of Rs 58,000 crore, 77 dams in Saurashtra would be filled with Narmada waters. Later, just before the December Assembly elections, Modi said that 114 dams in Saurashtra would be filled with Narmada waters at a cost of Rs 10,000 crore," Patel quipped, "How come the number of dams increased and the proposed amount decreased?"

Parallel to such populist propaganda ran moves to appropriate more and more Narmada water for industrial use, at times even threatening to reduce the irrigation command. In January, Rajiv Shah reported in The Times of India that Dholera Special Investment Region had already raised demand for 947 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of Narmada water to SSNNL.

A CAG audit report that reviewed the working of Gujarat Water Infrastructure Limited, which got tabled in assembly on 30 March 2007 had scrutinised the true story behind the much touted claim of Narmada water reaching Kutch. It pointed out that in deviation from the Master Plan that envisaged supply of 232 Million Litres per Day (MLD) water for Kutch, of which 45 MLD was meant for industrial use, industries in Kutch were actually allotted 61.91 MLD water (excess allocation of more than one third over what was envisaged) as per figures available on 31 March, 2006. On this being pointed out in July 2006, the management of Gujarat Water Infrastructure Limited (GWIL) and Gujarat Government replied that the SSNNL had increased the allocation for industrial water in May 2006 from 0.2 MAF (674 MLD) to 1.0 MAF (3369 MLD), from which the excess allocation would be adjusted.

After the two decades-long propaganda that Narmada Dam would take drinking water to more than 9000 drought-affected villages, Gujarat was suddenly revising priorities by raising the industrial allocation of Narmada water. No one appeared to even raise an eyebrow.

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Here was an indication that after the two decades-long propaganda that Narmada Dam would take drinking water to more than 9000 drought affected villages, Gujarat was suddenly revising priorities by raising the industrial allocation of Narmada water. No one appeared to even raise an eyebrow, let alone ask what would happen to the 9000 villages that were set to receive only 0.86 MAF Narmada water out of the 1.06 MAF that had been allocated for ‘municipal and industrial use.’

In the month of May, Modi was seen blaming the central government yet again for not giving a go- ahead to raise the height of the dam by installing radial gates. Mahesh Langa reported in The Hindustan Times that the government has completed only 35 per cent of a massive canal network with a total length of more than 75000 kms. The news report quoted Sanat Mehta, former Managing Director of SSNNL stating that “This government has completely failed to realise the potential of the project because not even 10,000 km of canals have been built in 10 years of Modi’s rule in the state.” Ironically, even as Modi started to play the Narmada card, Gujarat High Court asked the government to find ways to repair breached canals of the Narmada project in Dholaka, Dhandhuka and Central Gujarat region.

Shortly afterwards, Business Standard reported that the Narmada dam affected from Madhya Pradesh were to launch protests from 27 June, pressing for land based rehabilitation, adequate compensation and sufficient time for resettlement in case of Indira Sagar, Omkareshwar, Upper Beda, Maan and Maheshwar projects.

The very next day, a news story published in The Times of India claimed that Sardar Sarovar Dam had cleared another ‘hurdle,’ quoting generously from the statement of an unnamed senior official. A caption below a photograph showing an overflowing dam, attempting to underplay the ramifications stated, “Despite getting an environmental clearance two years ago, in January 2010 the Gujarat government could not raise the dam height because of about 400 project-affected families in Maharashtra.”

This is yet another example of what I have termed as reporting of the ‘as-much-as-you- are-told’ genre, wherein the scribe indulges in willing suspension of disbelief. No questions asked, no clarifications sought, no efforts made to listen to what the affected people or their movement may have to say about these developments. The unnamed officer also talked about the next steps stating, "The committee will submit today's meeting minutes to the Narmada Control Authority shortly. The NCA has kept a meeting for reviewing the R&R committee's report on 2 July Indore. After NCA accepts our recommendation, it will grant final permission."

Was this an indication of a total disconnect of the NCA’s R & R sub group with the ground reality that affected farmers in thousands are still living in submergence villages, or was this a repeat telecast of what happened in March 2006, when the NCA headed by then Union Water Resources secretary Hari Narayan suddenly issued permission to raise the dam height? Or was this simply prompted by political expediency, wherein from the first week of May, Modi was seen indulging in rhetoric that gave analysts the feeling that he was preparing to play the Narmada card very hard?

Not knowing an answer to these questions fully well, affected families from villages on the banks of river Narmada in a submergence zone in Nimad marched to Indore, to voice their grievance one more time at the NCA headquarters there. While I see only one newspaper scribe writing about their grievances, an unnamed SSNNL official from Gandhi Nagar seems to have enviable access to a section of media to put his views across.

As The Times of India reports from Gandhi Nagar, the official explains why NCA and Sardar Sarovar Construction Advisory Committee nods for raising the height have not come through with the conjecture that “The new secretary in the water resources ministry has taken over just two days ago. He will take time to settle down before the matter is taken up. This may take a few more months.” The news story adds that Gujarat is paying Rs 28 crore per annum to Jayprakash Industries since 2006 as per the terms of the construction contract. More than Rs 200 crore have been paid to the company without any work being done.

However, this news story fails to ask a simple question, when did this clause to pay Jayprakash Industries money for ‘idle period’ enter the construction contract? While the unnamed SSNNL official or the journalist might never answer our question, the CAG audit of SSNNL has answered this question almost a decade back, exposing the dirty games of the body.

As per details in the mentioned audit report, in April 1987, SSNNL awarded the construction work of the concrete dam to Jaiprakash Associates for Rs.320 crores. The terms and conditions for the award were stipulated in the main agreement that SSNNL entered into with the contractor. However, within two months of the Supreme Court judgment of October 2000, which gave the go-ahead for the project, SSNNL entered into a supplementary agreement with the contractor that not only did away with the date of completion of the dam work (January 2006), but also provided for a `payment of idle charges' clause. This clause meant that if the concreting work done on the dam in any working season (July to June) was less than the target of three lakh cubic metres, for reasons not attributable to the contractor, idle charges at the rate of Rs.823.90 per cubic metre would be payable by SSNNL to the contractor for the shortfall in concreting work.

This supplementary agreement never became a matter of public debate, even though it had the potential to make the stipulated amount of construction work on the dam a fait accompli and throw the linkage with the rehabilitation work of the dam-displaced - as included in the pari passu clause - out of gear. Now, thanks to a CAG report for Gujarat (Commercial), we are told how the dam building corporation, contractors and governments were burning the midnight oil to ensure that at least three lakh cubic metres of concrete was poured over the dam wall every year. They were quick to invent a clause that ensured this by entering into a supplementary agreement within two months, while they never bothered to draw the rehabilitation master plan as directed by the majority judgment of October 2000.

Before we witness yet another deluge in the Narmada valley, it is time to demand some answers from SSNNL officials, who attempted to overturn the pari passu clause to the effect that civil construction would not outpace the rehabilitation work on its head. It is also time to listen to the voices of farmers from Gujarat against corporate land grab for Special Investment Regions and ask one question: If these farmers who have waited for Narmada waters to irrigate their farm land for three decades are not going to get the benefit of raising the height of the dam, then why is it that Narendra Modi is playing the Narmada card so hard?