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Sardar Sarovar – the seventy year itch
The benefit that would be ensured by SSP for the populations of the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan in terms of availability of water for drinking, irrigation and power, is much larger than the impact on a few thousand that were to be displaced.

Soon after Narendra Modi assumed charge as chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, he focused on making water availabe for every one of the state’s 18,144 villages. The state drought-prone, for years, understandably, demanded focus on water. The Modi government embarked on a massive programme of constructing check dams. With simultaneous focus on agriculture development, the state emerged leader in cotton and groundnut. This was also helped by the state laying separate power transmission lines for agriculture on one side and industry and domestic consumption on the other.

This focus got sharpened after the Supreme Court removed the hurdles for completing the Sardar Sarovar Project. 

SSP was envisaged by Sardar Patel seven decades ago and the foundation was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru in April 1961.

Chequered history...

SSP had a chequered history. Its progress was bogged down through familiar inter-state disputes. It took close to 18 years to constitute the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal in October 1969; it gave the final award in December 1979.

Delays denied benefits to millions for decades

Then came the prolonged agitation launched by Medha Patkar and her Narmada Bachao Andolan. Disturbed political conditions and an extremely divisive nature of the society and polity paralysed decisive action.  The benefit that would be ensured by SSP for the populations of the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan in terms of availability of water for drinking, irrigation and power, was much larger than the impact on a few thousand that were to be displaced. Senior journalist Swaminathan Aiyar has cited findings of a research study by Prof Neeraj Kaushal of the Columbia University and himself on the impact. He concluded that the research exploded activists’ claims that moving out of the forest as disastrous for the tribals; he pointed to the much better living conditions and progress achieved by those tribals settled with liberal relief and rehabilitation support.

But Medha Patkar built an army of supporters to stall construction and succeeded in preventing funding by the World Bank. Post 2002 there was the added factor of the UPA government and Delhi media’s tirade against Modi that effectively stalled progress on SSP.

The court’s clearance and the BJP’s ascent to power with majority, were big help in the project getting completed. There was another extremely favourable development: all the four beneficial states of SSP are ruled by the BJP.

Sadly, the south does not have this precious advantage. For over six decades, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have not been ruled by the same party - a major reason for the intractable litigation and reluctance of the Centre to implement the awards given by the highest court on the Cauvery water dispute.

Modi, so conscious of how precious water is, should help resolve this long pending issue. – SV

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