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The Narmada Dam – Issues and Controversies

Lakshmi Narasimhan

India’s most controversial dam project, the Narmada project, was first envisaged in 1940s by the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The dam was part of a vision of development articulated by Mr Nehru. The Narmada Dam Project is a large hydraulic engineering project involving the construction of a series of large irrigation and hydroelectric multi-purpose dams on the Narmada River in India. But several legal and logistical arguments between various Indian states delayed the announcement of the project until 1979. The multi-million dollar project involves the construction of some 3,200 small, medium and large dams on the Narmada river. The Narmada originates in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and empties into the Arabian sea after flowing through Maharashtra and Gujarat states. Of the thirty large dams planned on river Narmada, Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) is the largest structure to be built. It has a proposed final height of 136.5 m (448 ft). The project will irrigate more than 18,000 km2 (6,900 sq mi), most of it in drought prone areas of Kutch and Saurashtra. Critics maintain that its negative environmental impacts outweigh its benefits. It has created discord between its government planners and the citizens group Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)

Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that mobilised tribal people, adivasis, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists against the Sardar Sarovar Dam being built across the Narmada River, Gujarat, India.

Their mode of campaign includes hunger strikes and garnering support from noted film and art personalities (notably Bollywood film actor Aamir Khan). Narmada Bachao Andolan, together with its leading spokespersons Medha Patkar and Baba Amte, were the 1991 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award.


The controversy over large dams on the River Narmada has come to symbolise the struggle for a just and equitable society in India. Shortly put, the Government’s plan is to build 30 large, 135 medium and 3000 small dams to harness the waters of the Narmada and its tributaries. The proponents of the dam claim that this plan would provide large amounts of water and electricity which are desperately required for the purposes of development.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement), which is spearheading the protest, says the project will displace more than 200,000 people apart from damaging the fragile ecology of the region. NBA activists say the dams will submerge forest farmland, disrupt downstream fisheries and possibly inundate and salinate land along the canals, increasing the prospect of insect-borne diseases.

Some scientists have added to the debate saying the construction of large dams could cause earthquakes. They say that in a country as disorganised as India, it is likely that the necessary maintenance of these dams may suffer.

But those in favour of the project say that the project will supply water to 30m people and irrigate crops to feed another 20m people. In what was seen as a major victory for the anti-dam activists, the World Bank withdrew from the Narmada project in 1993.

Several other international financial institutions also pulled out citing human and environmental concerns. The construction of Sardar Sarovar dam itself was stopped soon afterwards.

Go ahead

However, in October 2000, the Indian Supreme Court gave a go-ahead for the construction of the dam. The court ruled that the height of the dam could be raised to 121.92 metres and no higher, until cleared by an environmental authority appointed to undertake the task. This is far below the proposed height of 130 metres, but higher than the 88 metres that the anti-dam activists want.

Opponents of the dam question the basic assumptions of the Narmada Valley Development Plan and believe that its planning is unjust and inequitous and the cost-benefit analysis is grossly inflated in favour of building the dams. They claim that the plans rest on untrue and unfounded assumptions of hydrology and seismicity of the area and the construction is causing large scale abuse of human rights and displacement of many poor and underprivileged communities. They also believe that water and energy can be provided to the people of the Narmada Valley, Gujarat and other regions through alternative technologies and planning processes which can be socially just and economically and environmentally sustainable. They claim that large numbers of poor and underprivileged communities (mostly tribals and dalits) are being dispossessed of their livelihood and even their ways of living to make way for dams being built

Large dams imply large budgets for related projects leading to large profits for a small group of people. A mass of research shows that even on purely technical grounds, large dams have been colossal failures. While they have delivered only a fraction of their purported benefits, they have had an extremely devastating effect on the riverine ecosystem and have rendered destitute large numbers of people (whose entire sustenance and modes of living are centered around the river). For no large dam in India has it been shown that the resettled people have been provided with just compensation and rehabilitation.

Critics say that Sardar Sarovar takes up over 80% of Gujarat’s irrigation budget but has only 1.6% of cultivable land in Kutch, 9% of cultivable land in Saurashtra and 20% cultivable land in North Gujarat in its command area. Moreover, these areas are at the tail-end of the command and would get water only after all the area along the canal path get their share of the water, and that too after 2020 AD. In summary, they fear that all available indicators suggest that these needy areas are never going to benefit from the Sardar Sarovar Project.

So as the anti-dam activists ponder their next move, the government has started again with construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

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