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Revisting Narmada Valley Project. Beyond Politics

The Narmada Valley Project is the largest and most expensive valley project in India and has been displayed as Gujarat’s lifeline. It has not been without controversies at many levels such as ecological, engineering and livelihood issues. The environmental impacts are not only specific to Sardar Sarovar Project but also to other similar river valley projects.

Conditional Clearance To Sardar Sarovar Project

To continue such a monumental project, the clearance given in 1987 by MoEF (now MoEF & CC) was conditional in nature which stipulates that if in a certain period of time, the work plan and assessments regarding ecological implications has to be successfully cleared and if not, the SSP (earlier Narmada Sarovar Project) clearance will be revoked. The Ministry stated that "it is neither desirable nor recommended that the SSP should be given approval in isolation on technical and other grounds". It has been very well known that the SSP failed to provide the necessary information in the stipulated time. There was no formal order passed to revoke the clearance and stop the ongoing construction which begs the question of the importance and meaning of the clearance.

Environmental impact assessment

Any monumental work such as SSP has to their plan approved only after giving an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) as laid down by Central Water Commission in 1975.

The study that was presented as EIA was just a preliminary assessment of the impacts and not a comprehensive one. Even after Environmental Protection Act, 1986 and controversies; not a detailed EIA was presented. Large River valley projects have impacts on the physical and biological environment of the project area and then more. (Hildyard and Goldsmith 1984). Direct impacts are felt in four broad regions:

• Upstream of the dam (submergence and catchment areas);

• Downstream of the dam (riverine and estuarine ecosystems);

• Command area (canal impact region);

• Areas away from the above three regions where project-related activities are carried out (e.g. resettlement areas).

Any such project to be viable should be considerate on different strata’s such as social, economic, environmental and engineering. In the absence of these proper compensatory steps, a project cannot continue. Finally, once the project is built, it is important to constantly monitor the environmental impacts, and the measures taken to address them.

One of the major issue in such projects is that the Government of India does not have any resettlement policy for displaced people due to these developmental projects. The compensation provided by the government is not enough for such people to resettle somewhere else with same level of comfort and dignity.

Ecological importance can be broadly classified under Ecosystem Services that are destroyed by such projects without fully compensating the loss of it or without proper assessment. Before further going into the topic, let us understand ecosystem services and its parts. Ecosystem services are those properties of the ecosystem that either directly or indirectly benefit human endeavors, such as maintaining hydrologic cycles, regulating climate, cleansing air and water, maintaining atmospheric composition, pollination, soil genesis, and storing and cycling of nutrients (Christensen et al. 1996; Daily, 1997).

Ecosystem services is becoming an important area of research especially after the publication of a huge work done by 1300 scientists from all over the world called Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) (Fisher et al , 2007).

Ecosystem services comprises of four type of services:

1. Provisional Services: These services comprise of the materials or products that can be derived or obtained from the ecosystem. They include food, raw materials (wood, biofuel, oils), pure water which comes due to the process of natural hydrological system and medicinal resources.

2. Regulating Services: These services comprise of the function of ecosystems that act as regulators for maintaining air, climate and biodiversity. Some examples are maintaining the air quality by regulating pollutants, maintaining the water quality by treating waste water with the help of microbes, pollination & disease control and sequestering greenhouse gases.

3. Cultural Services: These services comprise of non-material and invisible services provided by the ecosystem either by increasing the happiness or economy. They include recreation, peace, tranquility, inspiration or boosting tourism. (Source: The Economics of Ecosystem & Biodiversity)

4. Supporting Services: Supporting services comprise of those services of the ecosystem that produce all the other ecosystem services namely provisional, cultural & regulating. Supporting services are different from other services in terms of their impacts on humans which are indirect and occur over a very long period of time. (Some functions such as erosion control are both regulating and supporting in nature depending on time scale).


Forests destroyed in such projects is also home to diverse habitat: genetic pool. On top of that, forests influence climate, conserve soil cover, prevent soil erosion. The cultural and supporting services of forest as per some estimates exceeds the value of its direct products but are not considered of value due to non-economic estimations of such. Forests, in general, are depleting at a rate of about 7.6 million to 1 0 million hectares per year (Kirstin, 2004). The Narmada Valley Project will destroy 54,076 ha of rich forest. The forests to be submerged are teak, bamboo and Arjun (Dewas, Madhya Pradesh).

The State Forest Department has affirmed that the reforestation will take place but the issue is that they have also admitted to the fact that such large piece of lands are not available in nearby district as per their report. For a reclamation to occur, minimum estimates ranging from 75-90000 INR is required for one hectare and the money allocated by the Centre is 1.6 crore which is not sufficient to afforest more than 200 hectares of land.

To compensate the loss of biodiversity, Government has designated the State Forest Departments to afforest the areas for the areas affected by the project. It was same for the case of Tehri Dam. The issue was that once the land has been submerged, it is difficult to reclaim. The Forest Department has not identified land for reforestation or proper infrastructure. Even, the reclamation will not necessarily bring back the original structure of the forests.

Loss of Wildlife

Around 200 of the tigers surviving in the country can be found in the eastern district of the Narmada catchment area. Tiger is not just a flagship species but also a keynote species on which different type of flora and fauna depend on and also an indicator of the diversity of the area. Wild buffalo, Indian bison, Antelope fowl, hill birds constitute the natural ecological system of the basin. After the construction of the dam the agriculture is likely to get increased which in turn can lead to soil erosion due to water runoff and submergence, and increased use of pesticides and fertilizers. Narmada river area has been classified as moderate seismicity zone. The biggest earthquake that happened in last 30 years was Satpura earthquake of 6.3 richer scale.

Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in a research paper has projected that minimum 1 lakh hectare of the affected area will be waterlogged due to irrigation. One of the major issues with waterlogging and river valley projects is human health hazard due to water borne diseases. The study conducted by M.S University, Tirunelveli found that the local inhabitants of the affected area are suffering from various skin diseases including scabies. Due to the waterlogging and the optimum temperature for the vectors such as mosquitos to grow malaria, dengue, viral encephalitis and digestive diseases could grow at a higher rate than the current one (Billory, Alvares, 1995).

Narmada Valley Project has in their report mentioned that "the impact of the project on the wildlife shall be nil. Since wildlife has got natural characteristics of shifting to nearby jungles wherever it is felt unsuitable to them. Madhya Pradesh’s policy document states, "Wildlife in submerged forests will be guided to adjacent localities. Protection of the wildlife will be the responsibility of the forest authorities."

This is alarming and disturbing in nature that the Government has not taken any steps for relocating the wildlife and have claimed that there will be no disturbance to the natural fauna of the place without (till this date) proper biodiversity study of the area to determine the population and habitat of species that is going to be affected by the project.


First Appeared in TERI's Magazine by Rahul Kumar

Rahul Kumar is a PhD Scholar at Indian Institute Of Management, Ranchi

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