New Independent Review Documents Failure of Narmada Dam

Protest against submergence in the Narmada Valley
Protest against submergence in the Narmada Valley

For decades, the Sardar Sarovar Dam on India’s Narmada River has been a powerful symbol of what is going wrong with large dam projects. A new independent review by a prestigious research institute shows that the project’s benefits have not been realized, while the social, environmental and financial costs are even more serious than expected. The dam authorities and the World Bank have a responsibility to clean up the mess which they have created.

Dam proponents are promoting the Sardar Sarover Dam as “the lifeline of Gujarat”. They say the project will irrigate large swathes of this dry state in Northwestern India, generate electricity and provide drinking water to Gujarat’s thirsty cities. If completed, the dam and irrigation canals will displace more than 300,000 people, including many indigenous communities in the Narmada Valley.

The World Bank approved $450 million in loans for Sardar Sarovar in 1985 even though the project did not comply with the government’s conditional environmental clearance. The Narmada Bachao Andolan, a coalition of social movements and NGOs, created strong international public pressure to stop the dam. After a damning report by the independent Morse Commission, the World Bank withdrew from the Narmada Valley in 1993.

In 1995, India’s Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the Sardar Sarovar Project. In a highly questionable decision, the Court in 1999 allowed construction to continue under the condition that the displaced people were properly rehabilitated. Even though these conditions have never been met, the Court allowed the dam height to be raised to a level of 122 meters. If the dam is completed, its height will reach 139 meters.

Protest against the World Bank's Sardar Sarovar Dam in India
Protest against the World Bank's Sardar Sarovar Dam in India

During the 1990s, international NGOs campaigned against Sardar Sarovar by organizing demonstrations and sit-ins, fact-finding missions and parliamentary resolutions, tv documentaries and newspaper ads. The withdrawal of the World Bank and the decisions by the Supreme Court left the international campaign with few opportunities to influence the project. Yet the dam has not yet been completed, and the Narmada Bachao Andolan is still resisting a further increase of its height. A new report by a prestigious independent institute has now added a strong voice to the debate about the project.

On August 20, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), one of India’s leading think-tanks, released a detailed empirical analysis of the costs and benefits of the Sardar Sarovar Project. The conclusions of this independent review are damning:

• In 2002, the Sardar Sarovar Dam reached a height which allowed water to be diverted into the irrigation canals. Yet the project’s irrigation system has never been completed, and the Narmada’s water does not reach the intended beneficiaries. According to the report, only around 30% of the targeted villages have received regular water supplies, and as Gujarat’s Chief Minister admitted, 80% of the canal network still needs to be completed. Even in the area closest to the river, the distribution channels still don’t bring water directly to the farmland. Instead, farmers are lifting water from the canals with diesel pumps and pipes – an expensive option which is only available to the rich land owners.

• Supplying drinking water was not part of the original project design, but was added later as a ploy to win political support. Now that the project is being built, the project authorities are reneging on their promises. According to the report, the allocation of water to Gujarat’s industries has been increased from 0.20 to 1.00 million acre feet (MAF), while the allocation of drinking water for domestic use has been reduced from 0.86 to 0.06 MAF.

• The project is supposed to generate electricity at a capacity of 1,450 megawatts. Yet the TISS report quotes estimates according to which the hydropower project will only have a capacity of 425 megawatts in the early stages. Once the irrigation system is fully operational, this capacity will decrease to 50 megawatts. Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People showed in a detailed analysis that the project could have produced all the power it actually generated even if the dam had not been raised from 111 to 122 meters after 2004.

• If the dam is completed, its reservoir will submerge 245 villages and 376 square kilometers of land, and will displace approximately 240,000 people. The canal network will cover another 800 square kilometers of land, but the people who have to make way for it are not officially considered to be affected. The Supreme Court decided that the dam oustees need to receive cultivable and irrigable replacement land and housing plots with civic amenities. The TISS report finds that the state governments have never complied with this binding order, and that the replacement land for the oustees is not available.

• In its conditional clearance of the project, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests ordered that the reservoir’s large catchment area needed to be treated in order to prevent soil erosion and the degradation of the water quality. In addition, the 138 square kilometers of forest land which were going to be submerged needed to be replaced through compensatory afforestation. None of this has happened. The project authorities committed to treating only 6% of the catchment area. And in field tests, the TISS team found that 86% of the area which was supposedly afforested had “little or no tree cover”.

• In addition, 52% of the project’s command (or irrigation) area face “high to very high probability of water logging and salination”, because the project authorities never bothered to install proper drainage canals. “Irrigation without drainage is like having a system of arteries and no veins”, argued Arundhati Roy in her brilliant essay, The Greater Common Good: “Pretty damn pointless.”

• Even though the dam and irrigation network have not been completed, the affected people have not been rehabilitated and the environmental mitigation measures have not been carried out, the project costs have gone through the roof. When India’s Planning Commission approved Sardar Sarovar in 1986, the projected cost was 64 billion rupees (or slightly more than $1 billion). In the meantime, the cost has skyrocketed to 457 billion rupees, and is expected to reach 700 billion rupees by 2012. The TISS report does not inform us how much of this eleven-fold cost increase is due to inflation.

Submerged Houses in the Narmada Valley during the 2006 Monsoon
Submerged Houses in the Narmada Valley during the 2006 Monsoon

The TISS report finds that not increasing the dam height from 122 to 139 meters would only marginally affect power generation, and “would have no effect whatsoever in realizing the targets on irrigation and drinking water”. At the same time, not raising the dam height further would save more than 200 square kilometers of land from submergence and approximately 30,000 families (or 150,000 people) from being displaced.

The independent review concludes as follows:

“It is strongly recommended that the dam height at 121.92 m should not be raised further by installing 17 m high gates which would take the dam height to 138 m, at least until the past obligations are fulfilled, the benefits of 121.92 m are completely realized, and a honest comparative analysis of future costs and benefits is carried out. Such a decision would also ensure that concerns on social and ecological impacts are addressed, responsibility for non-compliance is fixed, and violators are penalized.”

The TISS report is the first independent, empirical review of the controversial Sardar Sarovar Project in many years. It will be discussed at a conference in Delhi on November 20. Unless they want to inflict further senseless suffering on some of the weakest members of society, the dam authorities and the state governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra need to pay close attention to the review and follow its recommendations. Rather than raise the dam height further for reasons of political prestige, they should make sure that the potential benefits actually reach poor farmers, that the families who have already been displaced are rehabilitated according to the binding Supreme Court order, and that the environmental mitigation measures are carried out according to the Environmental Ministry’s original stipulation.

When the World Bank approved its loan in 1985, it kick-started the Sardar Sarovar Project at a time when India’s Environmental Ministry was still warning against it. Years after the Bank withdrew from the dam, it continued to propagate it as a model project (for example in a presentation at its Water Week in 2003). Today the institution cannot disassociate itself from the sorry social and environmental legacy which it helped create in the Narmada Valley. The World Bank should publicly support the recommendations of the TISS review. And it should not approve any further support for hydropower and irrigation projects in India as long as the problems of the Sardar Sarovar Dam have not been resolved.

I have visited the project area several times since 1993. I shared meals with indigenous villagers and heard moving stories about a way of life that is tied to the Narmada’s river, land and forests. I witnessed farmers being arrested at roadblocks, and NBA activists taking down a police station which was built to oppress them. I visited some of the schools and micro-hydro projects which the NBA built in the affected villages. And I saw temples and other symbolic places being submerged by the raising waters of the reservoir. I contracted malaria in the Narmada Valley, and was again and again inspired by conversations with Medha Patkar, the NBA’s charismatic leader, and the powerful prose of writer Arundhati Roy. Anybody who doubts the findings of the TISS report should go and see the impacts of the Sardar Sarovar Project with their own eyes.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog appears at