The dry riverbed of Narmada, the largest west-flowing river of the country, has turned into a parking lot for cars carrying pilgrims who frequent Chandod in Gujarat’s Vadodara district to pay homage to the dead.
With little water being released from Sardar Sarovar dam built upstream, the perennial river that once had an expanse of 300 m is now reduced to a 20-feet stream. Going by the state government records, the 150-km of the river downstream from the dam might turn dry well before 2032, a timeline by which dam authorities expect to completely halt the release of water downstream.
“Yesterday, the water level was so low that one could easily walk and cross the river. They have released more water today; so there is enough for our boats to ply,” said Raju Machchi, 31, who awaits his turn to ferry pilgrims. For five days till the new moon, Gujarat government had decided to release 1,500 cusecs water to counter the tide at the mouth of the river that opens in Gulf of Khambhat. “Yesterday, I did not get a single ride and had to return home empty-handed,” said Raju, voicing the concern of 600-odd boatmen who live in Chandod and depend on the boats that ferry pilgrims from Mallharrao Ghat to Triveni Sangam where Narmada meets Orsang and the mythical Gupt Saraswati.
“We used to fear the might of this river. It has flooded my house several times. Today you can see cars parked on the riverbed, a sight we have never seen before,” he said.
At the turn of the 21st century, Narmada used to flow bank-to-bank when an estimated 16.30 MAF (Million Acre Feet) of water used to be let down every year from Sardar Sarovar Dam. But by 2017, this flow reduced to 4.7 MAF and by 2032, it is expected to be “nil”. Currently, 600 cusecs are being released into the river. This was recently augmented to 1,500 cusecs after Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani wrote to the Centre.
The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, constituted in 1969 to adjudicate on the sharing of Narmada water, had estimated that no water will be released downstream 45 years after the dam’s construction. Construction of the dam began in 1987 and so, as per the estimate, the river is expected to run dry by 2032. “Going by the tribunal’s estimates, Narmada will not be perennial after 2032. These are just projections, but they show a trend. The last two years have been tough for Gujarat. Going by the current trend, it seems the river is already drying up and the forecast of the tribunal is coming true. However, we will wait and watch before saying anything definite,” said Dr M B Joshi, Chief General Manager (Technical and Coordination), Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited.
Due to the lack of release of water from the dam, the riverbed powerhouse is expected to be defunct by 2032.
After producing 35,136 million units of hydro power for the last 13 years, the 1200-MW underground riverbed powerhouse, located about 165 m downstream from Sardar Sarovar Dam, did not generate hydro power for a single day since July 2018 as there was no excess water to turn the six turbine generators.
Officials said no provision was made by the tribunal to allow a certain amount of water to be discharged into the river. In January 2005, all states concerned got together and decided to release 600 cusecs in Narmada to maintain an “environmental flow”.
The Gujarat government moved a proposal to increase this flow to 1500 cusecs in 2017. “The approval is yet to come. The 1,500 cusecs currently being released is from Gujarat’s quota and will be stopped after New Moon,” the official stated.
Navin Machchi, 39, a boatman and former president of the fishermen association at Chandod, said, “The river is reduced to a stream. Two years ago, the depth was between 40-50 feet. The lack of water is also a problem for pilgrims who come here to perform final rites of their loved ones, which involves taking a bath in the river. If this continues, people will stop coming. What is the significance of a Triveni Sangam if it does not have water?” Navin said he earned Rs 1,000 a day till four years ago, but now makes Rs 300 in two days. “We are aware that the water that flows by gets wasted, but the river needs to live,” he said.
Vijay Solanki, 21, who has come to perform his brother’s last rites, said, “I saw a blue river flow past when I came for the last rites of my sister-in-law four years ago. Today, I am surprised to see that there is hardly any water left.”