The Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi Sunday, is 138.68 metres high. This is the height that was originally sanctioned by a tribunal during the tenure of Chimanbhai Patel as Gujarat chief minister. Since then, disputes had led to the height being restricted and increased in phases, until permission to raise it to its maximum height was granted by the Narmada Control Authority in 2014.
Concept & construction
The project to build a large dam on the Narmada for the welfare of Gujarat was first conceptualised in 1946 by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, later Union home minister. The foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in April 1961, a year after Gujarat attained statehood after separation from the then State of Bombay. Three other states — Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan — are partners in the project. Several disputes among the states followed, over issues including distribution of water. The Narmada Control Authority (NCA) and its Review Committee (RCNCA) were constituted by a special tribunal constituted in 1969. The tribunal gave its final award in 1979; the NCA and its review committee would be revived in 2000-01. After the height of 138.68 m was sanctioned, construction began in 1987 following environment clearance from the then Rajiv Gandhi government.
The dam ran into legal challenges starting 1995, when activist Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan petitioned the Supreme Court against the project. The court stayed work on the project, vacating it in February 1998 with the condition that gradual permission would be given to increase the dam height after reviewing the rehabilitation of project-affected families. In 2000-01, the Supreme Court revived NCA and RCNCA and authorised them to supervise rehabilitation and order a gradual increase in height. By 2004, the dam had reached 110.64 m. And in March 2006, permission was granted to raise it to 121.92 m, and work for this started.
In 2006, then water resources minister Saifuddin Soz called a meeting of the RCNCA to reconsider the decision to raise the height of the dam. Modi, then Gujarat CM, sat on a hunger-strike in Ahmedabad for 51 hours starting that April 17, alleging that the Centre was doing Gujarat an injustice.
Back to 138.68 m
In 2014, 17 days after Modi took charge as PM, the panel granted permission to raise the dam to its maximum height and install sluice gates, another demand he had made as Gujarat CM. The Gujarat government began work within hours and got it completed nine months before deadline. On June 16, 2017, Gujarat also got permission to close the gates, and did so the very next day in the presence of Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel.
Battle for credit
While the BJP has been accusing the Congress of being anti-Narmada dam, the latter has been claiming credit for major work on the project during its reign. Sunday’s visit was one of many by Modi to Gujarat, which goes to polls this year. BJP president Amit Shah declared in his address to the Gujarat assembly last month that Narmada and the welfare of OBCs (Other Backward Classes) are the two issues that the elections will be fought on. The Congress says the most difficult work, such as 100% earthen work and 90% of the main canal, had been completed during its rule in Gujarat. The Congress alleges the project cannot be called complete when the canal network is not yet complete, because of which much water will discharge into the sea. Besides, the Congress says, it is the NCA formed under court orders that was giving orders on dam height. Yet the BJP claims PM Modi gave permission to install and close the gates when, the Congress says, he is not even a member.