Busy selling Narmada dreams, MP politicos disregard declining water levels, impact of sand mining and deforestation

Manish Chandra Mishra | Apr 27, 2019 | 6 min read



 By Manish Chandra Mishra

Come election time, every leader promises to bring Narmada river water to their constituency. The 2019 Lok Sabha polls is no exception. Bhopal Congress candidate and former chief minister Digvijay Singh’s vision document promises Narmada water to every home in the capital city.

That the river is suffering from a major water deficit does not bother any of these leaders. With barely two per cent water flow in summer, further diversion of the rivers’ water will have a huge ecological impact, say green activists. That too is of no concern to the poll contestants. And the irony of bringing Narmada water to Bhopal, known as the city of lakes, is completely lost on Digvijay Singh.

Bhopal derives its name from Bhoj Tal (“Bhoj’s Lake”), constructed by Raja Bhoj in the 11th century. Today that lake is the Upper Bhopal Lake (Bada Talab), which is connected to the Lower Bhopal Lake (Chhota Talab) by an aqueduct. The two lakes not only supply water to the city but are also popular recreation spots for the city’s resident. Bhopal also has four major water reservoirs– Halali, Kaliyasot, Kerwa and Hathaikheda.

But despite availability of these water sources, and experts’ assertion that the city was designed to be able to survive on their local water sources, 30 per cent of the city’s water needs is met via a 80-kilometre-long pipeline from the Narmada.

The once fabled river is virtually the life line of Madhya Pradesh as around 29 cities gets its drinking water from the Narmada water, like the state’s commercial capital Indore, which is served by a 70 km pipeline to bring Narmada water. Besides, the irrigation needs of almost every part of the state is met from the Narmada. With each year and each election, as political leaders promise to bring the river’s water to their area, the number of cities and people dependent on the river for their water needs is increasing exponentially.

According to experts and activists working to conserve and preserve the river, excessive exploitation by building pipelines and irrigation and power projects across the river, is damaging the natural flow of Narmada. “Excessive and unscientific sand mining and deforestation have ruined the natural flow of Narmada," said Medha Patkar, a veteran activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, who never tires of pointing out the many threats to the river.

Former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan too had promised Narmada water to many regions with river linking projects. The Narmada-Kshipra river linking project, for instance, provides water to Ujjain. Other cities like Satna are also hoping to get Narmada water as local leaders have promised a canal there.

As part of our series Election on the Go, we decided to examine how such excessive use of Narmada water, in the context of poll promises, is affecting the river and its environment, starting with Bhopal where one can see virtually every corner being dug up for the Narmada pipeline.

Officials of Bhopal Municipal Corporation said that only 70 percent of the city’s needs is fulfilled from local sources. “"Earlier we used to take 30 MGD from the Upper Lake,” said M P Singh, Additional Commissioner of Bhopal Municipal Corporation. "But due to lack of availability, we cut this down by 19 MGD. As of now, we are using 36 MGD of Narmada water and are working to use its full capacity of 40 MGD.

“All the Rs 415 crore allocated for the Narmada connection has been utilised successfully,” said Bhopal mayor Alok Sharma. “About 80,000-90,000 households are getting Narmada water and another 60,000 households will be added in the next six months. Narmada water has reached most parts of the city and we will increase connections as needed”.

Reacting to Digvijay Singh’s poll promise, Alok Sharma said that water levels were decreasing and the river cannot be over exploited. “When Digvijay Singh was chief minister, we requested him to bring Narmada water to Bhopal,” recalled Alok Sharma. “At that time, he made fun of us and asked us to relocate to Hoshangabad to get Narmada water. He said it was not possible to bring Narmada to Bhopal. The BJP government brought the water and we know how to utilise it in the best interests of the public."  

Despite several attempts, we were unable to get Digvijay Singh’s comments on this.

Bhopal’s citizens, however, are concerned about overexploitation of the river. "Bhopal has a rich history of water conservation,” said Rakesh Malviya, a resident of Awadhpuri Bhopal. “We have many water sources. Not only Bhopal, every city was established near a water source. But we have ruined our local sources. Narmada is probably the only river in MP which has some water, but instead of protecting it, the government is exploiting it”. Emphasising the need for water conservation, Rakesh said "we need to restore catchment areas of rivers and lakes so that it can store rain water."

Decreasing ground water levels is another cause of worry that is being ignored in this campaign. According to a recent report of the Central Ground Water Board, ground water is dropping four metres every year in some regions, including Bhopal. "We want to rely only on surface water,” said Kartik Sapre, a PhD scholar at IIT Delhi and associated with Narmada Samagra, an organisation founded by former environment minister Anil Madhav Dave. “If we recharge ground water every rainy season it would fulfill our needs for the whole year. We should also focus on rain water harvesting".

A report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) had identified the Narmada as one of six major river basins in the world facing an existential crisis. The report said that the 2017 water crisis in the river basin had forced the Gujarat government to stop using water from the Sardar Sarovar dam for irrigation. Also, the April 25, 2019 storage bulletin of the Central Water Commission pointed out that the Bargi and Indirasagar dams on the Narmada have just 42 and 35 per cent of its respective capacity.

“We need a water audit of the Narmada that would expose the reality of water availability,” said Vinaytak Parihar, an activist working on Narmada conservation. "Narmada cannot fulfill the demands of all the pipelines and other government projects”.

That water levels in the river have been declining in recent years is commonly known. "A river is only known as a river when it flows,” said Vinod Sharma, a water expert. “But only two to four per cent of water remains in the Narmada this summer season. Governments and politicians should think about restoring locally available water resources and sustainable use of water to ensure sustainability of Narmada’s flow. When we exploit a river like this, it will be dead in the next few years." 



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