In 1961, against the backdrop of a long history of Indian water disputes, costs and benefits of the Narmada River Valley Development Plan became the point of contention. During the planning phase of the project, negative effects on the riparian states were not considered sufficiently, which led to interstate disputes among the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarad and Rajasthan.
Note: Interstate tensions here refers to different states within India, not nation states.
In the aftermath of India’s independence in 1947, inter-state water conflicts concerning rivers increased in frequency. Water had already become a contentious issue during the British Raj, as considerable parts of the country were already relatively arid and major Indian rivers were shared by two or more states (Richards & Singh, 2001). On the one hand, former Prime Minister Nehru’s ambitious development policy increased the demand for water and, on the other hand, the prior system of British colonial law had long-lasting implications for the resolution of on-going water disputes (D’Souza, 2005).
An interstate dispute
The Narmada River Dispute put the riparian states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat as well as the non-riparian state of Rajasthan, a potential beneficiary of irrigation water, in opposition to one another. The Federal Government of India also had a role to play in the conflict, as it proposed development policy and then tried to act as a mediator. The point of contention regarded the distribution of the costs and benefits entailed by the Narmada River Valley Development plan .The dispute was resolved in 1979, due to the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA), which put forth a compromise between the different states and allowed the harnessing of the Narmada River to start.
India´s modernization strategy favored large projects
As part of the aggressive modernization strategy pursued by India following independence, the federal authorities conducted studies to exploit the huge potential of the Narmada River in the 1950s. When Nehru himself referred to dams as “the temples of modern India“ (1954), larger projects were favored, for instance the Navagam Dam (formerly known as the Sardar Sarovar Dam) located in Gujarat. However, neither the effects on the neighboring states, nor the risk of interstate disputes, had been considered. Although Prime Minister Nehru himself laid the foundation stone in 1961, interstate disagreements soon stopped the actual construction (Cullet, 2007).
Mediation attempt by the central government
Mediation attempts by the federal government had limited success in both 1963 and 1965. Both the Bhopal Agreement and the Khosla Committee Recommendations proved to be unsuccessful in addressing the government of Maharashtra and the government of Madhya Pradesh concerns about the construction of large dams in Gujarat which would flood their territories without irrigation benefits. The death of Prime Minister Nehru in 1963 did not ease this mediation process, as the Central Government suffered a loss of legitimacy. Besides, Indian water law is decentralized and state-based. The involved states were, therefore, trying to assert their authority, all the more as their leaders were prominent figures of the Indian Independence Movement.
Social and environmental dimensions were left aside
The 1960s saw an intense competition for development among the riparian states, which all wanted to develop at the other’s expenses, showing a serious lack of political and economic cooperation. In this context, little attention was paid to social and environmental consequences. The interstate dispute is now closed, although it paved the way for a conflict between the involved states and their citizens, due to the lack of consideration of the resettlement issue and of the ecological impact of large dams (see the Sardar Sarovar Dam conflict).
By the end of the 1960s, the Government of Gujarat acknowledged that the negotiations had reached political deadlock and called for the creation of a specific tribunal on the basis of the Inter State Water Dispute Act of 1956. In 1969, the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) was set up by the government. The conflict lasted ten more years before an agreement could be reached. Indeed, instead of easing the tensions, the NWDT was considered as a “new arena where conflicts could be aired” (Khagram, 2004).
Resettlement and rehabilitation
The main obstacle to a compromise was the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam which was to overshadow three projects and large parts of land in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh if implemented. Given the strength of the tensions, the tribunal could not deal with anything but the states grievances, and no social scientists or ecologists were asked to give their expertise. Paradoxically however, the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) problem played an important role. It had indeed been used rather cynically by states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh as a negotiation tool to hinder the ambitious dam to be built in Gujarat (Khagram, 2004).
Ending of the dispute
Gujarat finally accepted to cover all the costs of population displacement without any feasibility studies, probably hoping not to be held accountable for it. It is worth noting that the agreed R&R clause only related to the Sardar Sardovar Dam and only the households located in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, which shows how the R&R clause was only an incidental consequence. Yet, this unlocked the negotiation process and the NMDT finally gave its award for the Narmada River Development project.
In the end, this project proved even larger than the already ambitious federal government’s proposal, comprising more than 3,000 dam projects, including no less than 165 large projects. Civil protest emerged, but, arguably, it proved too weak to influence the NWDT’s decision. However, activism would grow over the years, denouncing an interstate agreement which completely excluded the affected citizens and forgot to assess the social and environmental consequences of their dream for modernization. This is explored in the Sardar Sarovar Dam case study covering the following period.