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Since 1st March, 1999
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Dam of discord built on year’s last day
Features of the Sardar Sarovar dam
Length: 1250 metres
Height: 122 metres
Work began: 1987
Cost: Rs 22,000 crore
People displaced: 320,000
• Connect an 86,000-km network of canals
• Irrigate 5.5 lakh hectares
• Provide drinking water to 20 million people in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and

Ahmedabad, Dec. 31: Narendra Modi poured the last bucket of concrete on the Sardar Sarovar Dam’s walls today, signalling the completion of the two-decade-old project that triggered one of the world’s longest social and environmental campaigns.

“India has taken a leap ahead. The dam will change the future of the country,” the Gujarat chief minister said of the 121.92-metre-high, 1.25-km-long structure that is expected to provide water, food and electricity to parched millions.

Modi said the civil construction at the Rs 22,000-crore dam, which he formally declared completed on the last day of the year, was over and now the 30 gates remained to be installed. The gates have already been brought to the construction site.

The government claims that the project, described as Gujarat’s “lifeline”, will generate 1,450 mw power once its 11 turbines become operational. It will connect an 86,000-km network of canals, irrigate 5.5 lakh hectares of parched land in Gujarat and supply drinking water to 2 crore people in four states, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Green and rights groups, led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) that fought a long and bitter battle to try and stop construction, allege that these are false promises.

They add that the dam will displace 3.2 lakh people, many of them poor tribal farmers who haven’t been properly resettled, and disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands more.

“The Sardar Sarovar Dam is a classic case of cheating the poor.… It has been built to destroy the economy of rural India,” said NBA leader Medha Patkar. She accuses the government of favouring the urban privileged at the cost of the village poor.

Modi, for once, didn’t spew his usual rhetoric or target Patkar. At today’s function, he seemed to be oozing humility. The chief minister went to the length of saying he wouldn’t claim any credit for the dam’s completion, although 40 metres were added to its height during his tenure.

Modi had used all the political muscle and gimmickry he was worth in his fight against Patkar. Last March, when the NBA leader fasted for three weeks demanding a halt to construction till all the oustees in Madhya Pradesh were rehabilitated, the Gujarat chief minister had launched into a counter-fast.

The Supreme Court allowed the dam’s height to be raised but Patkar’s fast forced the central and state governments to take a second look at the rehabilitation package.

The controversy sucked in Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who became a villain in Gujarat after visiting an NBA protest site in Delhi and expressing support. His film Fanaa faced an unofficial ban in Gujarat, and the Modi government threatened to prosecute him on the charge of illegally filming a chinkara during the shooting of a previous film, Lagaan, in the state seven years ago.

The project, started in 1987, had a rough journey. Nearly a decade was lost to a dispute between rival states over how to divide the water and power from the dam. Five more years went by as the NBA locked the governments in court battles.

The last phase of construction began on October 27 after the rains had forced a stop in the first week of July. Some 250 engineers and 2,000 labourers toiled round the clock to meet the deadline set by Modi.

The project will be dedicated to the nation sometime in January 2007, Modi said. He promised to invite the chief ministers of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra as well as former Gujarat chief ministers — even the Congress leaders who had helped the dam come up.

But he couldn’t resist an oblique reference to his own role. “I feel I have been the unluckiest chief minister. I have faced so many hurdles…. Sometimes I feel God wants to test my ability. I don’t believe in astrology but I want an astrologer to find out why.”

The dam is expected to store over 65,000 cusecs of water, enough to run all its 11 turbines at full capacity for four-and-a-half months after every monsoon. The rest of the year, they will run at half-capacity. But some experts reserved their judgement.

“The project will have to prove whether it’s the right combination of engineering and natural resources or a blunder depriving farmers of their land,” said Bidyut Datta, an independent water management expert.

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