The environmental impact of the Sardar Sarovar Dam

In part two of a three-part series, we look at the widespread ecological damage upstream and downstream of the dam and the loss of flora and fauna


All over India, unplanned and non-sustainable ‘development’ is threatening the environment, often causing irreversible damage to fragile ecosystems. In Odisha, traditional forests were burnt down. In Assam, a fire raging from an oil well is causing pollution, seeping oil is contaminating water bodies and covering trees at a national park in oil. In Jharkhand, apart from the ecological damage, unsustainable mining has led to the loss of cultivable land and caused massive air pollution.

In the same vein, the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project has been in the news for the displacement it caused to residents of around 245 villages across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Locals, mostly Adivasis, were ousted from their lands when hundreds of villages were inundated and submerged due to the project, causing lakhs of people to lose their livelihoods. While the social impact of the project has been irreparable, the environmental impact will be difficult to repair.

In part one of the series on the adverse effects of the Sardar Sarovar Project, we had a look at the number of people affected by the dam. In part two, we take a look at the ecological and environmental damage the project has caused.

Land submerged

A fact-finding report by the Delhi Solidarity Group and others published in 2015 stated that the total land in submergence in Madhya Pradesh was 20,822 hectares, in Maharashtra – 9,590 hectares and in Gujarat 7,112 hectares. Over 13,000 hectares of forest cover, 48.5% in Maharashtra, 31% in Gujarat and 20.5% in Madhya Pradesh have been projected to be submerged by the SSP.

A report by social activist Shabnam Hashmi in 2019, from when she visited affected areas in Madhya Pradesh stated that in Chikhalda, a village which was home to Asia’s first farmer, was completely submerged due to the SSP. Over 7,000 hectares of land became islands due to the inundation.

Villages saw partial or complete crop loss. They couldn’t harvest crops and also lost standing crops due to the inundation. Farmers lost banana crops, maize, sugarcane, cotton and wheat crops due to submergence.

Impact of large dams

Explaining the impact of big dams on the environment International Rivers explained that apart from the obvious direct impacts on the biological, chemical and physical properties of rivers, the dam wall blocks fish migrations, traps sediments which are essential for maintaining physical processes and downstream habitats and the changes due to the artificial reservoir habitat are not suitable for the aquatic plants and animals that have evolved with a given river system. 

A 2005 study by Talib N Ellison titled, “The Sardar Sarovar Dam and Ethnic Conflict in India” which stated the environmental impacts of the dam project in detail. It states that apart from the salinization and destruction of plants and fish, waterlogging renders land useless thus bringing about starvation as crops cannot be grown there. Apart from this, salinization reduces the quantity of potable water. It added that the Indian Institute of Science estimated that 40 percent of the command area of the dam would be waterlogged leading to the reduction of the crop yields.

Independent Review by the World Bank

An impact assessment report, “The Independent Review of the Sardar Sarovar Projects 1991-1992” stated that in addition to 100,000 persons living in the villages in the submergence area, there are likely to be 140,000 families who will be affected by the construction of the canal and irrigation system. Finally, there are the persons living downstream, below the dam, numbering thousands more, whose lives will be significantly affected due to the impact on fisheries and salt-water ingress.

Many reports on the dam project have stated that construction at the site even before the required clearances came in from the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal Award (NWDTA), Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Planning Commission (PC).

When the project was approved by credit from the World Bank in 1985, it had still not received environmental clearance by the MoEF. A report by the World Bank which conducted an Independent Review of the project in 1992 stated, “The Sardar Sarovar has therefore come under scrutiny at a time of global awakening to the consequences of large-scale projects in rural and remote areas, especially those areas inhabited by indigenous or tribal people.” It added, “The Government of India has developed a comprehensive structure of policies for environmental protection and assessment of environmental impact. Despite this structure of policies, the history of the environmental aspects of the Sardar Sarovar is a history of non-compliance. Not until 1987 did India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests give a conditional environmental clearance for the dam and canal project. The clearance provided that instead of completing environmental impact studies before approval of the Sardar Sarovar, the studies would be done pati passit, that is, concurrently with construction. This approach undermines the very basis for environmental planning.”

In its report, the World Bank analysed several environmental issues. First, significant discrepancies in the hydrological data and analyses indicated that the Sardar Sarovar would not perform as planned: no realistic operational analysis of the project upon which to base an impact assessment had been done. The backwater effect of sedimentation upstream of the dam had been neglected by the officials. The Independent Review found that the backwater effect could mean a rapid, continuing, and cumulative rise in water level in the river above the reservoir, which could cause flooding to extensive areas of densely populated farmland.

Second, the Independent Review found that no assessment of downstream impact had been done. The implications of the Sardar Sarovar for the geomorphology of the lower reaches of the river and its estuary, and for the fishery and the people living in the region were unknown. The Hilsa fishery, for example, the largest on the west coast and on which thousands of people depended, would suffer severe losses or be eliminated completely. It also noted that the measures at the time proposed mitigate the problem were inadequate.

Thirdly, around the command area, the Independent Review found that there were serious problems with waterlogging and salinity, adding that the environmental consequences of the project had not been properly studied.  

Loss of forests

A critique of the Narmada Valley Project by Kalpavriksh in 1988 mentioned that the “compensatory afforestation” undertaken by the authorities was hardly compensatory because the deciduous forests cut down had developed over a million of years and the plantations to be done could never mimic the original diversity. It questioned, “The afforestation plan in fact includes some exotic commercially useful species. Certainly, there is no conscious attempt on part of either the SSP authorities to replant exactly what is going to be lost. How could they, considering a complete flora listing of the submergence zones has till date not been done?” It stated that the project authorities had initially valued forests only in terms of their timber, firewood and minor forest produce yield, completely ignoring crucial ecological functions like soil preservation, water replenishment, microclimatic stabilization and storage of genetic pools.

Another study, “Uprooting Forests, Planting Trees: Success of Compensatory Afforestation Measures Mitigating the Deforestation for the Sardar Sarovar Dam, India” by Dipti Bhatnagar stated that much of the Compensatory Afforestation (CAF) was planned and executed to be very far away from the original riparian forest that is being submerged near the Narmada River. The wisdom of this is certainly questionable, since it is supposed to compensate the original forest. Including the 27 villages of Kutch, 51% of the plantations were created in regions where the soil and climate is very different from that which is being submerged in the riparian region. The Morse Committee Report noticed the futility of these far away plantations. Talking about the plantations in Kutch, they said, “By placing the Compensatory Afforestation in an entirely different ecological zone, one that is marginal for forest development in any case, Gujarat has ensured that the forest created will have no resemblance to that submerged.”

Loss of wildlife

The critique by Kalpavriksh stated that the SSP authorities told the Department of Environment that at the time, there was no wildlife present in the reservoir area of the proposed dam and in its vicinity. Though there were few large mammals left in the submergence zone, the forests contained insects, reptiles, amphibians and birds. Given this, the translocation of such animals was impossible and thus, the dam had contributed to the inevitable loss of wildlife. 

In 2018, the Narmada Pradushan Nivaran Samiti and the Bharuch Citizen Council filed a plea with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) complaining that the drying up of the river bed was causing immense damage to agriculture, environment and local industries, with the petitioners claiming that the river had been reduced to a small stream due to less water being released from the dam. The plea stated, “Due to unavailability of surface water, water intensive and heavily polluting industries along the Narmada Estuary withdrew large quantities of water from bore wells, aggravating water crisis and accelerating rate of toxic sea water intrusion into the aquifers of the downstream area.” It added, “Consistent negligence to ensure minimum downstream flow from the Sardar Sarovar dam led to permanent and detrimental changes in the downstream hydro-ecology leading to habitat destruction, increased soil salinity in the agricultural lands, groundwater contamination and changes in the overall environment and was manifested in its worst form during the summer of 2016.”

It is in light of these findings, which are just a snapshot of the mistakes committed by the authorities, one can safely say that the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project was flawed right from the start. It violated laws by not waiting for clearances and did not undertake apt measures to understand the actual damage to the ecology of the area by going about wanton felling of trees and damaging other means of livelihoods. With the current scenario of the environmental regulations being violated in the country, the actions of the SSP authorities only show that it is not new for the government to do so and live with impunity.

Adding to this, the more pressing issue is one of relief and rehabilitation of the Adivasis, which has still not been carried out to its true extent more than three decades later. In part three of the series, we will look at the progress of the relief and rehabilitation efforts or the lack thereof by the authorities.


Sardar Sarovar Dam and the denial of Adivasi rights
Assam gas -well blowout: 11 days on, threat to humans and animals remains high
Odisha Forest Department cuts down traditional trees, destroys livelihood of forest workers
Raging inferno Jharia treads on hot coals as Centre opens up mining for private sector
Draft environmental impact notification (EIA) doom for natural resources, forests, withdraw it: NAPM



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