After inaugurating it in September 2017, the government highlighted the potential of the the Sardar Sarovar dam to irrigate almost 1.8 million hectares of agricultural land in Gujarat.Why then have the farmers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state been banned from drawing water from the Narmada river (starting 15 March), just six months after their hopes were raised by the PM? Did it happen because the “BJP used the water stocked in dams from last year’s monsoon to fill up Sabarmati, so that PM Narendra Modi can land his seaplane” and “light a diya in Rajkot’s Aji dam” prior to the 2017 Gujarat elections? Or was it because of deficient rainfall in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, which reduced the share of water Gujarat would get? The Quint explores.Not only have the farmers been banned from drawing water, but to prevent illegal lifting security arrangements have been made in Kevadia in Narmada district, which shares its borders with Madhya Pradesh. The water level in the reservoir dropped to 105.5 metres in mid-March from 124.02 metres in December, last year. This is close to the critical mark in the beginning of summer. For now, the state government is busy coming up with plans to ensure there is enough drinking water for the minimum 25 million people in the state, who rely on it. Locals said the dam had higher water levels, however, when the gates of the Sardar Sarovar were lowered on 17 June 2017, water levels began to fall.The Quint assessed the Central Water Commission data, and found out that not only was the Sardar Sarovar dam getting dry but 27 reservoirs in Gujarat and Maharashtra also had lower than average water storage levels.Data showed that water storage levels in June 2017 were better than what they were at the same time the previous year, in July 2017 they fell down to being equal to those in the previous year, and in August 2017, fell to being lesser than what they were at the same time during the previous year. There can be seen a consistent dip in water storage levels in the months that the gates were lowered.The CWC report also states that, “the storage during current year (2018) is less than the storage of last year and is also less than the average storage of last ten years during the same period”.The water in the reservoir was spread across 214 km during monsoon, while currently it stretches across less than 90 km. There are stretches of the canal network which are also currently parched. Dead storage water is being used for utilities. But, how did we get here?Why Is Narmada’s Sardar Sarovar Dam Controversial?Narmada, which is India's fifth-longest river, originates in Madhya Pradesh and flows along the border with Maharashtra before entering Gujarat. Madhya Pradesh plays a very important role in determining the amount of water that flows into the river basin in Gujarat. This essentially means that if there is insufficient rainfall in the neighbouring state, leading to lower water levels in the river, then the water that is released to Gujarat is also reduced.This is the main reason given by members of the BJP government, who are facing flak due to the depleting water levels.Due to the deficient rainfall, the Sardar Sarovar Reservoir Regulation Committee (SSRRC) had met on 10 January and allotted 4.7 million acre feet (MAF) of water to Gujarat. This was a marked difference from last year, where nine million MAF was allotted for the state by the Narmada Tribunal. This happened due to deficient rainfall in catchment areas of Narmada in Madhya Pradesh.According to a report by The Indian Express, both Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat had deficient rainfall from August to November, last year. Former executive vice-chairman of the Narmada Planning Group, that developed the Sardar Sarovar Development Plan in the 1980s, Y K Alagh told The Indian Express that Gujarat kept drawing water during the Kharif season, when it should have saved it for the Rabi crops in the summer. He added that, “We should not have used any water for riverfront ceremonial occasions after August, by when the rainfall failure was known”.An official of the state-run Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL) told The Indian Express, “There is no outflow from SSP (Sardar Sarovar Project) to the Sabarmati riverfront. However, water is released in the Sabarmati river to cater to domestic and drinking water needs of Ahmedabad city, irrigation of command area in Ahmedabad district through Vasna barrage and industrial water requirements for Ahmedabad city”.Despite Looming Crisis, Narmada Water Used for Modi’s Guj CampaignThe amount of water which was released into Narmada, and the time at which it was released, is also being scrutinised.An unusual amount of water was pumped into the river between 12-17 September – falling in line with the time the dam was inaugurated by Modi (17 September). Official records show that the level of the water continued to rise, and reached its high point late in September, before dipping again.The Leader of Opposition in the Gujarat Assembly Paresh Dhanani attacked the ruling BJP by highlighting the landing of Modi’s seaplane in Sabarmati. He said, “the BJP used the water stocked in dams from last monsoon to fill up Sabarmati, so that PM Narendra Modi can land his seaplane. Just so the PM could light a diya in Rajkot’s Aji dam, they raised the water level using the water saved from the monsoon”.Sagar Rabari, General Secretary of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj (Gujarat Farmer’s Society), categorically denied that the paucity of water had anything to do with deficient rainfall. He told The Quint:Sardar Sarovar had enough water to take care of Gujarat’s water needs. However, the BJP misused the water in the dam for political gains. The dam authorities are not able to provide data on the actual amount of water released from the dam. The water shortage is due to political misuse and not because of scanty rainfall. As The Quint reported, earlier this year:Sources in the irrigation department, under condition of anonymity, said that government authorities were aware that Narmada water would not be available for irrigation. Yet, they say, the state irrigation department filled up reservoirs that fall under Saurashtra Narmada Avataran Irrigation (SAUNI) Scheme, months before the Assembly elections.Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People told The Indian Express that the release of water from the dam was “non-optimal, wasteful and not in public interest”. Three months before the Gujarat Assembly elections, in December 2017, the government “showed people that they have the water” for power benefits too. According to the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, power benefits are to be shared between Madhya Pradesh (57 percent), Maharashtra (27 percent), and Gujarat (16 percent), however:If you look at electricity generated through the riverbed powerhouse at the SSP, it has produced zero units from July 2017. Why hasn’t Madhya Pradesh objected to not receiving electricity that is due to them?Himanshu Thakkar to The Indian Express Prior to issuance of the notification that informed farmers about the 15 March deadline, SSNNL chairman S S Rathore in a press conference said, “the Gujarat government usually supplies water for irrigation till June, before the onset of monsoon. This year, we will not be supplying Narmada water till monsoon. The government is not bound to supply water for summer crops,” The Indian Express reported.There are concerns that ignoring the safety of the dam has also led to loss of water. An article published in the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People outlines how the safety of the dam was ignored between 2010 and 2014. The post reads:The only technical body that is supposed to be in charge of safety of the dam, namely Dam Safety Panel (DSP), has remained non existent for years together while the official reports show that the structures like stilling basin that are a part of the dam have suffered such serious damage that the Sardar Sarovar Construction Advisory Committee (SSCAC) and its Permanent Standing Committee (PSC) have repeatedly asked for attention. At a Dam Safety Conference in Kerala in January 2018, organised by the Ministry of Water Resources, a Narmada Control Authority (NCA) official was asked of the steps taken to reduce the water seepage from the lift joints of the dam. The Indian Express reported that he said, “Regarding heavy seepage that is occurring, we have taken note of the observation and because the construction has been in stages, there are problems… we are in touch with the state government. I hope working with the state governments, we can bring out all the issues, and make sure safe operation of the dam”.Hence an amalgamation of deficient rainfall, the structure of the dam and the timing of the release of water has contributed to the Narmada water levels being dangerously low this year. Soon enough we will know the impact this has on Gujarat. Whether the farmers will be able to irrigate their land, and weather the state government will deliver its promise of providing drinking water to its people.(With inputs from Rahul Nair, IANS and PTI) We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.