The Periplus Maris Erythraei calls it the Nammadus, and the British Raj called it the Nerbudda or Narbada. Narmadā is a Sanskrit word meaning "the Giver of Pleasure".
The basin has five well defined physiographic regions. They are:(1) The upper hilly areas covering the districts of Shahdol, Mandla, Durg, Balaghat and Seoni, (2) The upper plains covering the districts of Jabalpur, Narsinghpur, Sagar, Damoh, Chhindwara, Hosangabad, Betul, Raisen and Sehore, (3) The middle plains covering the districts of Khandwa, part of Khargone, Dewas, Indore and Dhar, (4) The lower hilly areas covering part of the west Nimar, Jhabua, Dhulia, Narmada and parts of Vadodara, and (5) the lower plains covering mainly the districts of Narmada, Bharuch, and parts of Vadodara. The hill regions are well forested. The upper, middle and lower plains are broad and fertile areas, well suited for cultivation. The Narmada basin mainly consists of black soils. The coastal plains in Gujarat are composed of alluvial clays with a layer of black soils on the surface.
The Irrigation Commission identified the Narmada basin in Madhya Pradesh as drought affected and a large part of North Gujarat, Saurashtra and Kutch as semi-arid or arid scarcity regions on account of extreme unreliability of rainfall, rendering them 'chronically' drought-prone and subject to serious drinking water problems.
The Narmada Valley is a graben, a layered block of the Earth's crust that dropped down relative to the blocks on either side due to ancient spreading of the Earth's crust. Two normal faults, known as the Narmada North fault and Narmada South fault, parallel to the river's course, and mark the boundary between the Narmada block and the Vindhya and Satpura blocks or Horsts which rose relative to the Narmada Graben. The Narmada's watershed includes the northern slopes of the Satpuras, and the steep southern slope of the Vindhyas, but not the Vindhyan tableland, the streams from which flow into the Ganges and Yamuna. The Narmada valley is considered extremely important for palaeontological studies in India. Several dinosaur fossils have been found in the area including Titanosaurus indicus found in 1877 by Richard Lydekker and the recently discovered Rajasaurus narmadensis.
To Hindus the Narmada is one of the five holy rivers of India; the other four being Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari and Kaveri. It is believed that a dip in any of these five rivers washes one's sins away. According to a legend, the river Ganges, polluted by millions of people bathing in it, assumes the form of a black cow and comes to the Narmada to bathe and cleanse itself in its holy waters. Legends also claim that the Narmada River is older than the river Ganges.
The river was mentioned by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD as Namade and by the author of the Periplus. The Ramayana, the Mahabharat, and the Puranas refer to it frequently. The Rewa Khand of Vayu Purana and the Rewa Khand of Skanda Purana are entirely devoted to the story of the birth and the importance of the river, and hence Narmada is also called the Rewa.
There are many fables about the origin of the Narmada. According to one of them, once Lord Shiva, the Destroyer of the Universe, meditated so hard that he started perspiring. Shiva's sweat accumulated in a tank and started flowing in the form of a river – the Narmada. Another legend has it that two teardrops that fell from the eyes of Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe, yielded two rivers – the Narmada and the Son.
Legends also tell that for Lord Shiva, the Hindu God, the river is especially sacred on account of its origin, and it is often called Shankari, i.e., daughter of Shankar . All the pebbles rolling on its bed are said to take the shape of his emblem with the saying, "Narmada Ke Kanker utte Sankar" (a popular saying in the Hindi belt of India), which means that 'pebble stones of Narmada get a personified form of Shiva'. These lingam shaped stones (cryptocrytalline quartz), called Banalinga also called (Banashivalingas) are much sought after for daily worship by the Hindus. The Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, constructed by Rajaraja Chola, has one of the biggest Banalingas. Adi Shankara met his guru Govinda Bhagavatpada on the banks of the river Narmada.
Narmada is also said to have been in love with the Sonbhadra, another river flowing on the Chota Nagpur Plateau. According to the Puranas, the Narmada is also called the Rewa, from its leaping motion through its rocky bed.
Important religious places and Ghats along the course of the river, starting from its origin at Narmadakhund at Amarkantak hill, are a) the Amarkantak or Teertharaj (the King of Pilgrimages), b) Omkareshwar, Maheshwar, and Mahadeo temples, Nemawar Siddeshwar Mandir in the middle reach of the river – all named after Shiva, c) Chausath Yogini (sixty four yoginis) temple, d) Chaubis Avatar temple, e) Bhojpur Shiva temple and Bhrigu Rishi temple in Bharuch. The Narmada River is also worshipped as mother goddess by Narmadeeya Brahmins.
In Indian history, Kannada emperor from Chalukya dynasty Pulakeshin II is said to have defeated emperor Harshavardhana of Kannauj on the banks of Narmada.
The valley is famous for the gorgeous Maheshwari saris, which are handwoven; comfortable in warm and cold weather, dressy and yet light; these saris have a dedicated, select following among Indian women.
The ecoregion is home to 76 species of mammals and to 276 bird species, none of which are endemic. According to the World Wildlife Fund , about 30% of the ecoregion is covered in relatively intact vegetation. The ecoregion includes some large blocks of habitat in the Vindhya and Satpura ranges. About 5% of the ecoregion lies within protected areas, including Bandhavgarh, Panna, and Sanjay National Parks.
Forest areas outside protected areas are also quite rich in floral and faunal diversity.
One theory is that the area in which the fossils are located, i.e., the Narmada Valley near Mandla, was actually a deep inundation of the sea into peninsular India till the Post- Cambrian Tertiary age, about 40 million years ago. This means that Narmada was a very short river which terminated in the inland sea above Mandla, and that the recession of the sea caused geological disturbances, which created the present rift valley through which the Narmada River and Tapti River flow in their present journey to the Arabian Sea. All this, however, is speculation and conjecture because it is only recently that an interest has developed in the fossils of Mandla and detailed scientific studies are still wanting.
Bhimbetka owes its name to the characters of the longest epic in the world, the Mahabharata. It is believed that when the five brothers, called Pandavas, were banished from their kingdom, they came here and stayed in these caves; the massive rocks seating the gigantic frame of Bhima is the 2nd Pandava. Further evidence, cited in support of this theory, is the resemblance in names of the nearby places with the names of the Pandavas.
The development of the Narmadā river has led to the inundation of some archaeological and architectural sites. The Department of Archaeology, Museums and Archives, Government of Madhya Pradesh, undertook rescue excavations in response, and transplanted a number of temples. An attempt to comprehensively list and publish lost sites has been undertaken by Jürgen Neuss.
After ten years of deliberations, the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal gave its award in December 1979. The NWDT, considering the development of the water resources of the basin as a whole, gave its award, allocating share of water and Hydro Power of the Sardar Sarovar Project.
The uniqueness of this Award is that a non-riparian state – Rajasthan – has been allocated a share of Narmada waters, for meeting the water requirements of the drought prone districts of Barmer and Jalore, which have no other source of dependable water. The work on the project didn't start soon since extensive studies were undertaken for project designing and with World Bank getting involved with funding studies and project costs , the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) package was substantially revised, over and above what was set in the NWDT, and environmental studies had to be undertaken. But the environmental and forest clearances for the projects from the newly formed Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoE&F) involved extensive inter–ministerial and inter departmental discussions (within the central govt and with state governments.) for a substantial period and it was only in June 1987 (almost 8 years after the NWDT award was given in Dec 1979) that the MoE&F gave a conditional approval to the Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Sagar Projects. The Forest clearance was given in September 1987 for Sardar Sarovar only. The clearance also required the work to be done pari passu with the construction of the dams and the filling of the reservoir. In the mean time, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA), an inter-State Administrative Authority and the Sardar Sarovar Construction Advisory Committee (SSCAC) were set up in 1980 by the Govt. of India in compliance of the NWDT award; the former organisation was set up in Dec. 1980 as body corporate with representatives from the four party states and Govt. of India, as a machinery to implement the decisions and directions of the NWDT and the later organisation was set up in Sept. 1980 as a statutory body to ensure efficient, economical and timely execution of the Unit I (Dam & appurtenant works) and Unit III (Hydropower works) of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). A Review Committee consisting of the Union Minister for Irrigation (now substituted by Union Minister for Water Resources) as its Chairperson and the Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan as its members is also in position to review the decisions of the NCA and the SSCAC, as required. For monitoring and implementation of various environmental activities effectively, independent machinery of Environment Sub-Group is functioning since Nov.1987 under NCA. Similarly, for monitoring the progress of the resettlement and rehabilitation of project affected people, R&R subgroup is also functioning under the NCA. At the state level, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNL) in Gujarat has the mandate to implement and manage the Sardar Sarovar multipurpose project. In Madhya Pradesh, the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) is vested the responsibility for implementation of the projects.
Even though the tribunal award resolved the initial issue of water sharing, however, the height of dam, benefit sharing and the mode of settlement of project–affected people caused serious difficulties in implementation, particularly of the Sardar Sarovar dam . Project–affected people agitated under the banner of the dedicated NGO – The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). The NBA followed up by Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India. The NBA questioned the benefits claimed from the major projects, challenged the resettlement and rehabilitation packages for project affected people of the reservoir submergence and canal affected zones and its implementation. It also rejected the environmental impact assessments made and the remedial actions taken by the project authorities. This challenge created worldwide attention to the major development activity planned in the valley. It urged the World Bank to withdraw from the project and the intense world wide pressure resulted in the Bank mounting an Independent Review Mission (IRM) called the Morse Mission to review the SSP. But the IRM's report was neither accepted by the Government of India or the World Bank. Finally Government of India decided to terminate further drawals from a remaining $180 million World Bank credit from the Bank with the firm resolution that the project would be completed within the national resources.
The Supreme Court has also deliberated on this issue for several years but finally upheld the Tribunal Award and allowed the construction to proceed, subject to conditions. The Court introduced a mechanism to monitor the progress of resettlement pari-passu with the raising of the height of the dam through Grievance Redressal Authorities in each of the party states. The court's decision referred in this document, given in the year 2000, after 7 years of deliberations, has paved the way for completing the project to attain full envisaged benefits. Some of the court's decisions are essential to be quoted here (quoted in italics), to set at rest many of the distorted or incorrect versions being presented in several of the linked Wikipedia articles on this subject.
When such projects are undertaken and hundreds of crores of public money is spent, individual or organisations in the garb of PIL cannot be permitted to challenge the policy decision taken after a lapse of time. It is against the national interest and contrary to the established principles of law that decisions to undertake developmental projects are permitted to be challenged after a number of years during which period public money has been spent in the execution of the project.
Having failed in its attempt to stall the project the petitioner has resorted to court proceedings by filing this writ petition long after the environmental clearance was given and construction started. The pleas relating to height of the dam and the extent of submergence, environment studies and clearance, hydrology, seismicity and other issues, except implementation of relief and rehabilitation, cannot be permitted to be raised at this belated stage.
It is the Relief and Rehabilitation measures that the Court is really concerned with and the petition in regard to the other issues raised is highly belated.
The argument in favour of the Sardar Sarovar Project is that the benefits are so large that they substantially outweigh the costs of the immediate human and environmental disruption. Without the dam, the long term costs for people would be much greater and lack of an income source for future generations would put increasing pressure on the environment. If the waters of the Narmada river continue to flow to the sea unused there appears to be no alternative to escalating human deprivation, particularly in the dry areas of Gujarat. The project has the potential to feed as many as 20 million people, provide domestic and industrial water for about 30 million, employ about 1 million, and provide valuable peak electric power in an area with high unmet power demand . In addition, recent research shows substantial economic multiplier effects (investment and employment triggered by development) from irrigation development. Set against the futures of about 70,000 project affected people, even without the multiplier effect, the ratio of beneficiaries to affected persons is well over 100:1.
The Morse Commission provided a draft of its report to the Bank for management comments several weeks prior to the final release of the document. About two weeks before this release, the commission provided a draft of its findings and recommendations. The final version of the report is the sole responsibility of its authors; the report wasn't cleared by the World Bank.
On resettlement and rehabilitation , Bank management agrees with the description of the R&R situation in each of the three states and with the report's conclusions about the shortcomings in the preparation and appraisal of the project's R&R aspects. We also agree that work should have been done earlier on the issue of people affected by the canal in Gujarat.
On environment, bank management agrees with the independent review on the need for a more effective central management in the Narmada Basin on environment impact studies and mitigation programmes. Management also agrees on the need to accelerate work on estuary studies and health matters in Gujarat.
The Government of India vide its letter dated 7 August 1992 from the Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests didn't accept the report and commented adversely on it.
In view of the above, we don't propose, while considering the petitioners contentions, to place any reliance on the report of Morse Committee.
Again all these contentions were based on the Morse Committee Report which the World Bank and the Union of India had already rejected.
Apart from the fact that we aren't convinced that construction of the dam will result in there being an adverse ecological impact there is no reason to conclude that the Environmental Sub-group isn't functioning effectively. The group which is headed by the Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests is a high powered body whose work cannot be belittled merely on the basis of conjectures or surmises.
The Environment Sub-group under the Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India will consider and give, at each stage of the construction of the dam, environment clearance before further construction beyond 90 meters can be undertaken.
Even though there has been substantial compliance with the conditions imposed under the environment clearance the NCA and the Environment Sub-group will continue to monitor and ensure that all steps are taken not only to protect but to restore and improve the environment.
The Grievances Redressal Authorities will be at liberty, in case the need arises, to issue appropriate directions to the respective States for due implementation of the R&R programmes and in case of non implementation of its directions, the GRAs will be at liberty to approach the Review Committee for appropriate orders.
Every endeavour shall be made to see that the project is completed as expeditiously as possible.
Justice Bharucha stated that "...Considering the magnitude of rehabilitation, involving a large percentage of tribals, loss of extensive forest area rich in biological diversity, enormous environmental cost of the project and considering the fact that the basic data on vital aspects are still not available there could be but one conclusion, that the project(s) aren't ready for approval..."
The construction of the two multipurpose major projects – the Sardar Sarvoar in Gujarat and Indira Sagar in Madya Pradesh – the two are interdependent to attain full envisaged benefits – is in progress and substantial partial benefits have already been achieved. Hence, details of these two projects are elaborated below.
All the 6 units of River Bed Power House have been commissioned successfully by June 2006 and are in operation. All the five units of Canal Head Power House (CHPH) have been commissioned successfully by end of December 2004 and are in operation.
The dam has attained a height of EL.121.92 m i.e. the crest level of the spillway. The gates are yet to be erected to attain the FRL of EL 138.68 m for which clearance is required from the Supreme Court after the Grievance Redressal Committee submits its report on completion of R & R up to that elevation. Top level of dam to be attained is EL 146.50 m.
The dam and the powerhouse have been completed but storage has been restricted up to EL 260 m under orders of the High Court, Jabalpur from R&R consideration. All the units of the powerhouse have been commissioned and generation of power from the 8 units of 125 MW capacity each commenced from Jan 2004. The irrigation component of the project is under a fairly advance stage of implementation.
Existing irrigation projects in the Narmada are the 1) Matiyari , 2) Rani Avantibai Sagar (1988), 3) Barna (1978), 4) Tawa (1992–93), 5) Sukta (1984) all in Madhya Pradesh, and Karjan project in Gujarat.
A large number of medium and small projects have been completed and many more are under implementation, as conceived under the overall Master Plan.
Photos of some of the dams and other connected structures in the Narmada basin.