Large Dams and Related Controversies in India

Today big dams are one of the key concerns of the environmentalists across the world. We can discern it from the fact that almost everywhere, there are communities or groups of activists organising against the proposed building of a dam, in their particular areas of concern. This issue is attracting polemics largely in the developing countries. In the growing international debate over the catastrophic construction of big dams, India has also been trapped. But India’s condition, in terms of water resources, is completely different from the other countries of the world as its crucial economic sector, agriculture, is largely dependent on monsoon. The need for building large dams and storage schemes is felt more acutely here. 

In India, Sardar Sarovar Project has been arousing much controversy and bitter campaigns since the late ’80s, so much so that the World Bank had to step back from funding the project, in 1990, because of pressures from certain groups. The project’s impact on environment and net costs and benefit are widely debated. Various documentaries such as; ‘Drowned Out (2002) and ‘A Narmada Diary (1995) have filmed such protests as their center stage. The figurehead of much of such protests in India is Medha Patekar, the leady who leads the ”1991 Right Livelihood Award” winning movement called ”Narmada Bachao Andolan”.

The other examples are Tehri and Tipaimukh projects in India. Where Tehri Dam project drew protest from the villagers of Uttaranchal and the issue was used as effective votebank tool in the assembly polls of 2006, the Tipaimukh Dam project is facing protests from the Manipur and the north-east Bangladeshi peoples as, it’s being referred as another Farakka, the Dam which created much controversy during the ’70s, between the Indian and Bangladesh government.

Arundhati Roy, the renowned Indian author, is also against such large Dam projects as in her article ‘The Greater Common Good’, she says: ”Big Dams started well, but have ended badly. There was a time when everybody loved them, everybody had them – the Communists, Capitalists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists. There was a time when Big Dams moved men to poetry. Not any longer. All over the world there is a movement growing against Big Dams. In the First World they’re being de-commissioned, blown up. The fact that they do more harm than good is no longer just conjecture. Big Dams are obsolete. They’re uncool. They’re undemocratic. They’re a Government’s way of accumulating authority (deciding who will get how much water and who will grow what where). They’re a guaranteed way of taking a farmer’s wisdom away from him. They’re a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich. Their reservoirs displace huge populations of people, leaving them homeless and destitute. Ecologically, they’re in the doghouse. They lay the earth to waste. They cause floods, water-logging, salinity, they spread disease. There is mounting evidence that links Big Dams to earthquakes.”

Although for some it spelled disaster, for others it was an answer to various problems related to irrigation, electricity, water supply, floods and navigation. The hydroelectric projects can also be considered greener than other power generation options. A large number of people also question the rationale of the debate as, they believe different countries and regions have different needs and, for its fulfillment thy make different policies and these policies should not be labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ just because they favour or oppose the construction of large dams. The recent debates on large dams have become polarised and has very much clouded the issue.

The development priorities of the West have changed and now they are raising fingers on the developing South. In recent decades the issue of the environmental impact of dams has been overshadowed by the affected interests and global coalitions. Many people believe that the issue is not that grave and is simply over hyped.

As far as the relocation of the tribal are concerned, the rehabilitation package for the Sardar Sarovar Project is a vast improvement on how such issues were looked at earlier. It was perhaps in the World Environment Conference at Stockhome in 1972 that the social, economic and environmental impacts of large dams were brought into focus. Now rehabilitation is not that much a problem for the tribal, it’s rather an opportunity for them as ‘Right to Development’ can never be less important than the other basic human rights.

The other group of people believes that all the criticism against the large dams is due to the faulty agricultural planning, corruption in society, malgovernance, improper use of the developed water made available by the dams and the perceived inability of the government to lay down and enforce progressive policies.

The India case study on large dams should look at the scene objectively instead of getting carried away by sentiments and passions. It should take in consideration its people’s aspirations and, should offer the lessons to the developing people of the world as, it observes the experience of having large dams in India. The institutions such as The World Commission on Dams which, was set up to address the central issues of the controversy with respect to large dams and to provide an independent review of their effectiveness in sustainable development, cannot deal with the India specific problems. It’s the country and its people who have to handle the issue.

In case, we do have to focus on the so called environmental aspect of the dams and also have to achieve our developmental goals, we have some other traditional options of water storage technology, such as, watershed management which is gaining popularity in the Indian states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan with the help of NGOs and state government programmes. Although whether such options will be able to substitute the importance of large dams in a developing world is a matter of question.

Sangya Supatra

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