The New Horizon

A new world explored with a rational view

Controversy : Are large dams good?

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This is the part of World Commission of Dams report on large Indian dams.

Generally speaking, for centuries dams have played a key role worldwide in development. Dams were built all over the world to resolve the problems of spatial and temporal insufficiencies of natural precipitation resulting from growing needs. Dams were built to supply water, control floods, irrigate agricultural lands and provide for navigation. They have also been built to generate electric power. As technology advanced increasingly large dams and complex structures were undertaken.

As the President of ICOLD recently (Hoeg 2000) pointed out “fresh water resources were limited and very unevenly distributed. Seasonal variations and climatic irregularities impeded the efficient use of river runoff with flooding and drought having catastrophic consequences”. He claimed that about 45 000 dams higher than 15m (and about 800 000 smaller ones) “were improving the living conditions of many of the world’s six billion people.”

Different countries or regions, at different stages of development, have developed and will continue to pursue their own policies to face their challenges and fulfil their needs. These policies cannot be labelled intrinsically “bad” or “good” merely because they favour or oppose construction of large dams. The impacts of large dams are location specific. However, the recent debates on large dams have increasingly become polarised and polemical which has tended to cloud issues.

As development priorities changed, particularly in the affluent developed world, and experience accumulated, various groups argued that the expected economic benefits of large dams were not being obtained and that major environmental, economic and social costs were not being taken into account. In recent decades, proposals for new dams and even ongoing dams began to be questioned by affected interests and global coalitions. Some critics (Robbroeck, 1999) of this critical approach asked vehemently if the poor South should stop developing dams because some armchair critics in rich countries want to do whitewater rafting or salmon fishing, while profiting from the lifestyle enabled by decades of dam construction in their part of the world. Yet others (Economist, 1997) point out that predictions of ecological doom have such a poor track record that they should be taken with a pinch of salt. This second group argues that it is possible to be in favour of the environment without being a pessimist. There ought to be room in the environmental movement for those who think that technology and economic freedom will make the world cleaner and will also take the pressure off endangered species.

Large dams have become the subject of controversy and a growing international debate in which India has also been caught up. As India is influenced by the monsoon regarding its water resources, the need for such large dams and storage schemes has been felt even more acutely. However, untill India became an independent nation there was acute poverty and frequent famine with too little economic activity. By the time India launched her belated planned development, the world had gone forward leaving a large gap between the industrialised nations and the poor developing countries. In the 1950s, 1960s and even early 1970s, there was also very limited awareness of the environmental and social issues relating to large dams. The most visible impact of a large dam lay in the submersion of lands and the displacement of people. It has also been pointed out (Verghese, 1999) that while dams displace, so does acute deprivation, but to a far greater degree: also that while the migrants of deprivation are just condemned, those displace by reservoirs are a charge on the Project, with a better package of rehabilitation. It is important to consider not only those displaced by dams, but also those afflicted by drought (Omvedt, 1999).

It is true in many cases that displacement was seen more as an inevitable concomitant of development. There was no dedicated agency or system for dealing with the trauma of displacement or for handling rehabilitation sensitively. It is however equally true to say that India was on a learning curve, which is not the same thing as condoning mistakes, if any, of the past. The question remains if any scientific endeavour has advanced without some mistakes, for example, would NASA stop its shuttle programme because of some failures, would roads or railways be discontinued because accidents continue to happen on them? Rather, such setbacks provide opportunities, for instance, the rehabilitation package for the Sardar Sarovar Project is a vast improvement on how such issues were looked at earlier. Even globally, it was perhaps the World Environment Conference at Stockholm in 1972 that awakened consciences and brought into focus the social, environmental and economic impacts of large dams.

In India, few large dams have aroused as much controversy or such a bitter campaign of hatred as the Sardar Sarovar Project. It had been likened by some to a disaster and yet regarded by others as the most desired and most delayed answer to their problems. Pressure was brought to bear on the World Bank to “step back” from this project, virtually terminating the approved loan. The Sardar Sarovar Project is not an isolated case; there are many others which are the targets of virulent criticism.

In the enthusiastic build up of criticism against large dams, all the ills of faulty agricultural planning, improper use of the developed water made available by the dam, corruption in society, malgovernance, perceived inability of the Government to lay down and enforce right and progressive policies etc, are also heaped on the large dams themselves.

Some critics (Arundhati, 1999) seem to have already come to a firm conclusion that big dams do more harm than good and that in any case they are a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and giving it to the rich. Large dams lay the earth to waste, they cause floods, waterlogging, salinity, they spread disease and so on.

Another analyst (Verghese, 1994:239-253) considers that these critics have not been able to prove their case by rational argument. He points out that the ecological impacts are greatly outweighed by project benefits in the absence of which environmental degradation, migration and distress would take a further toll. The benefits in each case are far greater than the costs, howsoever computed, and if social and indirect costs and benefits are compared, with and without the project, the net gains would be all the greater. Many analysts and even the Central Water Commission concur.

Arguments on the basis of the human rights of the displaced people, particularly the tribals have also been advanced to support the case against large dams. It has been argued (Arundhati, 1999) that no one should take the poor tribals away from their forests, their river, submerge their lands and sacred sites smash their community links and resettle them against their will. The counter arguments (Verghese, 1994) are forceful: It is wrong to attempt to divide Indians on the analogy of the tribals being akin to “indigenous” people, such as the American Sioux Indians. The tribal Indians of India are as much a part of “have-not India”. They too must have access to education, better health, and economic and social opportunity. The choice must be theirs. Under-privileged communities, including the tribals, are moving out from undammed catchments in vast numbers because of the lack of development and opportunity. Satisfaction of a basic water requirement must be considered a basic human right. There is clearly an emerging consensus (Gleick, 1998) which accepts the right to development itself as a basic human right.

The present study is concerned only with the development effectiveness of dams. This is not a study about irrigated agriculture or energy management in India. This is not a study on the social, environmental and economic discrimination that is deemed to be present in India today, nor an outline of the steps needed to make India a welfare state without any discrimination, as is indeed enshrined in India’s constitution.

The World Commission on Dams was set up to address the central issues of controversy with respect to large dams and to provide an independent review of their effectiveness in sustainable development.The Commission cannot deal with matters that are, appropriately, the concern of India, that need to be handled within the country by its lawful government and people. The India case study should, therefore, aim at eschewing passion and sentiment and seek to look at the scene objectively in the light of the Indian experience of large dams and the related needs and aspirations for the future as perceived by the Indian people as well as the lessons these might offer to the developing people of the world.


Written by Diganta

July 15, 2009 at 12:21 am

Posted in Economy, India, Society, Thoughts

Tagged with , ,

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