DECCAN HERALD Sunday, December 3, 2000

Damning those big, ambitious dams

The report of the World Commission on Dams has come as a shot in the arm for the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The report assails the viability of large dams on all
accounts - economic, social and environment

The India Country Study of the World Commission on Dams report has indicted Indias poor track record on large dams on all counts, thus constituting an endorsement of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and other environment groups.

According to ICS report, released recently, the distribution of most of the costs and benefits of large dams seems to accentuate socio-economic inequalities. This seems primarily due to a lack of policy direction regarding the equity aspects of the projects.It assails viability of large dams on all counts - social, economic, environmental and financial and asserts that adverse impacts of large dams can never be mitigated nor prevented and have become financially and economically non-viable.

While ICS recognises the important contributions of large dams to the development of irrigated agriculture, improved food productivity, hydro power, enhanced domestic and industrial water supply, it vindicates the stand of the anti-dam lobby led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan on the stupendous costs that projects entailed, affecting people and creating inequities. It says, If we also look (as we must) at the costs and benefits of other alternative methods for achieving the objectives set for large dams, then some of the alternatives might turn out to be better options than large dams. On retrospective assessment of the economic and fiscal aspects of some large dams, the report states that when the costs of preventing and mitigating even a few of these adverse impacts were included in the overall costs of the large dam projects of the 1990s, they seemed to become by and large economically non-viable.

It says evidently, past projects mighty not have been comprehensively assessed in terms of their environmental, social, economic viability and optimality. Even during early the 1980s the investment cost per hectare of irrigation on major and medium dams had escalated to such a degree that these projects had on an average become both financially and economically non-viable. Though even these appraisal processes used too many rule-of-thumb entries and often relied on questionable data, they had not been challenged as the process was not transparent.

It points out that Rs 1567.76 billions (at constant 1996-97 level) had been spent on large dams during the past five decades, accounting for two-thirds of the nations water resources budget. As many as five large dams had burst over the past century with a toll of more than 4,000 lives. While the Macchu dam burst in Gujarat, killing more than 2,000 people in 1979, Tigra dam took a toll of more than 1,000 people in 1917.

A team of five experts worked on the ICS which is incorporated in the WCDs report released in London by Mr Nelson Mandela on November 16. The multi-stake holder Commission chaired South African Water Resources Minister Kader Asmal included wide range of stakeholders including the Swiss dam builders Brown Boveries and anti-dam activist Medha Patkar. India was represented by former High Commissioner to South Africa LC Jain. The five member ICS team included former union water resources secretary Ramaswamy R Iyer, R Rangachari, Nirmal Sengupta, Pranab Banerji and Shekhar Singh. Several institutions and people have contributed to the study, the 279 page report of which was submitted to the WCD in June 2000.

The ICS report has recommended a national rehabilitation policy based on land for land principal with legal cognizance, increased irrigation efficiency and crop yields, better use of irrigation potentials, local watershed development and promotion of non-conventional technology to reduce the number of large dams. Problems of drainage, waterloging salinity and recurring losses against maintenance costs may even require abandoning and decommissioning of some existing dams. Citing several other studies the report has estimated that between 30 million and 40 million people, 60 per cent of them belonging to scheduled castes or tribals, have been displaced by the more than 4,000 large dams in India. While tribals account for only eight per cent of the total Indian population, 47 per cent of them have been displaced.

Gujarat Narmada Development and Water resources minister Jay Narain Vyas, a protagonist of large dams, particularly the Narmada dam, has questioned the definition of large dams as laid down by International Commission of Large Dams (ICOLD). Gujarat and Maharashtra are among the States which have half the number of large dams. In fact, the two states, along with Madhya Pradesh, in the Narmada basin account for almost three-fourths of them. There are plans to build 30 major dams and 3,000 minor dams across the river.

Mr Vyas refused to comment on the report and its implications on the future of large dams in Gujarat. He has said the government would follow the apex court verdict and continue with the construction of the Narmada dam Even during the times of Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, who called dams temples of development, there was acrimonious debate on the desirability of large dams. Many engineers, including former Union Minister, the late Dr K L Rao, opposed them as inappropriate technology and objected to them on the grounds of their low returns, and large submergence areas and structural problems.

The Bhakra Nangal project completed in 1963 has brought prosperity to Punjab, but the people of Bhakra village who were displaced by it were not rehabilitated. The report quotes Dr Rao as having expressed shock in 1978 to find that the the new Bhakra village built on the surrounding hills had neither drinking water nor electricity, though surrounded by blazing brilliant lights. The Bhakra Management Board objected to supplying water and electricity to them. The report makes some startling revelations of the marginal contribution that large dams have made to increasing food production and power generation. Though considered the most economical, the share of hydel projects in the total generation had declined steadily from 44 per cent in 1970 to 25 per cent in 1998.

Large dams have also changed the cropping pattern. Sugarcane has taken over the largest share of the crops grown at 88 per cent. The food base of the country has changed increasingly to high yielding varieties of rice and wheat with reduction in the importance of millet.

Heavy water logging due to seepage in the command areas of large dams has reduced land productivity and promoted salinity ingress, the report states quoting the CAG report of Madhya Pradesh 1977-78, which cites the Tawa dam on the Narmada. Paddy yield declined from four quintal an acre before the dam came up to to 2.98 quintal in 1977-78. Wheat yield declined from 3.14 quintal to 3.06 quintal per acre in 1978-79.

A similar situation may arise in the Sardar Sarovar Project and the Indira Sarovar project on the Narmada river, cautions the report which has quoted several studies done on waterlogging.

Tanushree Gangopadhyay in Ahmedabad

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