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Sunday Dec 31 2000 | Updated 0031 hrs IST 1401 EST
The unquiet Narmada


IT is a matter of concern that the share of hydropower in the total installed capacity in India has been declining in successive plans. In the 1962-63, hydro projects had a 50 per cent share in the total installed capacity.

This has now declined to 24 per cent. Such a dismal share of hydrothermal mix is adversely affecting the optimal use of natural and financial resources.

The economic advantages of hydropower has increased in the recent years with the steep rises in the energy costs from fossil fuel and the rapid approaching limits to the exploitable resources of such fuels.

The recent Supreme Court Majority Judgement for Narmada Projects has also highlighted that against the utilisable storage 690 cu. km. of surface water resources out of 1869 cu km; so far storage capacity of all dams in India is only 174 cu km.

The Supreme Court ruled that environment concern has not only to be of the area which is going to be submerged and its surrounding area. The impact on environment should be seen in relation to the project as a whole.

Apart from bringing water to Rajasthan will also help in checking the advancement of the Thar desert.

Large dams also cause conversion of waste land into agricultural land and making the area greener. Indira Gandhi canal has not only transformed Western Rajasthan into vast green area but also checked the spread of Thar desert in the adjoining areas of Punjab and Haryana.

The Bhakra Dam is a shining example which has changed backward area of erstwhile undivided Punjab into the granary of India with improved environment.

The availability of water from the Sardar Sarovar Project will benefit about 1.91 lakh of people residing in 124 villages in arid and drought-prone border areas of Jalore and Barmer Districts of Rajashthan which have been suffering grave hardship and on account of scarcity of water, the desert is increasing every year.

Much of the misunderstanding of the long term impacts of dams and enthusiasm for alternatives comes from over-simplification of complex phenomena and large generalisations based on limited data.

It is to be noted that a series of smaller dams, even if feasible, would entail higher costs, greater submergence, far more displacement, greater evaporation losses, increased maintenance cost and far less benefits.

Small dams are also prone to drought because they depend on tiny catchments. Moreover, a large dam site is a natural resource depending on the rock formation, geometry of valley, foundation-conditions and hydrological features.

Displacement of human settlements is indeed a painful necessity and must be handled with compassion and fairness, even generosity. They must be ensured a quality of life better than that, they leave behind.

A number of small dams cannot check floods or generate electricity as well as a large, high dam can. Big and small dams serve different purposes; neither can substitute for the other.

The tragedy is some people talk only about costs, imperfections and failures but discount all benefits. They know "the price of everything but not the value of nothing."

According to the Report of the World Commission on Dams(WCD), 30-40 percent of irrigated land worldwide now relies on dams, which means that 800 million people benefit from food produced by dam related irrigation. Similarly 800 million people worldwide use hydropower (19 per cent of the world’s electricity).

We should be perturbed over the tirade against the vitally needed large storage projects, responsible for abnormal time and cost overruns. Unlike technology, economics, sociology, and politics are not precise sciences.

It is possible to estimate to a high accuracy how much water a dam will hold. It is not possible to state with any conviction what will be the social and political cost or benefit of constructing that dam.

Which is more important: providing food and drinking water to a crore of people or preventing the displacement of 10 thousand tribals? That is a matter of value judgement, a question of faith. Can’t we analyse the situation in a scientific manner?

The author specialises in environmental impacts and management of hydro resources.
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