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The Hindu on : Dams and bombs - I

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, August 04, 1999

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Dams and bombs - I

By Gail Omvedt

``DAMS ARE the modern temples of India,'' said Nehru, in his well-known celebration of the achievements of modernity. His was an expression of the hubris of an age when newly- independent states were setting out to solve the problems of their people and when science, technology, planning and state control seemed the answer. Today, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, and Ms. Arundhati Roy can argue that ``big dams are like big bombs,'' sources of destruction, not welfare. Throughout the world, the stark cost of big dams, their frequent siltage and the harsh negligence of rehabilitation for those who have to suffer their costs have led to a massive disillusionment with not only dams but also modern science and the dreams of development. From an Enlightenment faith in progress and rational human planning, we have come to a post-modernist questioning of development itself. Dams, like bombs, seem the products of an industrial era, and many argue for rejecting that era entirely and returning to the presumed harmony of a ``natural'' agricultural society.

But there are obvious differences between dams and bombs. Bombs, after all, are built as weapons of destruction. Their only justification is that an armed power will deter others from aggression (which, in the case of India, it has clearly failed to do). In contrast, dams have their legitimation in the goals of providing electricity and water for not only drinking but also agriculture. They may fail to achieve this, they may exact a cost and that cost has to be reckoned with and compensated for, but they are basically agents of human advance.

Dams are hardly new to India; they were not brought by colonialism or the age of modernity. Hymns in the Rig Veda, celebrating Indra's destruction of the demon Vrtra and thereby releasing the waters, suggest that prior even to the Aryan incursions the Indus Civilisation relied on some form of harnessing the waters of the Indus for agriculture and survival. In the time of the Buddha, there were reports of struggles among different tribal oligarchies over the use of river waters. Traditional India knew many village-level small irrigation projects, tanks, bundings, the famous phad system of Maharashtra which channelled water to the fields. (These often embodied relatively equalitarian methods of distribution among the land- owning peasantry, but they also more often embodied caste differentiation). But it also knew some relatively larger irrigation projects. For instance, Madag lake, created by the engineers of Vijayanagar in the 16th and 17th century, was 16 to 24 km long and irrigated perhaps hundreds of villages. The Debar lake, Mewar, was 51 km in circumference, providing irrigation to wheat cultivation. The Mughals also built canals.

Agriculture itself is hardly natural; it is a human mode of production with ambiguous implications for nature. In contrast to the earlier hunting systems, agricultural systems are oriented to the production of life and requires nurturing the soil, in contrast to hunting which seems based on extraction and the taking of life. But agriculture has its own element of aggression against nature: agriculture cannot exist without a certain degree of destruction of the forests and without forcing changes in the livelihood on those who surround it. Peasants may be nonviolent or disarmed, but they produce surpluses that can support armies as well art; they provide the foundation for the city culture to survive. The aggressiveness embodied in clearing the land for agriculture is also symbolised in the Indian epics, in the stories of burning down the forests, or killing the ``rakshasas'' (adivasis) who inhabited them.

Above all, agriculture requires water, and because water is not always provided simply or in a guaranteed fashion by nature, agriculture has required irrigation systems. This is something that the opponents of big dams such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan and its new-found sympathiser forget. The NBA has talked of drinking water, and it has argued for rain water harvesting as its near-magic alternative to big dams and source of water. But it has had little to say about water for agriculture. And the fact is that rain water harvesting is insufficient in areas of very low rainfall. This includes much of the Deccan, large parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra and the southern States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Here, much of the land is drought- prone, with 500mm of rainfall or less per year. Villages in these regions face not only problems of drinking water but that of even survival, for barren, dry, water-starved fields do not grow very many crops. If floods and uncontrollable surging waters represent the bane of much of northern and northeastern India, drought and dry fields are the bane of the south.

Contrary to the images of pre-modern humans living in ecological balance and at peace with nature, the age of agriculture in every country has been one of attempted control of the natural environment. Sometimes, this control has failed, efforts to harness river waters have backfired, forests are burnt out for bricks, the environment has been destroyed and civilisations have fallen. It may well have been that such failed ways of living with the environment that destroyed the Indus cities from within - though after centuries of a stable, peaceful existence - and not the incursions of pastoral Aryan tribes. Similarly, the efforts to stabilise floods or provide irrigation through premodern technologies were only a partial success in India: they did nurture a productive agriculture, but they also left humans prey to famines which struck from time to time.

Today, the innumerable villages of India nurture a population that has grown fourfold or fivefold since the pre-colonial era. The methods of production, the methods of irrigation and distribution of water that were sufficient even at a relative level in the earlier period have now become outmoded. The Indian state, at independence, was faced with the task of raising agricultural production to meet the needs of this burgeoning population. There may be countless problems with the way it has chosen to do so, for one, it was perhaps too casual about the methods of building dams, too fascinated with ``bigness' as such and indifferent to providing compensation for the victims of progress. The industrial achievements relied too much on the surplus extracted from agriculture by various forms of levies and pricing policies. But it cannot be said that the project of building dams was itself a mistaken one; and to equate the ``3000 dams'' built by independent India with nothing but disaster and destruction is, at best, a writer's rhetorical flourish.

Kalahandi, in the largely adivasi and forested region of western Orissa, has become the symbol of starvation and hunger in India. It is perhaps natural that Ms. Arundhati Roy chose to make it a reference point for the failure to deal with the problems of hunger. But it is a gross misrepresentation to say that dams and development have led to the hunger of the people of Kalahandi. If there is any stark reality that appears in Kalahandi, it is the lack of development, the lack of industrialisation. The area is innocent of factories, and it is certainly innocent of big dams. Those that have been proposed to provide assured water for cultivation in the area have not yet been completed. The hills are, therefore, forested and green - indeed, 40 per cent of the area of Kalahandi is under the control of the State - while much of the plains area is relatively barren. This barrenness of agriculture and the lack of any local productive employment drives the Dalits and other low castes to scrounging for minor forest produce or to migration. The arguments that the rural Dalits and Bahujans should continue to produce and live as their ancestors did will only lead to more Kalahandis and not to solving any of the problems of food.

As with Kalahandi, so is elsewhere: the really hungry areas of India are the remote, adivasi areas, areas marred not by development but by the lack of development. One may have many arguments with the forms of big dams, the methods by which the Indian state has chosen to move towards industrialisation, but the goal of industrialisation remains necessary and the need for major irrigation projects continues.

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