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The Hindu on : Dams and bombs

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, August 10, 1999

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Dams and bombs

Sir, - In her two-part article, ``Dams and bombs'' (TheHindu, Aug. 4 and 5), Ms. Gail Omvedt is hopelessly out of date with Nehru's thinking (``dams are modern temples'') on which she has built much of her argument. In Jawaharlal - a biography (Vol. three) 1956-64, Prof. S. Gopal records Nehru's subsequent views on the subject expressed at the meeting of the Central Board of Irrigation, November 17, 1958:

``Nehru was now more aware than he had been in earlier years of possible `disease of gigantism'. He who, at the end of 1956, surveying the large Bhakra-Nangal dam had whispered to himself, `These are the new temples of India where I worship', confessed nearly two years later that he doubted very much if the Government would have initiated such a project if it came before them at this time. Such a dam was exceedingly expensive, involved a considerable amount of foreign exchange and took a long time to be completed. All that India had gained from it was electric power and little irrigation.''

Thirty years later Rajiv Gandhi speaking to State Irrigation Ministers in August 1986 said, ``The situation today is that since 1951, 246 big surface irrigation projects have been initiated. Only 66 out of these have been completed, 181 are still under construction. Perhaps, we can safely say that almost no benefit has come to the people from these projects. For 16 years, we have poured out money. The people have got nothing back, no irrigation, no water, no increase in production, no help in their daily life.'' Had we acted on the caution administered by Nehru and Rajiv, there would have been no andolans or need for mediation by the Leftists.

Ms. Omvedt is in error also when she holds that industrialisation and irrigation are two sides of the same coin. The essence of industrialisation is constant learning and innovation combined with discarding of old mindsets and practices - what is called obsolescence - without this quality, industrialisation would be dead. In contrast the irrigation sector is largely knowledge proof.

Is anyone listening to the agricultural scientists in the Punjab who are perturbed about the damage to the fertile soils due to salinity and water-logging on a large scale? In the neighbouring Pakistan, mighty dams, Tarbela/Mangla, are victims of unexpectedly heavy silting. In Europe - dams on the Danube have reportedly increased the frequency of floods. There is need, therefore, for reflection if not scrapping the mental cobwebs in the spirit of industrialisation.

Two-thirds of our agricultural area is condemned to dry farming as it cannot be served water by large dams which are location specific. Therefore, while paying tributes to such dams, we should recognise their limitations also as Nehru and Rajiv did. So, if the argument is the need to produce more food which is paramount, then we know enough by now that new technologies can substantially raise the output in our vast dry farming tracts using water and cash sparingly. The distinguished agricultural scientist, Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, who has been dinning this potential day in and day out, is only a phone call away.

L. C. Jain,


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