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The Hindu on : A buzzword named 'development' - I

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, August 31, 1999

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A buzzword named 'development' - I

By Nirmal Sengupta

THE ARCHITECT of the Damodar Valley Project (DVC) was not an engineer. He was a physicist - Prof. Meghnad Saha. In fact, senior engineers opposed the idea, but their feeble voices were drowned by the catchword, ``development'', voiced from the high offices of politics. Only after the devastating floods of the Seventies swept through half of West Bengal because of the failures of one dam after another, did the old criticisms draw some attention. The former Chief Engineer, Kapil Bhattacharya's book written during the time of planning was reprinted in the Seventies after the floods. By then it was too late.

Bhattacharya was of the opinion that the Damodar Valley plan had not paid enough attention to another hydrological issue of West Bengal. Drainage in this part of the country was just as important as irrigation. Those days, this was a general concern in the engineer-hydrologist circuits. Sir William Wilcocks forcefully brought this out in a lecture delivered at the Calcutta University in the Thirties. He termed the embankments of Bengal made by revenue officials for flood-protection satanic chains. Wilcocks was certainly not against dams in general - he was the chief architect for the revival of the ancient Aswan dam. A great physicist though he was, Saha could not know or did not care about the intricate issues of engineering and hydrology.

Thus the DVC was constructed with blatant disregard for subject expertise, local knowledge or intricate information about similar works in the past. While Bhattacharya came to be known as an isolated heretic, those who fell in line with the official wisdom found at their disposal the resources of whole departments for conducting topographical and hydrological surveys. They built up an excellent database, anointing already written conclusions with a semblance of scientificity. As the trumpet became louder and louder, feeble voices of critics were drowned into oblivion. Now that both Wilcock's lectures and Bhattacharya's critics have been reprinted, the DVC story can be partly reconstructed.

Essentially, this is the story behind many engineering marvels like big dams. Only recently has economics acknowledged this unpalatable fact of life that all those which succeed and predominate are not necessarily the best or most efficient. The phenomenon has come to be known as path dependency from the fact that events, not efficiencies, determine the ultimate success of technologies. The Nobel laureate-economist, Douglass North, includes several technological wonders of our time in this list: Qwerty keyboard of typewriters, narrow-gauge rails, the success of alternating current over direct current, and the survival of gas engine over steam engine motor cars. To this list one may add Mr. Bill Gate's Windows and big dams. When Jawaharlal Nehru decided to anchor the future course of development of economy to big dams, alternative designs, thought of by professional engineers, were already ahead in information base and technical details. But the deciding factor in the choice of technology turned out to be Prof. Saha's proximity to Nehru, not the technical rigour and information base. That was the beginning. After that, even superior alternatives had little chance of developing.

The big dams, constructed one after another in the post- Independence period, have certainly brought immense benefits as have narrow-gauge rails, gas engines for motor cars or the Windows operating system. The path dependence theory does not undermine their contributions but warns against being fooled by accepting performances as indicators of technological supremacy. Many other alternatives had as much potential and given a chance by circumstances, might have fared better. And today those who demand blueprints of alternatives from the anti-dam activists should know that the Saha-Nehru vision had much less of blueprint material than the one of Wilcocks or that prepared by the experts associated with the Flood Advisory Committee of the Congress, 1937.

Conventions are always richer in databases and have waged bitter wars against any visionary ideas using the database as capital. Recent studies of technological change show that once established, industries are at ease with process innovations but are averse to product innovations. Yet new products and new visions establish themselves. Narrow-gauge rails are already on their way out. This has cost the exchequer some senseless expenditure. Replacements of gas engines and the Windows operating system are already on the agenda of some organisations and agencies. They agree that the problems produced by those technologies are serious enough to outweigh the high replacement costs. The points of inefficiencies of the Qwerty keyboard and alternating current are now known. But the loss due to such inefficiencies is nominal compared to the massive replacement costs that have to be incurred. Hence no serious effort is being made anywhere to try out alternatives. How does the big dam technology feature? More congenial locations were taken up first for the construction of dams. So the earlier works like the DVC did not have many problems. As new dams are being built on more and more hostile terrain, associated problems are mounting as is obvious from the present widespread objections. If dam technology has to go, the sooner the better, otherwise senseless replacement cost will increase further and further.

As claimed by the project authority, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) is without doubt one of the most thoroughly planned projects of our time. The planners have added newer and newer components meeting many criticisms. After it was pointed out that certain tracts of the command area were liable to be waterlogged, the authorities added a module for regularly pumping out water. A novel plan of a network of interlinked tanks was added for the irrigation of a difficult tract within the proposed command. When the anti-dam activists pointed out that the Gujarat Government had diverted funds to the Narmada shelving the plan it had for supply of drinking water to Saurashtra and the Kutch, a late addition was made showing that the Narmada project itself would supply drinking water to such distant land. These are process innovations, solutions to problems suggested within organisational routines. Even the most inefficient establishments do not fail to invent solutions to problems at hand that, they argue, can be carried out within their existing routines. In practice, those often turn out to be wishful thinking rather than meaningful innovations, ultimately forcing the sick establishments to down their shutters. How practical are the patchworks that have been made within the SSP proposal? Will an irrigation functionary feel safe about his service record if he regularly pumps out water and drains it away in anticipation of waterlogging? When tail-enders of even small distributaries do not receive water, will drinking water ever reach the distant land of the Gujarat peninsula?

In contrast, what the anti-dam activists are arguing for are product developments. They want water resources development, but in a radically different manner. Wilcocks and Bhattacharya were not the last of the imaginative engineers. Meghnad Saha was not the lone visionary among non-engineers. Ideas have been produced, some of which have made some headway under special circumstances. The Narmada Bachao Andolan and the anti-dam activists have done a great service to the nation and development. They have dug out from widely dispersed sources several possible alternatives. Many of those are meticulous works by well-known authorities. The path dependency theory warns against predicting events that will turn out to be decisive and will shape history. But for that, I would have said the only missing feature preventing a radical turn in development of water resources is the absence of a bold visionary like Nehru, waving a magic wand.

(The writer is Professor (former Director), Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.)

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