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

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, September 01, 1999

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A buzzword named 'development' - II

By Nirmal Sengupta

A BIG dam can be constructed only at a location where the course of the river has a steep slope. The kinetic energy of the falling water is then converted into electrical energy. The higher the fall, the higher the energy. Naturally, locations suitable for big dam sites are rare. The fall generates energy but does not retain water. For retaining water, valleys just before the fall, are inundated. The major part of the dam height is due to the steep fall of the selected location. A few metres at the top are meant for converting valleys into reservoirs. Per every metre of increase at the top, several additional square kilometres of the valley are inundated; the storage capacity of the reservoir increases. There is a considerable element of choice about the topmost metres of dam height.

Dam construction is restricted to the margins of hill ranges where alone steep slopes are found. Valleys are the only possible populous sites within the undulated terrain of hill countries. Inundation of these valleys are, therefore, part destruction of the cultures of ethnic hill people. In the past, the planners were far more considerate about this destructive impact on the resident population. In the DVC era, the most acute problem was at the Maithon dam site. But still the displacement was in the range of some thousands. The dams constructed later were far more damaging. Worst is the Sardar Sarovar project where the planners have shown unabashed aggression, that may put bomb-makers to shame - to push for increases in dam height again and again. I am not opposed to big dams in general, I am opposed to the ethnocide being committed today at Sardar Sarovar, an inhuman act that can be stopped by showing some restraint about the last few metres of the dam height.

Development is a word that was not there in economics till the Thirties. The general concern was ``growth'' - in the Sixties, the United Nations fixed a target growth rate of five per cent in national income for the developing countries. The actual experiences of growth were often accompanied by increasing inequality, unemployment and poverty. The term ``development'' originated in this context. There still exist ``experts'' who would repeat their college texts of the `Sixties: ``Goal of industrialisation remains necessary and the need for major irrigation projects continues.'' A more serious student of development, like I.M.D. Little of cost-benefit analysis fame, wrote instead, ``Anyone who writes that such-and-such a policy would further economic development is making a value judgment... With such words, there is liable to be a competitive struggle to get one's definition accepted... If a definition gets accepted, it tends to deemphasise considerations not included in the definition.''

Concerns of our times are many. Some of those have already been adopted in our national and state policies, some others await acceptance. The professed developmental goal of India at present is not just growth and industrialisation, but also that of distribution and sustainability. The activism of the NBA is not to get its own definition of development accepted, but to compel the nation to honour its own definition of development. The organisation has thrown up a serious challenge by not only showing that the declared parameters of development are being violated but also competently contesting the massive state resources to establish their arguments. So scared is the state to allow them a hearing that it had cancelled the sitting of the World Commission on Dams a couple of days before the meeting in violation of normal courtesy. If I don't believe that struggles such as the one waged by the NBA will ultimately win, in the recent or distant future, I will lose my faith about the developmental potential of India - development as professed, not just the growth of income of some of its citizens.

Those who read the debate on dams as ``small vs. big'' are, indeed, persons with limited perceptions. They cannot understand intricate network effects beyond the physical realities of small tanks. If well laid, small units together can systematically manage the whole of the water resources flowing through a very large country. Not a single drop of water flowing through Ramanathapuram district in the past could reach the sea. Following a lead by a flood inquiry committee, I had once calculated the storage capacity of the forgotten tanks of central Bihar. Together it was equal to the capacity of the massive Hirakud dam and is certainly an eligible alternative to big dams for flood control.

Big-small and traditional-modern are dichotomies devised for legitimising ignorance about complex principles of many water management techniques practised by the ancient people. Until the other day, terms like ``rainwater harvesting'', ``rooftop harvesting,'' etc., were unknown in irrigation terminology. So were `canals' and `dams' in the last century. Some great personalities of modern engineering had discovered the potentials of canals, wells and dams and created appropriate niche for those within modern knowledge. In each single case, the inspiration was an ancient work, a Yamuna canal or a Grand Anicut. Today, these are modern and far more developed than what the ancients could aspire to.

How long will it require for ``rainwater harvesting'' or ``roof harvesting'' to be christened as modern and immensely improved? Those do really have the potential to replace the mega dams. The reason those are not extended systematically is the technocratic and bureaucratic distrust of the people - the designs need extensive support from the people. What the modern establishments dislike is not small or traditional. they do not like the tough task of involvement of the people. The biggest of all designs made by the irrigation establishment, the Garland Canal scheme, which could supply water to many water-starved regions of India without the aid of destructive technologies, has been shelved because its success depends on a massive participation of the people. The need is for political will to force the irrigation departments to abandon the hackneyed path and to allow thereby some room for innovative, imaginative works by scientists and engineers.

Bid dams are planned for a hundred years. They lose their capacities from silting and age. Some of our old dams have already lost considerable storage capacities and developed cracks and the scope of renovation is limited. The accumulated silt cannot be carted away at any reasonable cost. The only meaningful alternative is to abandon the old ones and build new ones. But where are the sites? Most of the suitable sites for big dams have already been exhausted.

Who bothers? The project approval policy of the country does not demand much consideration about the future, even about the not-so-distant future. By taking advantage of mathematical jugglery, this fact has been conveniently hidden from public scrutiny. Projects are chosen if they pass the tests of cost- benefit analysis. The analytical method requires that costs and benefits streams include all future costs and benefits. If a project functions for, say, 60 years, producing every year the same amount of benefits and demanding the same cost for operations and maintenance, then obviously the total net benefits of the first and the last 30 years will have 50:50 shares in total benefit from the project. The cost benefit analysis method permits some extra weight to benefits received in the near future. Towards this end some discounting of the future benefit is allowed. The discount rate used in India is around 12 per cent. At this rate the contributions of the first half and last half of the above project is in the proportion of 97.3 - if a project planned for 60 years collapses after just 30 years, the net total benefit will be reduced by a nominal 3 per cent. Why would the proponents of big dams bother about the dead ends they are about to meet after the expiry of dam lives? They may not - but do we?


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