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The Hindu on : Big dams: a fresh approach

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Monday, September 20, 1999

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Big dams: a fresh approach

By Amulya K. N. Reddy

A NEW perspective is needed for decision-making on large dams. The decision-making agenda will focus on minimising environment- development conflicts. Indeed, this approach would be appropriate not just for large dams but for all mega-projects as well.

The ``developers'' (Government or private sector) must start with a clear statement of the project objective. They must describe upfront and quantitatively the extra infrastructure (kWh of electricity, cubic metres of water, passenger km of transport, etc.) that they propose to provide. Then they must provide a comprehensive listing of all the options for achieving the objective. These must include modifications of the project (e.g., lowering a dam height), alternative centralised options (e.g. pumped storage schemes in existing large hydroelectric reservoirs) as well decentralised options (e.g., small irrigation/hydel projects). And apart from supply-side expansion options, demand-side management and saving options (e.g., more efficient motors or drip irrigation) must be included because output saved is equivalent to inputs generated.

A mega-project can be replaced with a mix of mini alternatives. What matters is whether the mix provides the same services (e.g., million kWh of electricity) as the mega-project. When the ``developers'' are backed by abundant monetary and personnel resources, it is callous of them to ask the project critics to come up with alternatives. The listing of alternatives should be their responsibility, not that of the critics.

Since a comparison is being made of different options for providing the same benefit, e.g., kWh of electricity or cubic metres of water, what is required next is a comparative costing of options. But this computation must not be restricted to the initial costs thereby ignoring the annual costs throughout the entire life of the option. Apart from the usual items that appear in the balance sheets of the ``developer'', there are costs which are borne by society - the so-called externalities such as environmental degradation and public health bills. These must be internalised, not ignored. Thus, the real costs including environmental costs must be considered. For example, the costs of rehabilitation of project-affected persons and compensatory afforestation must be included in the costs of a hydroelectric dam. Despite this effort, there may still be unquantifiables, e.g., the costs of a well-knit community being scattered. These must be made explicit, not swept under the carpet.

The distribution of benefits among different sections of society and among different regions and, in particular, the gender distribution of benefits must be revealed and clarified prior to project approval. All these issues of distribution, equity and access must be explicitly treated in public presentations. Equity Impact Assessments (EqIAs) are imperative.

The choice among these various possibilities must be based on a rational procedure such as least-cost planning. This consists of ranking all options on the basis of the real costs. The cheapest option is taken as the first element/component of the mix with a certain potential for contributing to the desired infrastructural output goal. Then, the next expensive option is taken. This way one can identify a least-cost mix that will provide the required output.

To become part of the least-cost mix, a mega-project has to earn its right on grounds of real costs. If factors such as national security are invoked in favour of options which would lose on real cost grounds, then these considerations must be made public.

Unfortunately, certain options are backed by vested interests exerting pressure. For example, due to the corruption factor (``Mr. Ten per cent''), the more gigantic a project, the bigger the profit it yields and the larger the commission it provides. No wonder, there are powerful politician-bureaucrat-engineer- contractor lobbies behind large construction projects. Strangely, the proponents of big dams have maintained a silence on the corruption issue.

The best safeguard against the identification of the least-cost mix being highjacked by vested interests is popular participation and democratic decision-making in the process. Infrastructural projects are too important to be left solely to the Government and its experts or even to the private sector. The experience of North America and Western Europe is clear - the public interest and civil society, rather than industry and the Government, have played a key role in protecting the environment by providing the vital checks and balances. The final step is the democratic approval of the identified least-cost mix of options selected from the list consisting of the developer's pet option and the various alternatives.

The information required for decision-making on projects must be widely and easily available. A modern way of achieving universally accessible information is to create a website for the process. With the proliferation of powerful PCs, what used to be the preserve of a few experts with access to mainframe computers in organisations like the Planning Commission has now become trivial for large numbers of people in academic and non- governmental organisations. All these people can verify and cross-check the assumptions, estimates and computations of the experts. So, complete transparency is vital.

Quite clearly, the above agenda involves a major change in the rules of the game. Institutional changes are necessary. For instance, public hearings (where the project developers argue their case) are essential. Also, there must be the involvement of all stakeholders including project-affected and project-excluded persons.

The above perspective enables a listing of the sins of omission and commission of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and other Narmada Valley projects. There was no prior public disclosure of the services to be delivered. Provision of drinking water seems to have been a populist after-thought. There was no listing of alternatives by the Government and the project developers. The SSP (like the other projects) was not the one and only solution.

It is to the credit of the Narmada Bachao Andolan that it encouraged and developed alternatives. Having been encouraged by it to make a presentation to the Planning Commission on alternatives to the electrical component of the SSP, I am astonished that Ms. Gail Omvedt accused the NBA of being uninterested in alternatives. The NBA even organised a workshop at which experts from different fields discussed various alternatives to the SSP. But independent analysts have found it difficult to obtain information from the developers. No effort has been made by the developers to carry out the least-cost planning and justify the projects as the most cost-effective of all the alternatives. There is no EqIA. In fact, it is the debate generated by the NBA that has provided these revelations.

The SSP seems guilty on all counts. If it were offering itself as a new project, it would have to compete with the alternatives. Unfortunately, it is not a clean sheet. In this muddied situation, there has to be a comparison of three options: (1) continue with the project as conceived, (2) repair/modify it and (3) scrap and replace it. The relative real costs of these three options have to be evaluated.

The debate initiated by the NBA is not over. It must continue with the mass mobilising skills of Ms. Medha Patkar, the saintly efforts of Baba Amte, the literary power of Ms. Arundhati Roy and their combined moral force backed by the popular movements. And hopefully the supporters of the SSP will come up with less invective and debating points and more hardcore quantitative analysis showing how the cost-effectiveness of the already- built big dams is greater than that of the alternatives that were never considered.

(The writer is President, International Energy Initiative, Bangalore.)

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