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The Hindu on : To dam or not

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Friday, June 09, 2000

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To dam or not

By M. R. Srinivasan

A DEBATE is raging in the country on the question of whether to build dams on our rivers or not. It is good that both the proponents and opponents have chosen to air their views in the media. We have been building dams even before India became independent. The three or four decades after independence saw many dams built across the rivers in nearly all parts of the country. The logic is simple - most rivers of India are fed by the monsoons and hence do not have perennial flow. The rivers in the north no doubt have snow-melt flows but they too have very large flows in the monsoon months and go nearly dry in the searing summer months. The U.S., which has a quarter of our population and a land area about four times ours, has some three times the water storage capacity that we have so far created. This is certainly one of the big factors that has made the U.S. the largest producer of grain and other food crops.

The Cauvery river has two dams, at Krishnarajasagar near Mysore and at Mettur in Tamil Nadu, built in the Thirties, and they have transformed the agricultural economy of parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is said that every drop of water of the Cauvery is used for irrigation and nothing goes to waste. In fact downstream of Mettur, there is very little flow in the Cauvery river course, as all water is carried in the canals.

We all know of the great Bhakra dam, which Pandit Nehru described as ``a temple of modern India''. One of the largest water storages in the world, the Govindsagar dam, underpins the availability of water for the lands of Punjab and Haryana, the granaries of India. India would starve if it were not for the production of grain in these two States.

The desert areas of Rajasthan have been totally transformed as a result of three dams on the Chambal, at Gandhisagar in Madhya Pradesh and at Ramapratapsagar and Jawaharsagar in Rajasthan. Where earlier only thorny babul trees were growing, we now grow high quality wheat, oranges, mangoes and so on. The climatic pattern of Kota and other neighbouring areas have changed remarkably because of the greening of the region.

The biggest single failure of Indian society has been on the population front. We have now crossed the one billion mark and we seem to be merrily adding one Australia in population terms every year. Unless we take very firm steps to reverse this trend, we may overtake China as the most populous nation on earth. Given this situation, as a country we are compelled to bring all available arable land under the plough. To make those lands yield food and fodder, irrigation is a must.

Many of us, including the dam builders, would like to see our natural beauty left in tact. Those who are arguing against the dams are claiming that our needs of water can be met adequately by using traditional water harvesting methods. We must welcome all efforts to restore these traditional methods, including the construction of check dams to recharge ground water. But they cannot and will not meet the water needs of our agriculture which has to be provided with assured water to support the two or three crop pattern that obtains now.

The main objection against dams is that they displace large members of people from the areas of submergence and the lives of these people are severely disrupted, often with loss of livelihood. Many of the project-affected people are tribals who for many centuries have lived in the forests, depending on the bounties of nature. It is true that in the process of building dams, power stations, coal mines and mines for other minerals, we have displaced millions of our people from their homes. Sadly many of them suffer from the inhuman and insensitive manner in which the rehabilitation activities have been carried out.

It is not that Indians have been uniformly harsh in dealing with the tribal populations, of whom we have a very large number in many States. Growing up in old Mysore State, now a part of Karnataka, I have seen that special educational facilities were created for Kurubas, the forest-dwelling tribals, even 70 years ago. There were hostels for the boys to attend school, free of cost, and free books, clothing and so on.

Many tribals have transformed their lifestyles and have joined the mainstream as engineers, doctors, teachers and administrators. One of them even became the Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka! Compare this with the systematic suppression of indigenous people in North America, South America and Australia. However, whatever good has been done in our society, the fact remains that project-affected people have suffered much while the rest of our society has benefited by these projects.

Building dams or other projects should not necessarily lead to misery for the people who have to be relocated from the submergence areas. The Chinese, who do not operate a democratic political system, are building one of the largest dams in the world, called the Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze river. About one and a half million people are being displaced from their homes. But they are constructing entire new cities, with apartment blocks, schools, hospitals, playgrounds and so on, in addition to giving employment to all the displaced people.

We can be sure the Chinese will indeed make this a model of modern development and show the world how they can master modern technology and also fulfil social expectations.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam across the Narmada, in Gujarat, involves the rehabilitation of about one lakh people. This is only a tenth of what the Chinese have taken on in the Three Gorges Dam. Is it beyond the capability of this great nation of ours to handle the rehabilitation in a humane and imaginative way? It is true that project authorities in the past were guilty of neglect and indifference in dealing with the oustees. Even when funds were made available for the purpose of rehabilitation, the Indian disease of corruption has ensured that very little money actually went towards the welfare of the project-affected people.

Is it beyond the genius of our society to change the old ways? Land for land wherever feasible, housing, training for gainful employment, facilities for schooling and health are all legitimate expectations of the displaced people and should be provided in the same way as the dams are designed and built.

There is also the question of large dams and small dams. Large dams are no doubt more cost-effective, but we must not neglect riverine aesthetics and interests of those who continue to live downstream of dams. With the rich experience the country has in building many complex dams, let us plan and execute future projects involving not only engineers but social scientists and dedicated administrators who attend to the project-affected people in an enlightened manner. The country cannot afford to waste water flowing in abundance in the flood season because of past failures on the rehabilitation front. Well-meaning citizens and non-governmental organisations must constantly monitor the relief and rehabilitation activities. We must become ``model dam builders'' and not ``no dam builders''.

(The writer is a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.)

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