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Big dams are harmful - [14/10/99] - The Hindustan Times
The Hindustan Times
Last updated[Metro]02:00 IST Thursday, October 14, 1999, New Delhi


Big dams are harmful
(Devinder Sharma)

Gail Omvedt’s justification for the big dams (Are big dams harmful?, Sept 28) stems from the need to provide more irrigation to produce more food. There is no denying that agriculture growth has to be a step ahead of the population growth, but can this be achieved only by expanding the network of dams and canals? And that too knowing well that the big dams, being contractor- and engineer-friendly, have left behind a trail of sorrow and human suffering besides creating irreversible ecological devastation.

True if there were no Bhakra Dam there would not have been a green revolution. At the same time, if there were no fertiliser-responsive semi-dwarf crop varieties (like that of wheat and rice), followed by a famine-avoidance strategy, the seeds of green revolution wouldn’t have been sown despite the fact that water was available in abundance. The availability of water through a network of canals in eastern Uttar Pradesh has not been able to bring about a semblance of what has been achieved in Punjab.

What the supporters of big dams do not realise is that Bhakra Dam’s life has been shortened by massive siltation. The engineers will deny this but the fact is that Bhakra has only another 15 to 20 years of productive life. P.N. Haksar had once told me in an interview that the first report of the Central Water Commission states that the rate of siltation on an average for big dams is 500 times more than what is initially estimated by the engineers !

So the question is what after Bhakra? Once the dam outlives its utility what will happen to Punjab and Haryana’s agriculture? In any case, the advocates of big dams have always overlooked the fact that more than 50 to 60 per cent of the canal water goes waste by the time it reaches the farmers’ fields. The efficiency of irrigation water is low even in technologically rich America (where it is more than 30 per cent). Have we ever worked out the cost of the water that goes waste? I sometimes wonder whether there was not a better alternative that could provide higher crop yields without wasting such huge quantities of water.

In Haryana, increase in irrigation has multiplied the problem of salinity. Nearly 60 per cent of the State is floating on saline water, unfit for irrigation. Rohtak, in central Haryana, used to be a Dryland Research Centre in the 1930s but today it is faced with a severe problem linked to a rise in water table. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, Indira Gandhi had inaugurated the Sharda Sahayak canal, at one time the largest irrigation network in Asia. Within months, water-logging had created a serious environmental problem. At that time I had travelled along the canal and visited the affected areas to understand the magnitude of the crisis.

The then Chief Minister, Shripat Mishra, had told me that the canal was not at all required. The World Bank and Indian engineers had joined hands to bring in a project, which only benefited the contractors, engineers, and of course, politicians. He said that since water-logging had become a serious problem, he was being told to sink 10,000 tubewells all along the canal to pump the water back into the canal. The Chief Minister asked that if he had the money to put up 10,000 tubewells, where was the need for a canal?

It is true that canal irrigation is available for 36 million hectares of the cultivated lands. These are the areas which produce the foodgrain surplus. More than 60 per cent of the surplus comes from Punjab and another 20 per cent from Haryana. As I said earlier, Punjab is encountering serious crisis with sustainability and Haryana faces a problem which is not at all being discussed. The drylands or the rainfed areas account for nearly 70 per cent of the cultivated lands. Farmers in the rainfed areas say that what they require most is water.

But are a series of big dams on Narmada the only way to provide water to these farmers? Whether you reduce the height or raise it, the answer does not lie in constructing more dams. The river in Bali Raja dam site in Maharashtra has dried up. So Gail Omvedt thinks that the only alternative is to construct a big dam. Perhaps she is not aware that in Alwar (Rajasthan), Tarun Bharat Sangh has demonstrated the importance of watersheds and small check dams in reviving five dead rivers. In Maharashtra, over a lakh wells have been recharged by farmers.

Revamping the existing water harvesting structures, ponds etc in Rajasthan has also proved beneficial for them. If only this was to be taken up as a national policy, agriculture can be sustained on a long-term basis. It is, however, another matter that more than 80 per cent of the irrigation tanks throughout the country have been neglected and are decaying.

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