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Opinion 
 

Are big dams harmful?
(Gail Omvedt)

Where once they were looked upon as “modern temples of India”, big dams now stand accused of causing only destruction.

The struggle of adivasi and non-adivasi farmers of the Narmada valley to save their lands from flooding by the Sardar Sarovar dam has evoked tremendous sympathy, with their organisation, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, taking on new life in the recent “rally for the valley.”

But the NBA is not simply an organisation of adivasis trying to protect their lands. It has a very well developed ideology, strongly linked to the eco-romanticism based in North America and Europe which opposes industrialism and sees development itself as environmentally destructive. Thus, new-found NBA enthusiast Arundhati Roy argues that “big dams are like big bombs”, condemns commercial agriculture for depriving people of food crops, and criticises irrigation systems that allow farmers to take two crops instead of one as part of a “Green Revolution fix” that is as unsustainable as the energy coming from steroids for the human body.

Big dams stand accused by the Narmada Bachao Andolan on several counts: First, they displace unacceptable numbers of people, thereby creating millions of “ecological refugees”, or they submerge vast areas of forest, or both. Second, they are said to be unsuccessful even in irrigating land: the water they provide is said to be used for “cash crops” such as sugarcane rather than food crops, and this is said to lead to water-logging and salination which undermine the soil.

Third, they are part of a process which is destroying the rich traditional agriculture of India. Big dams, like the “Green Revolution”, are said to be only in the interest of big farmers growing cash crops, not in that of poor farmers who are thought to be interested in agriculture only for their own sustenance. In the case of Gujarat, the NBA claims that the Sardar Sarovar will never provide water for drought-ridden Saurashtra and Kutch and that no possible restructuring of the dam or lowering of its height will do so.

As an alternative, the NBA speaks of “rainwater harvesting”, building small bunds, check dams, tanks and channels at the village level. This they claim is part of tradition and can provide enough water to support subsistence agriculture even in drier areas.

Twenty years ago I also saw dams as unnecessary and sugarcane as a water-guzzling crop supporting only repressive “sugar barons”. But years of living on a farm in an area that is partly irrigated, partly dry and rainfed, and being involved with movements that have taken up the cause of farmers in drought-prone areas as well as those of dam evictees, have taught me otherwise. Our friends in the drought-prone Khanapur tehsil of eastern Sangli district helped farmers built the small “Bali Raja Memorial Dam” that irrigates two villages on a principle of equal water distribution — providing water to all, even the landless. We fought the Maharashtra government to get permission to sell the sand from the dried-up riverbed in order to do so. The Bali Raja dam is a success — for its villages. But it is also clear that no amount of small dams on the Yerala river can ever provide water to the entire tehsil, where average rainfall is less than 500 mm and the river is dried up for eleven months of the year.

For this reason, farmers and activists in this area have agitated for the completion of a lift irrigation scheme on the Krishna river which proposes to use water released from the reservoir of the Koyna dam. They have also been fighting for the restructuring of this scheme so that all villages in the tehsil can get water. At the same time, activists from Sangli have been involved in the problems of those whose villages have been flooded by the Koyna dam. They have fought for rehabilitation and for services such as roads and agricultural extension for those who are still farming village land within the Koyna reservoir. The entire movement within the Krishna valley is one that combines the interests of the drought-afflicted with those of the dam-afflicted, and it has mobilised lakhs of people.

Big dams have many problems: they are sometimes too hastily formulated and sometimes, alternative, their construction takes so long that cost increase tremendously. They often evict far too many people, and state governments are too often cruelly neglectful of the needs of the displaced. But it should not be forgotten that big dams — large irrigation schemes — are designed to solve a problem of independent India, the problem of food production. It is a fallacy to think that pre-British India had only village level irrigation; there were also big dams, anicuts, large reservoirs and canals built by ancient Indian kings as well as tanks and check dams at the village level. But it is even worse a fallacy to think that carrying on with traditional methods of irrigation and food production can feed a population that is now one billion.

India’s rivers need to be tamed and utilised, using the best scientific knowledge and technological skills of today. Agricultural productivity has to rise, and this means growing two or three crops where one was grown before, and increasing the productivity of crops currently grown by using water sufficiently (and judiciously) as well as adopting new technologies, including biotechnology. It means innovation with crops and with methods of growing them. At present, floods ravage much of northern India, while droughts torment people of the south and west. There are many times more “ecological refugees” from drought areas than there are dam evictees.

There is nothing wrong with growing “cash crops,” even poor farmers do so — they need money for education and health care, for fans and bicycles; and if they would like to also buy radios and television, who would say this is unacceptable greed? The fact is that most of the crops that are “cash crops” for the farmers who grow them are food for the rest of us — vegetables and fruits which are central to human nutrition as well as foodgrains. Cotton provides most of the clothes we wear. The need is not to stop growing these, but to grow them as sustainable and productively as possible. There is not too much consumption in India; there is too little for the vast majority of the people.

Many dams do cause unnecessary problems. They need restructuring; that restructuring as well as the cause of dam evictees have to be fought for. NBA so far has only fought for the evictees of the Sardar Sarovar. They have not thought about restructuring the project in a way which would benefit the people of Gujarat.

On the contrary, they think this is impossible. However, a proposal by engineers and activists who have been involved in irrigation for many years (the Paranjape-Joy proposal) would keep the height of the dam low, reduce submerged area by 70 per cent and the number of displaced people by 90 per cent; at the same time it would restructure the system to give priority to the needs of people in Saurashtra and Kutch. Why not discuss this? The polarised positions of “no dam!” or “dam above all!” are both wrong, and counter-productive. No one wants to be victims of development, but the people of India, in particularly the vast majority of Dalits and Bahujans, also cannot afford and do not want to give up the development projects as such. “Sustainable development” is a much better slogan than “no big dam”.


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