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WCD report damns Indian big dams

With the final report of the World Commission on Dams due on November 16,
Damandeep Singh examines the India Country Study of the Commission that was realised recently

New Delhi, November 14

As the debate over the benefits of large dams versus the plight of "development refugees" rages in the country, the India Country Study of World Commission on Dams (WCD), set up jointly by the World Bank and World Conservation Union, has severely indicted the Indian authorities for failing to address crucial issues.

In addition, the report has found that the "the marginal contribution of large dams to increased food grains production is less than 10 per cent". The findings of this study are likely to feature prominently in the overall report of the Commission due to be released on November 16.

The Indian study is wide-ranging, looking at all aspects of large dams. It was conducted by a consultant team of five prominent Indian experts and exposes the poor track record of large dams in India on all accounts - social, economic, environmental and financial, as well as the availability of better non-large dams options.

Where land was given,
it was reportedly often
of poor quality.
The promised infrastructure, people complain, is missing or of poor quality, and even basic necessities are not always provided for

The experts included Ramaswamy Iyer, former secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, Dr Nirmal Sengupta, former director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, R Rangachari, former member of the Central Water Commission, Prof Shekhar Singh and Dr P Banerji of the Indian Institute of Public Administration.
The report notes that although there are both beneficial and adverse impacts of the dams, social and environmental costs have been consistently ignored while designing the project. The report found that "costs are systematically underestimated and benefits exaggerated so that requisite B-C (benefit-cost) ratio is shown to have been arrived at. Further, during actual implementation, there are enormous escalation in costs, considerable delays and changes in design and scope of projects. Benefits, on the other hand, fall well below anticipated figures as actual irrigated area and achieved yields fall below projected levels."

The report thus damns the Major and Medium Irrigation Projects built in India as mostly unviable. On hydropower dams, the report concludes, "Given the high capital cost, long gestation period and the environmental and social costs, hydro power development is not the preferred option for power generation compared to other sources."

On the redressal mechanism, the report consistently highlighted the absence of the political will, legal framework and planning infrastructure to mitigate and redress the substantial negative effects that large dams have on the environment and society. "Apart from not acknowledging the social and environmental costs, most of the dams were also not required to internalise the costs of preventing, minimising and mitigating most of the adverse impacts," which have been very significant.

Discussing future options, the report concludes, "If we also look (as we must) at the costs and benefits of other, alternative, methods for achieving the objectives set out for large dams, then some of these alternatives might turn out to be better options than large dams."

The findings of the study are expected to have a significant impact on India's large dam policy especially because it is part of the WCD's knowledge base. It will be incorporated into the final report of the WCD, a body endorsed by various stakeholders ranging from the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and the Government of India to representatives of the industry and leading international agencies, including the World Bank and the World Conservation Union. The government had, however, refused to grant permission to the Commission to conduct hearing in India.

Even allowing for the fact that rehabilitation was accepted as a necessary cost, there have been problems with implementation of the schemes. "In many projects, there are complaints that many of the promised benefits did not materialise. Where land was given, it was reportedly often of poor quality. The promised infrastructure, people complain, is missing or of poor quality, and even basic necessities like water, shelter and economic survival are not always provided for. It is difficult, from whatever perspective one looks, to find many success stories," the report notes.

It concludes that in addition to the lack of transparency and the corruption that hamper the rehabilitation process, the distribution of benefits from such projects has exacerbated social inequities with a disproportionately large number of those who pay the costs being members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Citing other studies where estimates of human displacement due to large dams range in India between 3 and 4 crore, the report suggests that these figures ring true especially in light of the study's own estimates that place the figures at a monumental 5.6 crore. Even by the most conservative estimates based on Central Water Commission figures, large dams have submerged over 5 million ha of forests, affecting the tribals and other poor sections of society depending on forests.

Vindicating the stance of critics of large dams in India and outside that large dams cater to well-to-do classes at the cost of the poor and marginalised communities, the report finds, "Together, nearly 62 per cent of the population displaced were tribals and members of the scheduled castes. Considering their population nationally is only a little over 24.5 per cent, clearly their representation among those displaced was disproportionately high. For tribals, this was particularly significant as their proportion in the national population is only a little over 8 per cent, while their proportion among the displaced was over 47 per cent."

In spite of controversies generated by the displacement as in the case of controversial Narmada projects, the report holds that there have been no effort to lay down guidelines that would correct some of these inequities or to accommodate social costs while deciding on the viability of large dams. "It has not even resulted in the acknowledgement of the fact that gross injustice has been done to those who have had to bear the costs of large dams in India," states the report.

It concludes: "There is a need to do all this and to follow it up, even at this late stage, by a sincere attempt to rehabilitate the millions of 'development refugees' created by large dams. And it is time to consider stipulating that, until this is done, or at least well begun, no further displacement would be allowed."

Not only that, even the electricity and irrigation benefits of large hydro projects routinely bypass the dam affected and other poor communities and are disproportionately consumed by landed farmers and urban electricity consumers or well to do families in rural areas. Thus, on distribution aspects of large dams, the conclusion of the study is even more shocking: "Also, the distribution of most of the costs and benefits of large dams seems to accentuate socio-economic inequities. This seems primarily due to a lack of policy direction regarding the equity aspects of projects."

Iyer, who authored the section on "the framework of laws, policies, institutions and procedures", eloquently demolishes oft-repeated arguments by large dam proponents. Iyer identifies the systematic malaise that has led to large scale misery due to large dams. He concludes "that some people should be willing to make sacrifices for national economic 'progress'...is clearly an unacceptable proposition from the point of view of social justice and it goes against the Project Affected Persons' right to life and right to equality before the law". Iyer points out that the Indian framework contains "no effective mechanism for ensuring compliance with conditions (where conditions are set) and taking appropriate measures in event of non-compliance".

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