SANDRP Press Release                                                                 September 20, 2000

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South Asian Network on Dams Rivers and People
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India Country Study for World Commission on Dams Exposes India's Poor Track Record on Large Dams

"The marginal contribution of large dams to increased foodgrains production [in India] is less than 10%". This startling fact was among many other findings of the India Country Study (ICS) on large dams conducted by a consultant team of five prominent Indian experts. The study conducted for the multi-stakeholders World Commission on Dams (WCD) 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.

Not only is there insufficient internationalising of social and environmental costs in project design, the report found that "Costs are systematically underestimated and benefits exaggerated so that requisite B-C 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 had, fall well below anticipated figures as actual irrigated area and achieved yields fall below projected levels". Thus, the report concludes, the Major and Medium Irrigation Projects are 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".

The report consistently highlighted the absence in India 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 internalize the costs of preventing, minimizing and mitigating most of the adverse impacts", which have been very significant. On 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 then 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 WCD knowledge base. It will be incorporated into the final report of the WCD, a body endorsed by various stakeholders ranging from the NBA and Government of India to representatives of the industry and leading international agencies including the World Bank and IUCN.

Citing other studies where estimates of human displacement due to large dams range between 30 million and 40 million, the report suggests that these figures ring true especially in light of the study's own estimates that place the figures at a monumental 56 million. Even by the most conservative estimates based on Central Water Commission (a Govt. of India body) 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% of the population displaced were tribals and members of the scheduled castes. Considering their population nationally is only a little over 24.5%, 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 eight percent, which their proportion among the displaced was over 47%".

Not only that, even the electricity and irrigation benefits of large hydel 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".

Ramaswamy Iyer, former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, Govt. of India, 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".

While underlining that large dam planning process in India is done in the absence of a comprehensive water policy that explores alternatives, the report outlines recommendations for better management of water resources. These include:

  1. Before taking up any project, needs assessment for the given area must be done, the needs should be prioritised and then options assessment should be done to find the optimum way of satisfying the needs. The available options must be assessed in terms of being least cost (all kinds of costs), viability including from the social and environmental point of view.
  2. It is likely that demand side management, more efficient use of available systems would be the preferred options.
  3. There should be a national rehabilitation policy based on land for land principle. The policy must have a legal backing. Most significantly, the report has recommended that those displaced till now must be properly rehabilitated and compensated BEFORE any further displacement is affected.
  4. Strengthening the institutional framework to ensure implementation of social and environmental safeguards;
  5. Independent monitoring of compliance and transparency;
  6. Increased irrigation efficiency and crop yields, better use of available irrigation systems;
  7. Soil moisture conservation techniques, Local rain water harvesting, small hydel and other non conventional energy technologies and watershed development would reduce the need of future dams;
  8. "Problems of drainage, waterlogging, salinity, and recurring losses against operation and maintenance costs may even require abandoning or decommissioning of some existing dams";
  9. Demand-side conservation and increased energy efficiency;
  10. Improved capacity utilisation and distribution loss reduction.

It is clear that time has come to do an independent review of performance of large dams in India. Over Rs. 1567.76 billion (at constant 1996-7 price level), that is over 2/3rd of the water resources budget of the nation has been spent on large projects in fifty years by March 1997. As the report notes, there has been no attempt to really evaluate what has been the performance of large dams. As another year of drought stares before the nation, we demand that a truly independent, credible national commission be set up to review the costs, benefits and (intended & unintended) impacts of large dams, including who has paid the costs and who has benefited. Pending report of such a commission, it would only be logical, that no more large dams be taken up, work on ongoing large dams be stopped and water resources and hydropower budget be spent on available alternatives. And as ICS notes, there is no dearth of such alternatives.

Himanshu Thakkar

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SANDRP is an independent research and networking organization based in Delhi.