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Damning progress

Big dams. The promise that they held in the first half of the twentieth century seems to have got mired in controversy in the recent years as more and more protest against their construction. However despite worldwide protest and campaigns, states still continue to plan and make mega dams. Dilip D'Souza responds to questions on the issue.
PTI | By HT Correspondent, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 17, 2003 11:06 AM IST
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Despite the international campaign against large dams, why are some countries like India still going ahead with mega projects?
Various reasons. One, even though there is this campaign against large dams, I don't think enough people are persuaded yet that large dams are a Bad Thing. Especially in India. Two, there's a sort of sexy allure, a technical gee-whiz glamour, associated with large engineering projects like dams. This seduces not just engineers, but also people at large (no pun intended. Visit a dam and it is hard not to be awed by the size, the sort of silent grandeur of it, the thought that man has actually put this structure up. That allure has overridden and continues to override questions about dams. Three, undoubtedly money is a factor. Large dams mean large amounts of money, and contractors look for just that. On top of that, of course, are the opportunities for corruption.

Do you think large dams can meet India's water requirements in the long term? What are the possible alternatives? Can smaller/ check dams meet the needs?
No, I don't think large dams will meet India's water requirements in the long term - in the sense that they will not meet the needs of those who lack water the most. The main reason, I believe, is that those who build large dams have no particular intention of taking the water to those who need it the most, even though they claim they do. With the Sardar Sarovar Dam, this is why Kutch and Saurashtra -- the part of Gujarat that need water most - figure lowest on the Government's own plans for the Narmada water. Why not take it there first?

I also don't think smaller and check dams alone will meet the entire needs of the country. Simply building smaller dams is, to my eyes, not much of an alternative to large dams.

A view of the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam.

What are the alternatives, then?

I think we have to begin with a more rounded view of water, as coming to us from various sources. Groundwater, rain, and possibly from a dam. They must be seen, and used, together. Therefore we must encourage rainwater harvesting techniques. We must encourage techniques that recharge groundwater reserves. Irrigation water should not simply be spread on fields, it should also be used to restore groundwater levels. I also think farmers should be made aware of the cost of the water that is provided to them, and of the need to use it responsibly.

I don't know enough about these ideas to expound on them at greater length here, but these are the outlines of a new way to approach the problem of water and its use.

The environmental costs of a dam were hardly ever factored in while estimating the costs of a dam earlier. Is it done now?  If not, why not?
They are factored in the sense that at least for public consumption, various clearances are sought and received, promises are made about compensatory aforestation, and so forth. But I don't believe environmental factors are truly addressed. I think this boils down to a matter of attitude. For example, in 1993 there was a Five Member Group that was set up to review the Sardar Sarovar Project. In their report, they made this telling comment:

"If in spite of all these arrangements [to take care of environmental issues], the environmental point of view fails to be heard adequately, and if project construction tends to take an over-riding precedence, that is a reflection of the relative political importance of these two points of view in our system. This can be remedied only in the long term through persuasion and education, and not immediately through institutional arrangements which run counter to the system." (This was quoted by the Supreme Court in dismissing the NBA's petition against Sardar Sarovar in 2000, as an indication of the climate re: environmental matters).

But is anyone doing any of that "persuasion and education"?

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