Dams and Mega Projects — Development for All?

Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India undertook the ambitious task of ‘dam’ming the nation. For him, dams were the “temples of modern India”. The foundation of these sacred temples was laid in the 1st five year plan itself. Many irrigation projects were initiated by proposing dams like Bhakra, Hirakud, Mettur and Damodar Valley dam. Today, the completion of Sardar Sarovar Dam in 2017 can be marked as the pinnacle of this temple construction dream, it being the 2nd largest dam in Asia. During the inauguration ceremony of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, on September 17, 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech politely asserted that, “You know me, I can’t do small things. I don’t think small, don’t do small things. With 1.25 billion people with me, I can’t dream small.”

But sometimes thinking about and doing small things, can avoid large scale harm in the future– A maxim that is observed by several Western countries such as America, in case of mega dams. The USA started building dams on almost every small and big river in the country, in order to save every bit of water available and utilize it to the fullest, in the early mid 1900s. It later had to destroy a large number of those dams built over a span of hundred years, due to reasons ranging from problem in maintaining those dams and the high costs incurred for the same to the continuous and large scale degradation of nature. The biggest example of environmental degradation is undoubtedly that of the salmons in Elwha river, who, once present in plenty, are now on the verge of extinction. Pt. Nehru realizing this harm caused by the dams, although much later in life, in one of his speeches admitted that “the disease of giganticism” was developing in the country, according to him, “The idea of doing big undertakings or doing big tasks for the sake of showing that we can do big things, is not a good outlook all.” Inspite of this realisation large, mega dams were planned and built across the country, including the much disputed Sardar Sarovar Dam, whose foundation was laid by Nehru himself.

The age in which the foundation of this dam was laid was much different than the age in which it reached its final stage of completion, overcoming several hurdles on its way. It was particularly an age in which colonizing the nature and exploiting it was considered normal and vital for development, in fact the idea of development and modernization itself was different than it is thought of now. Modernization was equaled to industrialization and urbanization and nature and natural resources had little space in this development model. In turn, the sacrifice of the farmers and tribals (who were so close to nature that they were virtually a part of it) by giving away their land and their year old civilization was a negligible trade-off, for the so-called larger good of the nation.

But now both new studies and experience of the developed countries has proved the harm caused by the dams. Inspite of this the construction of Sardar Sarovar was given a green signal, as “the benefits outweighed the cost.” The benefits include, availability of water for drinking and irrigation throughout the year in drought prone regions and providing electricity to the population of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The dam was completed shirking aside all the demonstrations, opposition and concerns raised about the environment, the rehabilitation of tribals, and the questions raised about output being ‘less than equal’ to the cost incurred. The output of this decision whether good or bad will be witnessed by us in the future.

We may agree that now there is no use of crying over the spilt milk as the decisions made and the actions taken cannot be undone, but at least, after learning lessons from the previous decisions we can take necessary provisions to avoid mistakes in future. Ambitious projects of this kind are excellent political moves for instant popularity, especially for governments of the current digital age with a strong public relations team. But the rights of the true stakeholders always remain neglected in this process, especially the ones who lose their land and livelihood, and therefore are naturally expected to be rehabilitated by the government. In the words of veteran social worker, Baba Amte, “nothing can compensate the wrench they would suffer in the leaving of their traditional cultural environment.” History has shown that either the original inhabitants, including tribals or farmers, do not get rehabilitated at all, or are rehabilitated in such a poor way that most of these people end up living in filthy rehabilitation camps, whose conditions are worse than any slum in the city. This is repeated time and again each and every mega projects, which claim to benefit the poor and the needy, be it Bhakra Nangal dam, the recent Sardar Sarovar dam or displacement of tribals in Orissa due to massive mining projects.

The constant failure of the government to assure the natives of the land of their well-being and proper compensation along with the reassurance that the development projects are meant for inclusive and not exclusive development(for a particular class) has given rise to fear among the people in the regions where new projects are planned to be implemented and this fear has taken the form of widespread opposition from the locals of such places to such mega projects, which in many ways, is justified. The most recent example of this is the Nanar oil refinery plant which is planned to be built in Rajapur district of Maharashtra. Keeping aside the political drama staged in this case, the government has certainly failed to assure the locals of development and occupation opportunities that the plant would bring. For this to change, it is the responsibility of the government to assure the people that development projects, do not just bring about development of a particular sector and class of the society, but rather of the entire society.

Picture Credits: TheStatesman

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