Dams have been the symbol of modern India—a backward nation, having freed itself from imperialist rule, trying to modernize, and catch up with advanced countries, Modern industry and scientific agriculture were seen to be the two pillars on which a new India was to be erected. Dams were to provide the electricity for industrialization and water for irrigation—both of which were very meager at the time of independence. In 1947/India had an installed hydro-electricity generating capacity of about J 1,000 MW which became 11,383" MW in 1980. Dams provide nearly half of our total electricity .produced today'-2. In 1950, the surface irrigation potential from major and medium projects was about 9.0 million hectares which rose to 26.6 million hectares in j1979-803. This was achieved through a large-scale activity of dam and canal j construction through an investment of Rs. 10,566 crores (upto1979) which ,is almost 14% of total planned expenditure of this period, dam building has received the largest capital outlay for any single activity in .independent India'-3. While there were only about 30 dams of height more than 30 meters in 1947, there were 1554 large dams by 1979. The storage capacity realized went up from 13,650 million cubic meters to 123,000 million cubic meters during this period—and completion "of projects inland (in 1979) would add another. 50,000 million cubic meters 2. The changes that dams have brought to India have been substantial, and even impressive in comparison with other newly independent countries' of the post-war period. Quite understandably have they been christened "Temples of Modern India" by the architect of Modern India.

It might thus appear paradoxical that these giant edifices are increasingly becoming points of bitter, controversy, dispute and agitation. How can anyone be opposed to this project that brings such enormous benefits to our developmental efforts without causing any harm to anyone? After all don't we all know that what dams do is to make use of the river waters that would have anyway flowed waste-fully to [the sea, and that too at points far removed from the towns and the plains. Further unlike thermal or atomic power stations, dams do not pollute the air or the water or cause any hazards. Moreover, these being renewable sources of energy, should be the natural choice for a country like ours faced with the energy crisis. We have the resources and the know-how to build dams and generate electricity—our dependence on foreign countries in this regard is much less than in the case of atomic or thermal power generation. And when one remembers that we have so far exploited only about 10% of our hide power capacity1 hydro-'y-electric projects of the type that are being undertaken should naturally become the 1 ideal choice. The same is true of dam irrigation too—of the total cultivated area of about" 140 million hectares, only about 40 million hectares are today under irrigation1.Surely the scope to increase irrigated area through dams is enormous. One should also remember the third important function that large dams play, viz., that of flood control. When the case for dams seems to be so clear and strong, why is opposition to them beginning to surface increasingly?"

Before we attempt to answer this question, it would be instructive to take a closer look at some of the recent controversies and disputes relating to some important dams in India. We quote a few-of these below:


1. Tehri dam: This dam under construction on the Bhagirathi River in the U.P. Himalayas is one of the largest in India. It is a rock-fill dam, 260 meters in height and would have storage of 3, 500 million cubic meters, (the artificial reservoir would extend to over 40 km upstream into Bhagirathi). It is expected to generate 1000 MW power and irrigate'1.5 million hectares of land. The cost estimate was 180 crore rupees in 196B which has been revised to 830 crores in 1978. The work on the.dam started in 1978, and so did the work of the Tehri Bundh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti.

The opposition to the dam is on many counts. First that the dam could trigger an earthquake that could brnig unimaginable disaster to lives and property in the entire Gangetic plane. This possibility was explicitly pointed out in the original project report itself, but was subsequently deleted from it. Independent studies by geologists and other experts have all concurred on the possibility that, given the nature of the region (viz., that it is seismically active and that there are faults in the rockbed), a dam of this size could induce earthquakes: Another objection to the dam has been that its life would be too short—as against the official figure of 100 years, independent estimates put it a around 30-40 years. This is due" to the excessive siltation in the river which the opponents of the dam point out has been heavily underestimated. This very low life combined with the heavy ecological damage that the dam will cause in the sensitive and fragile Himalayan region, with make the project financially unviable. Another point of dispute is regarding the fate of those who will have to evacuate the region, numbering about 10,000 according to the opponents of the dam.

The opposition to Tehri dam has taken many forms—local agitation, press campaign, reports by independent investigators, seminars and conferences etc. Even though it has attracted national attention it has not been able to stop the dam-construction—activities at the site are still going on.

2. Silent-valley project: This hydroelectric project was to have been built across the Kuntipuzha river in the Malabar area of Kerala to produce electric energy of 520 million Kilowatthours annually. Opposition to this project was initiated by scientists and ecologists and spearheaded by Kerala Sastra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) on the ground that it will destroy an appreciable portion of the only remaining tropical ever-green rain forest of the country, and along with it one of the richest biological and genetic heritages in the world. Botanical survey of India and Zoological survey of India had certified that the flora and fauna of this region are indeed very rare and often endangered elsewhere in the world and that their protection is very valuable from scientific as well as economic point of view. Central Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation as well as the Department of Science & Technology were also opposed to the project on ecological grounds. Ecology being the central issue at point, the campaign was by and large confined to the press and the scientific community. The debate generated considerable national and even international interest and received backing from diverse quarters, including governmental agencies. The Kerala Govt., at least as of now, has been forced to abandon the project.

3. Bedti Projcet: Bedti, stages one and two, are dams being built on the river Bedti in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka State, expected to produce a combined output of 420 MW of electricity. This is part of a total of seven hydel projects planned in this district alone to yield an estimated 2200 MW of electricity, the rivers harnessed being Kali, Bedti and Aghahasini. The Bedti stage one is a 112.80 meter high dam with generating capacity of 210 MW. The initial estimate is Rs. 134 Crore. It will submerge about 30,000 acres of land (mostly forest) including 24 villages.

Opposition to the project was voiced by the people of the Sirsi town of the Uttara Kanada district through their district cooperative society. With of help of scientists, academicians and environmentalists, they have tried to voice their opposition to the scheme. One argument of the opponents is that the project is economically unviable. They point out serious flaws in the cost-benefit estimates of the authorities, and show that the benefit to cost ratio finally realized will not exceed 0.85, whereas, according to the planning commission, a minimum ratio of 1.5 is required for approval of any project. They also point out that the whole proposal is based on inadequate or faulty data. For example, if proper data on siltation rate is made use of, the life-span will be much less than the claimed 100 years. Also, the estimate of the reservoir Rapacity is based on incomplete data. Seismicity of the area has also been underestimated, and the fact that as many as seven such projects are being planned in a small region' has been over looked. Sufficient information does not seem to be existing even about the number of persons who will have to be evacuated. Loss of 'precious forest and other associated ecological damages are other reasons given for opposing the Bedti dam. The opponents have put forward what they consider to be better and viable alternative schemes for power production.

4. Munnar High Dam: This is a 150 meter high arch dam planned to be built across the Mudirapuzha river in the Western Ghats of Kerala falling in the Munnar district. It is expected to have storage of 700 million cubic feet and top ro duce 240 MW of electricity. The estimated cost is Rs, 220 crores. The dam will submerge more than 2000 hectares of land, more than half of which are tea gardens. The dam will submerge Munnar town as well as some 13 villages displacing about 25,000 people, about half of whom are tea plantation workers.

The opposition to the Munnar High Dam, spearheaded by the save Munnar Organization, is based on the following points. Firstly there is the problem of displacement of such a vast number of people. It is feared that all the promises of rehabilitation of the displaced persons, in the light of past experiences will amount to nothing much and that they will be left in the lurch to fend for themselves. They also point out that the decision to build the dam is based on incomplete and wrong data—calculated storage will not be realized, silting much in excess of the estimated value will occur, the surrounding hills are soft and are likely to collapse into the reservoir, etc. The opponents also suggest that alternative ways of. generating electricity without constructing the High Dam exist, and that they should be seriously investigated-The opposition has taken the form of hartals and demonstrations, press campaigns, submitting memoranda and petitions, etc.

5. Inchampalli Dam: This is a 116.13 meter high dam proposed to be constructed 82 Kms downstream of the confluence of Godavari and Pranhita in the Karimnagar district of A.P., the project being a joint venture of A.P., M.P. and Maharashtra. It is expected to generate 660 MW and irrigate 1.6 million acres of land. Estimated cost is about Fs. 362 crores. It is reported that about one lakh hectares of land in 146 villages belonging to the three states will be submerged. The people affected are mostly Adivasis (Gonds) numbering about two lakhs. The opposition to the project—Jungle Bachao, Manav Bachao Andolan—has been recently intensified. Its focus is the large-scale destruction that the dam will bring to the local Adivasi people as well as the forests of the region—the dam will destroy more than 50,000 hectares of scarce and valuable forests of the Vidarbha region. It will also submerge vast deposits of minerals like barium, graphite, sillemite and high quality, lime. It is felt that the project has been decided upon without adequate studies, and that substantial modifications and alterations can be made to minimize the harmful effects.

The above are only a few of the various ongoing protest movements, and only serve to illustrate the type of issues involved in dam building. It is perhaps significant that increasing doubts and scepticism about the worthwhileness of erecting giant dams are being expressed also in different parts of the world, both "developed" and "backward". The successful agitation against the damming of the New River in the U.S.A. is an example from a. developed country10. A documentation of such struggles and campaigns from the world over would indeed make a most revealing story. But rather than attempt that, we would try in what follows, to catalogue the various known harmful consequences of large dams; with primary emphasis on the Indian experience.


1. Dams and rehabilitation: Unlike in industrialized nations, in our country the hills and forests are not uninhabited areas. An appreciable proportion of our people dwell in them—and these are people mostly outside the modem sector. Most of them are tribal’s and Adivasis. Construction of dams, inundation of vast areas by the storage reservoirs and the a companying multifarious range of activities require the evacuation of those living in the ar6a. The number of such people who have been driver away from their homes and. habitats for the purpose of dam building in India is truly enormous. The following table gives an idea of the magnitude of the problems.


Numbers of persons / villages affected by some dams.

Dam Bhakra
No. of

Bedti(l& II)
Sardar Sarovar






The total number of people who have lost or are about to lose their homes and habitats due to construction of dams in India will indeed be staggering. The process has' assumed the nature of a sustained war against our forest dwellers. One should remember" that these are the most "backward" and underprivileged sections of pure society who are supposed to receive special care and attention under our constitution. One should also remember that whatever benefits that accrue from these projects do not (they are not even expected to) reach these people. The rehabilitation programmes are mostly conceived in the cynical spirit of the Land Acquision Act of 1894ls. There has been little appreciation of the socio-economic, cultural and psychological complexities of the process j of rehabilitation of forest dwellers. How callous and cynical the approach of the authorities can get to be, can be seen from the fact that the evacuees of the Pong dam in Himachal Pradesh were "rehabilitated" in the plains of Rajasthan I The plight of "dam ousters" languishing for decades in various parts of the country constitutes a revealing picture of the other side of development in India. Any developmental activity which extracts such heavy prices from the most underprivileged sections of our society simply cannot go on indefinitely, no matter what benefits' such schemes are supposed to deliver.

2. Economics of dam: Before any project like a dam is approved, it has to be established that it is economical to undertake it. Cost and benefit estimates have to be prepared and it has to be shown that the benefit-to-cost ratio is higher than 1.5, the lower limit set by the Planning Commission. |t is becoming increasingly evident that very often the figures are so manipulated as to get the project approved. The initial cost estimation has often tended to be unrealistically low as compared to the final incurred cost. The cost-escalation figures given by an expert Committee of the Govt, in 1973 bring out this aspect clearly. Given below are the percentage cost escalation over the initial cost estimate for some important projects in India according to the expert committee's report14.


Percentage cost escalation of some Hydel Projects

Dam Nagarjuna-
sagar (A.P.)
Krishna I
172 321 150 150 100 222 146

Mahi 1
358 253 480 701 367 417 1300

The Committee estimated an all-India average of 108% cost escalation. That was in 1973. How things stand now may. be seen from the example of Tehri—in 1978, when the work on the dam had hardly begun, the cost estimated had already gone up by about 350% over the initial estimate!

Cost reduction is often effected by making highly inadequate; provisions for rehabilitation — costs would be considerably higher if provisions 'have to be made for proper rehabilitation. Similarly cost due to loss of returns from the forests and farmlands inundated or otherwise adversely affected, loss due to destruction of fishing downstream) economic value of other ecological destructions caused etc, are often t overlooked or inadequately accounted, for. Expected life span of the dam is another (parameter that is often, overestimated to inflate the benefit to cost ratio. Similarly, (Calculation of. benefits from power generation, irrigation and flood control are often made to exaggerate the benefits. An instance of such falsification of estimates is the Bhima project in Maharashtra. The project was approved on the basis of a, ratio of 6.29, whereas taking into consideration all the costs involved, it has been shown .that the actual, ratio realized is only 0.46!

Considering that the financial outlays involved are gigantic,, a realistic assessment of what thej actual returns- and, costs are, is of paramount importance before more and more such projects are pushed through. This exercise might throw startling new light on what exactly the dams have been doing to our economy.

3. Silting of dams us: Rivers flowing down the gradient of mountain slopes carry considerable amount of silt. Ordinarily part of the silt gets deposited in the plains where the river slows down, and part is carried to the sea. Silt is an important source of soil fertilization. When the dam is constructed, silt gets deposited in the reservoir. Wanton destruction of forests has already led to excessive siltations in our rivers. Even the amount of silting increases due to the dam construction. This is due to the considerable amount of terrain modification that accompanies the building of the dam. Considerable deforestation takes place r upstream, soil is loosened, by dynamiting, road building and other construction activities etc., All this, leads to higher silting. Deposition of silt in the reservoir has many, consequences, most important of which is on the life-span of the dam itself. Estimation of silting in our dams has been highly faulty, as revealed by the data presented by the Irrigation Commission. Given below is the (approximate) percentage increase of the observed siltation rates over the estimated rates for some of our major dams, according to the Irrigation Commission:


Percentage increase of siltation rates

Dam Bhakra Maithan Panchet Ramganga Tunga
Mayurakshi Ukai NizamSagar
in siltation
50 800 375 300 300 300 200 1600

What this amounts, to is a drastic reduction in the life span of the dam, often by a factor of two or three, as compared, to the original estimate—which then means that even the worthwhileness of the whole project could become questionable. Another consequence of the silt getting deposited in the reservoir is that its fertilizing value is lost, which then has to be made up by other means like chemical fertilizers etc. The economic cost of this has hardly been assessed. It has also been pointed out that the silt-free water flowing downstream corrodes "the banks as it does not any more deposit any soil. Another consequence is on the aquatic flora and fauna downstream of the dam dramatic reduction in their population due to the absence of nutrients in the water have been reported from elsewhere in the world. Aswan dam is reported to have led to a steep fall in the fish catch in an area extending over a hundred miles into the sea where the Nile used to flow into.

That silting severely limits the life-span of1 the dam brings out that hydro-electricity generation using large dams is not, after all, a renewable source of energy1.

4. Dams and Earthquakes: The Koyna earthquake of 10th Dec. 1967 and the misery and destruction it caused to life and property is still fresh in the minds of our people. In some sense, it also helped to focus attention (at that national and international level) on the question of whether dams cause earthquake. Another and more recent instance has been the series of earthquakes during May-Sept. 1983 in the village Khardi near the Bhatsa dam in the Konkan region of Maharashtra17. Both these were in a region known to be essentially aseismic where no quakes had been felt over hundred years. While the engineers of the Irrigation and Power Departments still do not concur, the international scientific opinion today accepts, the fact of Reservoir Induced Seism city 181B. Table-4 gives some important instances where dams are believed to have caused major and minor earthquakes19. In Table-5 we summaries those' instances in India where the correlation is believed to have been clearly established.

What is not known perhaps is the exact mechanism by which the pressure of the impounded water ultimately leads to a subterranean rock movement and the earthquake. What is suspected is that 'it takes a combination of various circumstances relating to the geological structure of the terrain under the reservoir to initiate a quake—the pressure of the reservoir water may be acting only as a trigger. It seems impossible today to state whether a given sized reservoir in a certain terrain will actually cause earthquake, though a certain estimate gives the figure of 7% of all dams of height above 100 meters and storage 109 cubic meters as having, caused earthquakes19. Considering what the consequences of a severe earthquake at a dam site can be the 'smallness' of this figure perhaps cannot be much consolation.


Some Data on Dams and Earthquakes

Year of
Year of
103 2,780 1964 1967 6.5 Low
165 4,750 1965 1966 6.3 Moderate
105 10,500 1959 1961 6.1 Asiesmic
128 160,368 1959 1963 5.8 Low
221 36,703 1936 1939 5.0 -
63 41 1930 1938 5.0 Moderate
236 4,298 - 1975 5.7 Moderate
(New Zealand)
118 2,100 1965 1966 5.0 Moderate
155 240 1962 1963 4.9 Low
186 199 1960 1961 4.9 High
89 340 1964 1967 4.5 Moderate
317 10,400 1972 1972 4.5 High
116 7,250 1967 1970 4.2 Moderate
Tal bingo
162 921 1971 1972 3.5 Aseismic
207 31,000 1973 1974 3.5 -
(New Zealand)
108 10,000 1978 1978 4.6 Moderate
108 10,400 1975 1975 4.1 Low


Some Data on India Dams and Earthquakes

Dam Depth
Date of
Ghirni 15.2 3   M < 3.0
Idukki 160 1,460 2- 7-1977  
      1-12-1978 3 < M < 5.9
Kinnerjani 61.75 - 13- 4-1969 3 < M < 5.9
Koyna 100 2,780 10-12-1967 M > 6.0
Mangalam 28.5 25 1963 M < 3.0
Mula 44 1,017 1972 M < 3.0
Parambikkulam 66 504 1963 M < 3.0
Sharavati 38 - - M < 3.0
Sholayar 59.4 154 - M < 3.0
Ukai 63.55 8,511 - M < 3.0

5. Water-logging and soil Stalinization: One of the important functions of large dams, in India has been to provide surface water (canal) irrigation. As mentioned earlier, the area thus irrigated went up from 9 million hectares in 1950 to 26.6 million hectares in 1980. This was achieved through an investment of Rs. 7,510 crores during the period. During the Sixth plan, an additional 13.7 million hectares is to be brought under irrigation at a cost of Rs. 10,000 crores. Evidently, providing irrigation through a complex network of giant dams and canals is seen as the way of bringing more and more areas under cultivation as well as increasing the yield of cultivated lands. But the experience gained so far, in our country as well as elsewhere, clearly demonstrates that canal irrigation is far from being an unmixed blessing. Enormous quantities of land are being either degraded or altogether lost to cultivation because of the problems of water logging and Stalinization. This is caused by the dramatic increase in the ground water-table. In the Bhakra Canal area, the water-table rose by about 8 meters in a ten year period. In some regions of Western Rajasthan under the Rajasthan Canal project, the water-table is rising, at a rate of three meters per year. In regions where the soil has high water retentively and does not drain water naturally, high seepage "from- canals and uncontrolled irrigation combined with poor drainage facility has led to the rising water-table to waterlog the fields and convert them into marshy uncultivable lands. The case of Hoshangabad area in M. P. coming under the Tawa dam command area is classic in this respect. 21'22 Water logging here has pushed vast areas out of cultivation, drastically, reduced the yield and made the cultivation of .many traditional crops impossible. The hardships caused to farmers by the irrigation scheme have been so severe that, in 1977, they were forced to start the Mitti Bachao Abbiyan (Save the Soil Campaign). National Commission on Agriculture estimated in 1976 that about six million hectares of cultivated land is severely affected by water-logging,

Soil Stalinization is another threat to irrigation caused by a rising water-table and poor drainage. The rising water-table brings with it dissolved salts from deep layers of soil. When it reaches within a few feet of the surface, water moves upward through capillary action and evaporates depositing the dissolved salts on the surface. Many crops and plants are severely affected by the presence of salt, in their root zones or at the surface. If the deposited salts are not washed away after a few years, the land goes entirely of cultivation. It is estimated that nearly seven million hectares of our fertile fields are severely affected by soil, salinity.

The experience, of Pakistan in this regard has been revealing20. The vast canal irrigation system built by the British in the Indus Valley had, by 1960 resulted in loss of fertile land at an. annual rate of 40,000 hectares - due to salinity. By 1961 the threat to agriculture; had become so severe that the salinity problem was declared a "national catastrophe", and massive reclamation activities had to be started at exorbitant costs. At a world wide scale, it is estimated that between two to three lakh "hectares of: fertile soil is being annually lost due to water logging and and Stalinization20.

6. Dams and Health 1, 3, l5, 23: Construction of reservoirs and systems of canals have led to spread of certain diseases in different parts of India, by causing spread of mosquitoes and-flies. Malaria, Philaria and Japanese Encephalitis have been the most common. Regions that were freedom these diseases have, after construction of dams and canals, often become endemic in them. Thungabhadra dam in Karnataka and Sathanur dam in Tamil Nadu are two clear cases that have led to large scale spread of Malaria in the surrounding regions. The rising ground-water-table consequent upon the construction of reservoirs [and canals is also believed to pose another type of health hazard. This is through changes in the level of fluoride, calcium and trace metals in the surface and subsurface soil, and water which then enters the food-cycle and ultimately causes crippling diseases like knock-knees (genu-valgum) and fluorosis in people. Nagarjunasagar dam in A. P. is believed to have given noise to these diseases in vast regions within its command area. Parambikulam-Aliyar dam in Tamilnadu is another project which is believed to have led to spread of these diseases.

That dams and canals lead to spreading of certain type of diseases is recognized elsewhere also of Aswam High Dam and associated canals led to spread of a disease termed BMIharzia transmitted through snails (whose population began to grow in an uncontrolled manner). Volta dam is similarly believed to have led to the spread of a disease called "river-blindness".

7. Dams and Forest:What exactly has been the impact of dam construction on forests since independence has perhaps not been fully assessed. One estimate puts the forest lost due to river valley projects between 1951 and 1972 at about 4 lakh hectares. That dam-building must, have led to considerable deforestation of our already threatened forests can however be surmised from the scale of the projects. Each major project inundates considerable forest land, often running into tens of thousands of hectares. Apart from this, the multifarious activities like building of roads, townships, laying of transmission lines and canals, rehabilitation of the evacuees etc., that call for an "opening-up" of the entire area, also leads to great destruction of forests. The damage has been particularly severe in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. Severe cases of soil erosion and land-slides resulting from such deforestation caused by dam-building are increasingly coming to light. If dam-building activities are to go on at the rate being contemplated (a total of 22 major dams are being planned on the Ganga Valley alone) 2, it would turn out to be a major threat to our forests. A recent study on Idukki dam on Periyar River in Kerala by the Department of Environment states that the construction has resulted in a sharp reduction of forest cover, degradation of evergreen forests and a steep decline in river discharge leading 1 to young fluvial terraces, especially between dukki and "Cheruthani.

8. Dams and Ecology: It is now widely recognized that dam construction has an extremely adverse impact on ecology. Deforestation, silting of rivers and reservoirs and health hazards have already been talked about. There are, however, other effects too. Large dam construction aims at substantially modifying a natural system and thereby transforming the physical and biotic attributes of a river. Dams also form large man-made lakes. There are fertile beds for seeds of ecological problems. Evaporation of water may increase substantially in some areas changing the microclimate of the region. The quality of water gets changed as the flow is affected. Since the water is now stored for several years in the reservoir, the biota of water will develop successively and their chemical attributes will change affecting the aquatic habitat. A number of harmful water weeds proliferate as a result. For example, in Idukki dam area, species like eupatorium, lantana and milkania are posing a serious threat to the local vegetation. In Kali Project area there has been enormous increase in population of the weed Eupatorium glandulosum. These weeds not only smother all growth in clear-felled areas, but are also totally unpalatable to all herbivorous animals. The weeds are also likely to choke feeder streams and irrigation outlets, block hydroelectric installations, form dense cover and make fishing difficult and even induce deoxygenation and hence cause massive fish morality, besides causing water loss.

The large dams affect the flow of water in rivers substantially and often lead to changes in the course of rivers. For example, the Idukki dam, has in many places decreased the width of the' active river channel from eighty meters to less than two meters even during monsoon. Drastic reduction in stream flow has led to the formation of small water pools in the channel. One of the results of this decreased flow would be the drying up of ponds and wells in the summer.

9. Dame and Floods: One of the three much flaunted aims of dam construction is flood control in India, as many as 17 large dams constructed since independence, have been identified as flood control projects. But we have hardly moved towards control of floods. In fact, the damage caused by floods have been steadily increasing from around Rs. 500 crores per year in early fifties to around Rs. 10,000 crores per year in late seventies (Rs. 2,500 crores at 1952-53 prices). It is difficult to estimate how much of this increase in damage is due to the construction of these dams. But one can definitely say that the J dams have not served the purpose of flood control.

The construction of dams has often destroyed a large amount of vegetation as discussed above. This prevents the retention of water during rainy season and increases the flow. This, is a major cause of increase in floods. This also brings more silt to the reservoirs constructed, prematurely silting them. Further, to avoid damage to dams, excessive discharges have to be made which cause flash floods in down-stream areas. Records show that this has been happening, year after year in our country. For example, in September 1980, excess discharges from Hirakud reservoir led to massive flash floods in Orissa causing death and destruction on a very large scale. In October 1983, Mr. Shripat Mishra, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, .announced the appointment of an expert committee to enquire into release of water from dams and reservoirs which had deluged large areas.

Besides, our dams are rarely built for flood control purposes alone. They are simultaneously supposed to produce hydel power and irrigation. Hydel power generation and irrigation usage requires the release of water on a schedule that responds to variations in demand for power and when it is needed at critical periods for plant growth respectively. The schedule of release for flood control, most often, is totally different, It is rare that the latter gets priority.

The above are some aspects of large dams that are perhaps not widely appreciated, but which should be included in assessing their overall performance. Another kind of information that must be obtained in undertaking such an exercise is regarding the extent to which our dams have actually yielded the results they were expected to fulfill—either in terms of the actual power generated or in terms of the actual area irrigated or in terms of the floods controlled. Another issue of interest will be regarding the source of funds that have been utilized for these projects to what extent these have contributed to our foreign indebtedness, etc. Then there are issues like what impact these projects (are having on river navigation, how they are affecting are likely to affect our historical sites and monuments etc. Another aspect of the problem is to understand the socio-economic consequences of such projects in terms of, which the benefits are mainly going to, what it is doing to the already existing socioeconomic inequalities, etc. It is evident that an assessment of the real costs and benefits of dams that have so far been built in our country is not a simple task. It is equally evident that any decision to press forward with the policy of initiating more such schemes has no justification whatever, till such an exercise is under-taken and completed.


What all this means is that these "temples of modernity", many of which are called the pride of our nation, are far from being an unmixed blessing, or a sure and "clean" path to progress. The various protests and campaigns against large dams that were surveyed in sections II are merely an indication that their, adverse consequences are beginning to reach very large proportions. Most of these move-ments are trying to impress upon the planners and decision-makers of the nation that it is high time that we take a critical look at the entire philosophy of indiscriminate erection of large dams for power generation and irrigation. Worldwide experience gathered over the century in this field must be clearly examined and, lessons learnt from them. All the initial assumptions and ideas underlying these projects, assumptions and ideas formulated long ago by alien rulers, have to be reevaluated before pushing ahead with this programme. This becomes all the more important in the present context of "energy crisis" and "green revolution". With the increasing realization of the limitations and problems of other principal sources of commercial energy like oil, coal and nuclear power, there is a temptation to turn increasingly to hydel projects with the claim that it is devoid of any problems. From what has been said above, this can have permanent and disastrous consequences to our country and our people, clear signs of which have already begun to show. The present shortsighted attitude that any opposition to large dams is an opposition to development and progress must clearly be given up.

It is interesting to note that those who have been opposing large dams on various grounds have also been putting forward various suggestions as alternatives.* ' It is equally significant that none of these suggestions have till now been taken seriously. There are presumably many reasons for such an attitude. One is the "prestige value" associated with giant dams, large power generating stations, massive canals, etc. These are finding Increasing use as proofs for the fact that, as a nation, we are indeed progressing. Another reason is the existence of a vast. These range from the mini and micro-hydro-electric stations using small dams, to run of the river plants, bio-mass plants utilizing the forest produce, wind and solar energy conversion etc., for power generation; and soil and water conversion measures, emphasis on groundwater utilization through wells, revival of the traditional tank-irrigation system, use of small dams barrages and bunds etc, for agricultural purposes administrative, bureaucratic and technological machinery all geared up to thinking only in terms of large j projects, where procedures and principles have by and large been standardized. Any departure from this path would call for enormous innovational efforts at all levels, which under the present climate of the country does not seem to be forthcoming. There could also be reasons like the existence of pressure groups and lobbies that benefit from the construction of such projects involving enormous sums of money, calculations based on short-term political gains etc.

Perhaps a deeper and more fundamental reason for our persistence with large' dams is that it is perfectly in accordance with the kind of development that we seem to have decided upon. The highly centralized nature of power production and irrigation that it provides seems to be essential for this form of development. It facilitates easy control by a centralized authority and, not requiring people's participation, (eaves the existing social structure intact, in this regard, and large dams show all the characteristic features of being a product of Modern Science and Technology. While it is true that all attempts should be made to try out, develop and implement alternatives to large dams, the argument cannot be that all that was tried to be achieved through large dams will be achieved through these alternatives. The alternatives can become meaningful and effective only if we refuse to accept the outlook behind large dams. Behind large dams, for instance is the outlook that the rate of per capita consumption of electric energy is a measure of the progress of the nation and our goal should be to catch up with the /'developed" nations in this regard. Alternatives cannot merely be other ways of achieving the same goals. The idea that "somehow'' we will come up with clever arid "faultless" schemes to achieve the same objectives as exist behind the building of large dams, is indeed a delusion. The search for alternatives can be meaningful only if we start with the realization that many of these objectives are not worthy of pursuit as well as clearly infeasible to attain without abandoning all our values and concerns.

References :

1. The State of India's Environment, 1982 - A Citizen's Report; Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi .

2. Dams in India with Special Reference to Tehri Dam, 'A study' by Bharat Dogra for the Workshop, Policy Formulation for Development and the Environment', Feb. 1984, Organized by the Indian Institute of Public Administration New Delhi.

3. Major Dams - a Second Look, Environmental cell, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, 1981,

4. Ravi Sharma,
(i) Real cost of big-dams. Times of India, 28th July 1982.
(ii) Need for frank discussion. Times of India, 29th July 1982.

5. Darryl De Monte, Time up for Tehri, Indian Express, Aug. 30, 1981.

6. M. K. Prasad et al The Silent Valley Hydro-electric Project: a Techno-economic and Socio-political Assessment, Kerala Satra Sashitya Parishad 1979.

7. Silent Valley Project - Questions and Answer's, KSSP, 1980 (in Malayalam).

8. A preliminary report on the Save Munnar Agitation, PPST Madras, 1984.

9. Protest against Inchampalli project, Indian Express, March 27, 1934.

10. Schoenbaum, The New River Controversy.

11. The Untold Story of the Srisailam Project, Lokayan Research Report, 1981.

12. Bhagirath Shah, Legal Aspects of Rehabilitation, Seminar on Political Economy of Rehabilitation, Centre for Social Studies, Sural, 1982.

13. Smithu Kothari, Oustees of the Narmada, Indian Express, April 19, 1984.

14. Rise in Cost of Irrigation and Multipurpose Projects, Report of Expert Committee, Ministry of Irrigation and Power, 1973.

15. Dasmann R. F., Environmental Conservation, 1972, John Wiley, NY, 1972.

16. Nisbet, 'Hydro-electric Power—a Non-renewable Resource?' Technology Review, June 1974, p. 5.

17. Vidya Subramaniam and Anjali Puri, Fill a lake, cause a quake. Indian Express, Oct. 9, 1983.

18. Rothe J.P., Fill a lake, stait an earthquake. New Scientist (1963), Vol. 39, pp. 75 - 78.

19. Dams and Earthquake, Proceedings of Conference, 1-2 Oct. 1980 Institution of Civil Engineers, London.

20. Eckholm, Losing Ground.

21. Amitabh Shukla, Tawa Project, Economic Times, June 23, 1983.

22. Anupam Mishra, Mitti Bachao Abhiyan, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi (Booklet in Hindi).

23. Kassas, Ecological Consequence of Water Development Projects, in "The Environmental Future", Edited by Polunin, 1972,

Author:Madras Group

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