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Dams and Displacements

Posted on June 8, 2012 at 8:30 AM

Dams and Displacements

 

Once Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India and the architect of modern India, while inaugurating the Bhakra Dam described dams as ‘temples of modern India'. But the tragedy that struck diversion tunnel No.3 of the Tehri Dam on August 3, 2004 killing 27 labourers, and the imminent extinction of the 700 year old Harsud town in Madhya Pradesh by rising water level in the Indira Sagar Dam, has rekindled fears of environmentalists regarding viability of big dams.

 

Environmentalists have lobbied hard in the past decade to prevent large dams being built. These dams, they say, will submerge natural forest, disrupt downstream fisheries and possibly inundate and salinate land along the canals, increasing the danger of insect-borne diseases. Much of the debate has also centred on the propriety of building large dams when smaller dams might do. Some scientists believe that the construction of big dams could cause earthquakes and, in a country as disorganized as India, it is likely that necessary maintenance of these dams may suffer. However, one of the most contentious issues has been the displacement of up to a quarter of a million people, many of whom belong to small tribal communities. So, it is imperative to look at these issues.

 

In the recent years, tapping of rivers through big dams has raised many human as well as environmental issues. An estimate is that 160-320 new large dams are built each year. According to the World Commission on Dam Report, 2000, there are 45,000 large dams in 140 countries in the world. The first ever dam was built in 1890 but by 1950 the world has 50,000 large and small dams. Of these 22,000 are in China alone. The other leading countries are- the USA (6,390), India (4,291), Japan (1,200), and Spain (1,000). During the early phase, dams were almost universally considered to be beneficial. In addition to irrigation, shipping and flood control, they provided good, generally well-paying jobs during the construction period that, on the big dams especially could last years.

In India, the most vociferous protest against the construction of big dams has been in Gujarat over the construction of Narmada Sagar and Sardar Sarovar Dam. The 92 metre high Narmada Sagar, the second highest dam of the many large dams on the Narmada and the Sardar Sarovar Dam, the highest dam in Gujarat have led to tens of thousands of activists protesting against the construction of these huge dams. The protest is one of the several led by activists in the last 15 years. Since its inception, the project has faced several economic and legal obstacles.

 

Displacement through Dams

 

Central to the anti-dam movement is the belief that dams displace large number of people, and that the benefits of dams cannot compensate for this removal. The Narmada Bachao Andolan deserves universal support for the representation of the interests of the displaced, regardless of their number. It is fashionable these days to contend that a very large number- 50 million of people have been displaced by the construction of 3,300 big dams in India since independence. It is this number that got the glitterati's juices flowing, and everybody in the chattering class is today an expert on the horrors of big dams. Critics of big dams have maintained that big dams are to a nation's development what nuclear bombs are to its military arsenal. They are both weapons of mass destruction. But are dams really as bad as nuclear bombs, all those displaced from their homes will agree with this. Moreover the issue of compensating displaced people remains. Approximately 22,000 population of Harsud was asked to leave without completing the land acquisition process. Many are yet to get cash compensation. To top it all, the resettlement site is not ready even with the minimum of amenities.

 

The Tehri Dam is being built displacing 30,000 families on a site which cannot be protected by any known technology. There are no safeguards in place to protect either construction workers or those who are ousted by the works. In 2004, the Mayawati Government in Uttar Pradesh, which used the dam as a political bargaining chip, confessed in a confidential memo that there was no way the dam's tunnel could be made watertight. Experts have concurred that such is the nature of the terrain that the dam cannot be reinforced by concrete plugging as the unfortunate labourers attempting to do. Yet, political compulsions appear to dictate that this ill-fated and dangerous project will stay on course regardless of the consequences.

 

Human right activists object to large dams mainly on the ground that it violates the rights of those displaced. Consider Tehri Dam, they say that the human rights of the tribals will be violated if they are forcibly displaced.

 

However, there is another side of the picture as well. Consider Bangladesh, which suffered disastrous floods in 1987 and 1988, which killed thousands and displaced millions, such floods would occur again and again. The only way to stop this human tragedy is to build giant dams upstream on the Brahmaputra and Meghna. The proposed Dihang and under-construction Subansiri projects on the upper Brahmaputra will be among the biggest in the world. The two projects could generate 20,000 MW of power and irrigate millions of acres in Assam. They will reduce flooding in Assam and Bangladesh by several hundred square kilometres in a rainy year.

 

May be so, but what about the rights of the millions in the flood plains of Assam and Bangladesh? Should lakhs of tribals in Arunachal Pradesh have a complete veto over dams that can prevent death and misery on a massive scale in the plains? Is the displacement of tribals in the hills a bigger issue than the displacement of millions by floods in the plains? Thus, it seems there are several moral dilemmas and any blanket condemnation of large dams is harsh.

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