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Who pays for our giant follies?

By Himanshu Thakkar

In the years following Independence, India's politicians and bureaucrats seemed to have become victims of what Nehru termed the disease of gigantism, building large dams as monuments to themselves. Four thousand large projects later, and despite huge gaps between promises and performance, that tendency continues, reflected in the recent plan to link India's rivers. How are these decisions to promote large dams taken? Who profits from them and who pays?

“At the dawn of independence India relied, wistfully, on her high dam-builders…During this TVA phase of India’s economic development, a well-known Indian engineer used to proclaim off and on that he was going to build the highest dam in the world, suggesting implicitly a new yardstick for measuring national greatness -- the height of a dam and the millions of cubic yards of concrete poured.” So said Sudhir Sen (first chief executive officer of the Damodar Valley Corporation, called India’s TVA by many) in A Richer Harvest: New Horizons for Developing Countries (Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co New Delhi, 1974).

The above quote is remarkable for a number of reasons. It should be noted that Sen belonged to the mainstream official group of people who were at the helm of things during the first decade after Independence in 1947. So this is not coming from somebody outside the system. Secondly, the “well-known Indian engineer” that Sen describes here is Ayodhya Nath Khosla, who can safely be described as the first Engineer-in-Chief of Independent India (of course no such title actually existed). And lastly, the dam referred to in the quote is the most famous icon of India’s dam-building history, the Bhakra dam.

This quote, in a nutshell, reflects the reality about the political economy of dam-building in India. The people who took decisions about large dams in the initial years after Independence got away with a whole series of decisions on building large dams, no questions asked. Sen goes on to say about Khosla and company: “That many engineers in India, if left to themselves, like to build monuments to themselves regardless of the time and cost involved is a commonplace of history. India had yet to discover this.” These are strong words coming from someone who occupied a very senior position in the scheme of things then.

What this means is that many of the decisions about large dams were not taken on merit, and that the people who took the decisions were not answerable in any real sense of the word. Well-known scientist from West Bengal, Meghnad Saha, said in Parliament in 1954 about A N Khosla, who was the first chairman of the Central Water, Irrigation and Navigation Commission: “The chairman of the CWINC was combining in himself the functions of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar. He drew up the designs, he executed the schemes himself and as secretary he passed the whole thing himself.”

But the responsibility for these projects does not rest with Khosla alone. Politicians, bureaucrats and various other institutions were equally responsible for decisions that led to water resources development being centred around large dams. Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself said on November 17, 1958, while addressing the 29th annual meeting of the Central Board of Irrigation and Power: “For some time past, however, I have been beginning to think that we are suffering from what we may call, disease of gigantism. We want to show that we can build big dams and do big things. This is a dangerous outlook developing in India…The idea of having big undertakings and doing big tasks for the sake of showing that we can do big things is not a good outlook at all.” It is another matter that Nehru could do little to reverse these unaccountable decisions.

The trend that was thus established in the 1950s has continued till today, as far as decisions about water resources development are concerned. Nehru’s grandson and then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously said in 1986, while addressing a conference of irrigation ministers: “The situation today is that, since 1951, 246 big surface irrigation projects have been initiated. Only 66 out of these have been completed; 181 are still under construction. Perhaps we can safely say that almost no benefit has come to the people from these projects. For 16 years, we have poured out money. The people have got nothing back, no irrigation, no water, no increase in production, no help in their daily life.” Rajiv Gandhi may have been off the mark on some of those numbers, but he was spot-on about the end result. Unfortunately, these brave words did not get translated into any effective action to counter the situation.

The most glaring example in this regard in recent times is the way the riverlinking scheme is being pushed. There are no feasibility reports for a number of proposed links. There has been no proper consultation with the people; even basic information is still to be made available. No details have been given on the cost assessments, benefits, impact, options… And yet, for over three years, the President of India has been advocating the project. This advocacy began with his speech to the nation on August 14, 2002, and was reflected in his address to the nation on August 14, 2005. The Supreme Court of India too has been pushing implementation of the scheme, though it is clearly beyond its mandate.

Ramaswamy Iyer, former secretary, Union Ministry of Water Resources said in The Hindu, December 14, 2004: “It is necessary to remind the readers that in a sense the President of India and the Supreme Court are the originators of the ILR project. Meanwhile, the President continues to commend the project in his speeches on various occasions, and the Government of India is under an obligation to report periodically to the Supreme Court on the status of the project. Those two factors indirectly act as a kind of pressure on the government…”

When the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was in power, before May 2004, then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, the deputy prime minister, vice-president and concerned ministers all pushed the project that had yet to pass the first stage of due process in decision-making. With the backing of these high functionaries, will the due process be able to consider the project on merit? The answer is clearly a big ‘No’.

When Vajpayee was prime minister he seemed particularly in favour of large dams, as is clear from some of his actions listed below:

  • December 13, 1999: The prime minister lays the foundation stone for the 800 MW Parbati Hydel Power Project (Stage II).
  • June 5, 2000 (World Environment Day): The prime minister lays the foundation stone for the 800 MW Kol hydel power dam in Himachal Pradesh.
  • March 4, 2001: The prime minister dedicates the Thein dam (Punjab) to the nation.
  • 50,000 MW hydropower initiative launched.
  • Task force for the riverlinking project set up.
  • Closure of tunnels 3 and 4 of the Tehri Dam Project ordered, even as affected people still have to be resettled.
  • Support for an increase in the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam, even as affected people still have to be resettled according to legal requirements.
  • Support for Indira Sagar Project that would lead to the displacement of over 100,000 people, including those in Harsud town, and the submergence of over 100 villages, without due rehabilitation.
  • Formulation of National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy that has no legal teeth and is much diluted, compared to the relief and rehabilitation (R&R) norms of, say, the Sardar Sarovar Project.

All these (and other) actions gave a huge push to the big dams cause. When each of these projects involves hundreds of crores of rupees, in some cases thousands of crores of rupees, one begins to understand the kind of benefits and perks that various arms of the government would reap.

Another actor that has been playing an important role in pushing unjustifiable projects through is the World Bank (WB). The WB may have directly funded only a small fraction of large dams in India, but it has played a significant role in shaping India’s policy and programmes on water resources, and pushing for such projects. It has often done so in violation not only of its own policies but of the government’s policies as well. For example, when the World Bank signed an agreement to fund the Sardar Sarovar Project in 1985, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) still had to clear the project from the environmental point of view and the diversion of forest land. In fact, the agreement signed with the Bank and the dues the Indian government had to start paying for the same, were used to put pressure on the MoEF for clearance, even when the ministry explicitly stated that it was not ready to give clearance. The World Bank agreement was used as a certificate of merit to push through various clearances for the project.

The World Bank similarly pushed the Nathpa Jhakri Hydropower Project in India without full consideration of the costs, benefits and impact of the project. It signed an agreement to fund the project in 1988-89 and the consequences of this are evident today -- the project has a time over-run of seven years, and a cost over-run of around 358% over projected costs. Moreover, there are serious problems like flash floods, siltation leading to stoppage of power generation, etc. So much so that the parliamentary standing committee on energy issues, in a report tabled in the Lok Sabha on August 18, 2005, recommended a thorough inquiry into the matter.

The Allain Duhangan Hydropower Project in Himachal Pradesh is another instance where the World Bank (this time, the International Finance Commission [IFC], the Bank’s private sector arm) was found guilty of pushing the project through without adhering to its own norms (in fact, based on falsehoods). In October 2003, the IFC declared on its website that the project would go to the World Bank Board on October 31, 2003, and that all the necessary requirements, including an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and public consultations had been completed. When SANDRP (South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People) and people from the affected villages exposed this as a lie, the project did not go to the Board. But the Bank seems to have learnt no lessons -- it pushed the project through the Board a year later after paying lip service to the people’s concerns. It did not even fully complete the EIA.

One fundamental problem is that there is no participatory, bottom-up decision-making process that can help factor in a sense of openness and involvement of local people in decision-making. Even after completing around 4,000 large projects, there has been no credible, comprehensive assessment of the performance of any large dam project. Both these factors have helped the system continue even in the face of huge gaps between promises and performance.

What is incredible is that the authorities seem to find it difficult to adhere even to the minimal process required today for people to participate in decisions about projects that affect them. For example, the project authorities have been using various measures to scuttle the effective participation of people in the public hearing process -- mandatory since 1997 -- before any large project can be cleared. The quality of most EIAs is shameful. The MoEF, which is supposed to be responsible for these processes, has not only been acting as a rubber stamp, but is often actively involved in helping the project authorities scuttle the due process.

The latest and most shocking instance of this came to light in March-April 2005 when the MoEF gave clearance to the proposed Chamera III and Parbati III hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh. The EIA notification required that the public hearing report for the projects go to the MoEF with inputs from the state environment department and the State Pollution Control Board. However, before the state government could take a decision on these projects, the MoEF gave them clearance, apparently under pressure from the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation. The additional secretary, department of environment, Himachal Pradesh, strongly protested in his letter dated April 25, 2005, to the secretary, MoEF: “These decisions have serious ramifications as it is the state government and inhabitants of the area who have to directly bear the brunt of environment-related problems. Moreover, the role of the state government and the State Pollution Control Board as enunciated in the EIA notification (and related clarifications) and enshrined in Article 48A of the Constitution of India has been apparently overlooked.”

When the report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) was made public in November 2000, there was a golden opportunity to make significant changes in the decision-making process of water and power development projects. However, senior officers at the World Bank worked overtime to ensure that a number of key developing country governments opposed the WCD recommendations. The Bank then used this opposition to justify the non-adoption of recommendations in Bank policies.

The only light at the end of the tunnel seems to be that people are becoming more conscious of the serious adverse impacts of large dams and are opposing large, unjustifiable projects. It will, however, be a long while before this response becomes strong enough to counter the entrenched interests of those who push for large dams.

(Himanshu Thakkar is Coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, and Editor of Dams, Rivers & People)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2005