Sardar Sarovar Dam
The And what a story it is:
"People say that the Sardar
Sarovar Dam is an expensive project. But it's bringing drinking water to millions. This is
our life-line. Can you put a price on this? Does the air we breathe have a price? We will
live. We will drink. We will bring glory to the state of Gujarat."-Urmilaben Patel,
wife of the Chief Minister of Gujarat, speaking at a public rally in Delhi in 1993.
"We will request you to move from your houses after the dam comes up. If you move it
will be good. Otherwise we shall release the waters and drown you all."-Morarji
Desai, speaking at a public meeting in the submergence zone of the Pong dam in 1961.
"Why didn't they just poison us? Then we wouldn't have to live in this shit-hole and
the government could have survived alone with its precious dam all to itself."-Ram
Bai, whose village was submerged when the Bargi dam was built on the Narmada. She now
lives in a slum in Jabalpur.
In the 50 years since Independence, after Nehru's famous "Dams are the Temples of
Modern India" speech (one he grew to regret in his own lifetime), his footsoldiers
threw themselves into the business of building dams with unnatural fervour. Dam-building
grew to be equated with Nation-building. Their enthusiasm alone should have been reason
enough to make one suspicious. Not only did they build new dams and new irrigation
systems, they took control of small, traditional systems that village communities had
managed for thousands of years, and allowed them to atrophy. To compensate the loss, the
government built more and more dams. Big ones, little ones, tall ones, short ones. The
result of its exertions is that India now boasts of being the world's third largest
dam-builder. According to the Central Water Commission, we have 3,600 dams that qualify as
Big Dams, 3,300 of them built after Independence. Some 1,000 more are under construction.
Yet one-fifth of our population-200 million people-doesn't have safe drinking water and
two-thirds-600 million-lack basic sanitation.
Big Dams started well, but have ended badly. There was a time when everybody loved them,
everybody had them-the Communists, Capitalists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists.
There was a time when Big Dams moved men to poetry. Not any longer. All over the world
there is a movement growing against Big Dams. In the First World they're being
de-commissioned, blown up. The fact that they do more harm than good is no longer just
conjecture. Big Dams are obsolete. They're uncool. They're undemocratic. They're a
government's way of accumulating authority (deciding who will get how much water and who
will grow what where). They're a guaranteed way of taking a farmer's wisdom away from him.
They're a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting
it to the rich. Their reservoirs displace huge populations of people leaving them homeless
and destitute. Ecologically, they're in the doghouse. They lay the earth to waste. They
cause floods, water-logging, salinity, they spread disease. There is mounting evidence
that links Big Dams to earthquakes.
Big Dams haven't really lived up to their role as the monuments of Modern Civilisation,
emblems of Man's ascendancy over Nature. Monuments are supposed to be timeless, but dams
have an all too finite lifetime. They last only as long as it takes Nature to fill them
with silt. It's common knowledge now that Big Dams do the opposite of what their Publicity
People say they do-the Local Pain for National Gain myth has been blown wide open.
For all these reasons, the dam-building industry in the First World is in trouble and out
of work. So it's exported to the Third World in the name of Development Aid, along with
their other waste like old weapons, superannuated aircraft carriers and banned pesticides.
On the one hand the Indian Government, every Indian Government, rails self-righteously
against the First World, and on the other, actually pays to receive their gift-wrapped
garbage. Aid is just another praetorian business enterprise. Like Colonialism was. It has
destroyed most of Africa. Bangladesh is reeling from its ministrations. We know all this,
in numbing detail. Yet in India our leaders welcome it with slavish smiles (and make
nuclear bombs to shore up their flagging self-esteem).
Over the last 50 years India has spent Rs 80,000 crore on the irrigation sector alone. Yet
there are more drought-prone areas and more flood-prone areas today than there were in
1947. Despite the disturbing evidence of irrigation disasters, dam-induced floods and
rapid disenchantment with the Green Revolution (declining yields, degraded land), the
government has not commissioned a post-project evaluation of a single one of its 3,600
dams to gauge whether or not it has achieved what it set out to achieve, whether or not
the (always phenomenal) costs were justified, or even what the costs actually were.
The Government of India has detailed figures for how many million tonnes of foodgrain or
edible oils the country produces and how much more we produce now than we did in 1947. It
can tell you how much bauxite is mined in a year or what the total surface area of the
National Highways adds up to. It's possible to access minute-to-minute information about
the stock exchange or the value of the rupee in the world market. We know how many cricket
matches we've lost on a Friday in Sharjah. It's not hard to find out how many graduates
India produced, or how many men had vasectomies in any given year. But the Government of
India does not have a figure for the number of people that have been displaced by dams or
sacrificed in other ways at the altars of 'National Progress.' Isn't this astounding? How
can you measure Progress if you don't know what it costs and who paid for it? How can the
'market' put a price on things-food, clothes, electricity, running water-when it doesn't
take into account the real cost of production?
According to a detailed study of 54 Large Dams done by the Indian Institute of Public
Administration, the average number of people displaced by a Large Dam is 44,182.
Admittedly, 54 dams out of 3,300 is not a big enough sample. But since it's all we have,
let's try and do some rough arithmetic. A first draft. To err on the side of caution,
let's halve the number of people. Or, let's err on the side of abundant caution and take
an average of just 10,000 people per Large Dam. It's an improbably low figure, I know,
but... never mind. Whip out your calculators. 3,300 x 10,000 = 33 million. That's what it
works out to. 33 million people. Displaced by big dams alone in the last 50 years. What
about those that have been displaced by the thousands of other Development Projects? At a
private lecture, N.C. Saxena, Secretary to the Planning Commission, said he thought the
number was in the region of 50 million (of which 40 million were displaced by dams). We
daren't say so, because it isn't official. It isn't official because we daren't say so.
You have to murmur it for fear of being accused of hyperbole. You have to whisper it to
yourself, because it really does sound unbelievable. It can't be, I've been telling
myself. I must have got the zeroes muddled. It
can't be true. I barely have the courage to say it aloud. To run the risk of sounding like
a '60s hippie dropping acid ("It's the System, man!"), or a paranoid
schizophrenic with a persecution complex. But it is the System, man. What else can it be?
50 Million People