By: Sneha V.
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
– Edward Abbey.
Dams are good. Dams create hydroelectric power. Dams provide irrigation. Dams reduce rainwater dependency. Dams improve agricultural ability and alleviate rural poverty. They prevent flooding. Or so your sixth-grade textbook says. Oh, the sheer irony.
India has over 4000 dams, placing it third in the world after the United States and China. Graphically speaking, this is what it looks like:
As of 1999, we had 4291 dams, with an additional 695 under construction (Agarwal, Narain and Sen, 1999). In India, it is estimated that reservoirs have displaced some 21 million to 42 million people (Bartolomeand Mander, 2000). All these figures are at best only careful estimations, and include mostly those whose homes and/or lands were flooded by reservoirs: millions more are likely to have been displaced due to other offshoots of dam projects such as canals, powerhouses, and associated compensatory measures such as nature reserves. That, just to give the readers a clearer idea of the numbers, is the entire population of Mumbai plus a substantial (if not entire) chunk of Delhi being politely asked to leave their homes, or else they will, well, drown. And what do our forsaken millions get for it? According to the Land Acquisition Act, the Government is not legally indebted to offer displaced persons anything but cash transfers. Cash transfers to tribes who, prior to being told to pack their belongings and head off into the sunset, have had no concept of money. And so they move. With no forests with fruit and no river to fish, they have to learn how to live all over again. From scratch. Zero.
Take a moment to imagine what that would feel like.
Nehru already addressed this minor hang-up in the ‘50s: it is for the “greater good”. What has the “greater good” then, so remarkably, and if I may, so generously, achieved?
We have substantially increased landmass under irrigation. Wonderful, you say. Does that translate into increased agricultural productivity, which is presumably the eventual aim of any development project? Here is where the data gets noisy. There is no source of data available that can say for sure whether or not dams do lead to a substantial increase in agricultural produce. Esther Duflo tried it, , and here’s what she has to say: “Those living in the vicinity of the dam fail to enjoy any agricultural productivity gains and suffer from increased volatility of agricultural production. Our poverty results also suggest a worsening of living standards in the district where the dam is built; though limited data availability for the poverty outcomes limits our ability to wholly disentangle the poverty impact of dam construction from district-specific time trends in poverty, which re-correlated with geographic suitability for dams.” Flippant estimates gauge an increase of 14 million tonnes of food grain due to dam construction in a country that produces over 500 million tonnes and loses 12 million due to poor storage facilities. Marvellous. Would not the lakhs of crores spent on building our dams be better invested in rainwater harvesting and food grain storage?
I’m not even going to begin talking about the ecological time bombs our dams are.
So then, why do we build dams? On the basis of a myth? Because of what our geography textbooks say?