The dangers of inevitability

From Himal Southasian, Volume 20, Number 9 (SEP 2007)

Big dams in Southasia

The fight against large dams and the reservoirs they impound is a phenomenon that sparks wherever and whenever the people of Southasia feel empowered enough to resist. And so, the “temples of modern India” of the 1950s and 1960s had by the 1980s turned into targets for attack by people’s movements, environmentalists and cultural activists alike, but not enough by economists and political scientists. This is probably why, as the articles in this issue of Himal indicate, even as high dams make a comeback in India and are bound to make a return elsewhere in Southasia, the overt arguments remain essentially the same and predicated on culture and environment rather than on market value, equity and prior consent. As long as the paradigm of resistance does not base itself on the foundation of economic logic and political organisation, the national and sub-national establishments will continue to ignore, resist or evade the anti-dam activists, egged on by the sheer weight of the demand for flowing water – as the underground aquifers in the plains go dry, and as the demand for irrigation, drinking water and hydropower skyrocket.

Sunderlal Bahuguna, who made waves as leader of the Chipko Movement and as tireless crusader against the Tehri Dam in Uttaranchal, is still up and about. But today, he is treated more as an artefact than a messiah. The rising tide of the Indian middle class has a willing collaborator in the mainstream media, which deliberately drowns out voices that question the building of massive dams. Indeed, Bahuguna was already sidelined by the time the waters of the Bhagirathi rose to engulf Tehri town in 2001. For two months this summer, activists of Sikkim’s upper Teesta were on a hunger strike to block interventions on their river; but their voices were ignored in Gangtok and New Delhi alike. The Narmada Bachao Andolan, representing the pain of hundreds of thousands seems to get grudging attention from mainstream media largely because of the Medha Patkar phenomenon.

It so happens that in order to either impound a reservoir or to have enough of a physical drop to create hydro power, you need hilly terrain. Southasia’s hills, meanwhile, have traditionally been home to marginalised Adivasis and other groups who often do not have enough handle on the estates of state to put up a resistance, using the bureaucracy, courts, media or political institutions. When the politically powerful plains make demands for water and electricity, it is nigh impossible for anyone to resist.

Everything in the developing politico-economy points to enormous pressures on the river systems of the Subcontinent in the days ahead. The rapidly expanding economy of India in particular, and Southasia as a whole, heralds an unrelenting and exponentially expanding demand for water in the coming decades. The populist energising of society will make it impossible for political leaders, bureaucrats and diplomats alike to resist the call from within their own kind for high dams upstream, and the engineers and administrators will goad the process even if the social scientists think otherwise.

The demand from Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh for a high dam on the Kosi River, for example, will only get more strident, even when it is clear that one has also to learn to live with the flood which provides fertility and recedes within days in most monsoons. This clamour rises even as hydrologists point to local structures, local rainfall, local drainage promoting inundation, and hold that floods in the plains cannot be controlled even if all the rivers of Nepal are plugged. Meanwhile, the demand for water for New Delhi and the urban centres of Punjab and Haryana is likely, before long, to force the Nepali establishment to concede on the high dam at Pancheswor on the Mahakali River, which divides Uttaranchal and Nepal’s far west. But amid all this power play, the answer lies not in resisting dams per se, but resisting the pressures to build them without proper valuation. And indeed it is at the altar of valuation that the Pancheswor project is stuck thus far, even after a treaty has been signed.

Imagine the scenario when Southasia’s middle-class economy hits its stride in the years ahead, and the kind of capitalist ethos and political certitudes that will subvert discussion and debate. Can those that oppose big dams resist the pressure that will arise? Will they have the resilience to fight the consumerist steamroller over the long haul? Will the politicisation of mountain society itself be sufficient to fight the insistence of the demand-driven plains? They can, and it is about new vision, ideas and a politics that respects the highland inhabitants and their right to demand market rates for the resources in their command. And the goal of hill activism will be to expand the definition of ‘cost-benefit’ and to insist that the economic, environmental, cultural and social costs are included in the tabulation.

Still with something to say: Bahuguna

Highland vs plains

It is interesting to note that in Sikkim, as in the Indian Northeast, as the national and regional demand for electricity increases, the anti-dam activists hold out the spiritual sanctity of important sites, or put forth the ecological argument. There is no denying the deeply felt bond of the hill people with their sacred environs; but it is equally true that cultural and environmental activism have become an important means to fight back politically against the demand juggernaut. The fact is that Adivasis and other marginalised communities of the hill regions have, by virtue of the terrain they inhabit, become the most proximate owners and custodians of the white water and the renewable energy it represents. Like the Bedouins of Arabia, they suddenly find themselves holding on to this ‘white gold’, even as they as yet lack the capacity to defend their interests against the metropolitan demand. The future of dams and reservoirs must henceforth be decided on the basis of real rather than colonial-era economics.

In the tussle over resources, the metropolis and plains will willy nilly try to short-change the Adivasi and hill communities. They will inundate the elevated valleys to impound water; they will pay a low price for energy that should be purchased for much more; they will try to deny payment for ‘downstream benefits’. And for the establishmentarian economist, Bhutan becomes a paragon of hydropower sagacity, but it is able to export power for two very particular reasons: it is not a democracy; and it sells its electricity cheaply to India. The Bhutanese model of hydropower production is not based on economics, and hence cannot be emulated by Uttaranchal, Nepal or Arunachal.

Undoubtedly, the political confusion in Nepal, coupled with the exaggerated fears of Indian designs on Nepal’s natural resources, has prevented the landlocked economy from benefiting from feeding the Indian power grids. But as the smaller communities within each country have used environmental and cultural arguments, the nationalist rhetoric within Nepal could also be seen as a tripwire mechanism that has kept the country from exporting water before it is politically ready to achieve a strong bargaining stance.

There are water experts in Nepal who consider the existence of the southern market a myth, because of subsidies within the Indian power economy, and for example, its ability to extract cheap power from Bhutan. But there is another side to the developing story, that the Indian economy is changing and paradigms are being turned on their head, with the power bureaucracy becoming more efficient within itself due to globalisation pressures.

On the whole the politicisation of plains which pushes the administrators and politicians to pursue the blind exploitation of Himalayan and other highland water, is being countered by the delayed, but increasing politicisation of hill communities. For now, this politicisation is being propelled by cultural activism and environmental arguments, but to resist railroading and cooption in the long run, the host riverine communities must get savvy on hydro economics, and organise politically to extract the maximum at the bargaining table.

There is therefore a need to redefine ‘market-value’. This means that the cost-benefit of a dam project must, besides the expenditure of building a dam, a powerhouse and a transmission line, include the costs of the impact on the host environment, the siltation of the reservoir, the displacement of the inhabitants, the downstream benefits of stored water and so on. Because siltation will lead to reservoirs getting filled up with sand and detritus and lose their utility within half a century, in the case of many projects, the eventual decommissioning of a dam-reservoir too must be included in the costing.

Then there are the earthquakes to consider. Massive tremors are highly likely in most of the areas where the mega dams are planned, and the central Himalaya is actually bracing for the ‘big one’, according to seismologists. The added cost of constructing a dam resistant to the strongest upheavals of the earth must be a part of dam economics, and plains politicians must consider that a Himalayan dam collapse would kill mostly plains people.

The reasonable plan of action for rivers that the locals consider as sacred watercourses is for the dam-builders not to touch them, and for the inhabitants to raise a storm that makes it impossible to sink a single pylon at the site. The same holds true for river systems whose degradation would be a loss of species or habitat on a regionwide scale. It is also important to decide to leave some rivers free of structures for the sake of esthetics and recreation. But it will be foolish to believe that dams and run-of-river schemes will not be built on most mountain rivers – if not the outsider, ultimately, local forces themselves will move to construct them.

It is also time to learn to reject a high dam for reasons based on sound economics, as happened in the case of the Arun-III project in Nepal more than a decade ago, when environmental activism was a sideshow and the World Bank as the lead agency was forced to back out because it could not defend itself against the economic challenge to the projections. Challenging the projects on economic and political grounds can only make the fight against dams more sustainable.

Practical rejectionism

Those who propose engineering solutions to Southasia’s water woes – including building reservoirs to hold back flood water – forget what by now should be a basic understanding: Himalayan waters carry silt. This is not as a result of upstream erosion, but as a matter geological fact – Southasian mountains erode and generate silt. But dam-building technology and its related ideology were developed during the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and North America, where the rivers carry minimal silt load. The ease with which a dam is proposed in the countries of the north has been transferred through engineering schools to the dam builders of Southasia.

Today, every embanked river of the central Himalaya stands as mute testimony to an engineering folly that should teach us not to reach too quickly for high dams in our highlands. Meant to contain the river waters during the monsoon and prevent flooding, the levees also keep floodwaters outside the embankments from draining, leading to catastrophic waterlogging. Meanwhile, the state of the Kosi’s watercourse, locked in between embankments constructed a half-century ago, should give pause to the technocrats who might want to leap ahead and start pouring the concrete in just about every river valley they espy.

The silt carried down by the Kosi has deposited itself between the embankments, whereas earlier the flood would have spread this silt across the landscape. Every year, when the river bed rose very high, the Kosi would shift course. Now, the deposits of five decades of silt and sand have meant that the riverbed is up to four metres higher than the outlying, densely populated plains of Purnea in Bihar. Allow one massive cloudburst upstream, and a break at a crucial point in the embankment, and the Kosi would not only change course but change the course of history and the map of the Subcontinent.

The Kosi Barrage at least is located on the Nepal-India border, and Indian engineers would ultimately be answerable for a disaster downstream. The same process of siltation is also affecting the Farraka barrage on the Ganga, and this repeat of engineering folly will in all likelihood create a breach that would have massive humanitarian repercussions across the border in Bangladesh.

Boys will be boys, and engineers will be engineers. Not having learnt from the mistakes made in constructing dams, reservoirs and embankments in the past, nor of impoverishment from waterlogging and salination, or of the failure of rehabilitation, the Indian national establishment has been brash enough to promote the idea of a gigantic river-linking scheme that would rope in not only India, but the neighbours. The breath-taking ability to propose such a scheme should give pause to anyone who believes that lessons have been learnt and that dam-building in Southasia is now a ‘science’. Indeed it is not, for unless the issues of social sciences, of equity, marginalisation, identity, and agency are taken into account, big dams will remain toys of the powerful rather than a tool for upliftment.

White water to gold

There will ultimately be many reasons never to build engineering works on certain rivers. These include issues of protection of endangered species, seismic risks, and the overwhelming cultural and religious significance of certain river valleys. More than any other, the reason to resist a dam that comes with a reservoir is that the rehabilitation of the ‘oustees’ is bound to be botched. History has shown us that this is so.

There will be instances where thousands will be displaced and need to be relocated from any particular dam site in order to benefit the hundreds of thousands downstream. But this logic has been turned on its head by the power plays in the existing political economy and the near-absolute failure of oustee rehabilitation. As such, it is impossible to believe that pious promises of rehabilitation made today will be kept tomorrow; and India’s record on rehabilitation in particular is a shame on a global scale. On this, the answer is straightforward: a foolproof rehabilitation package, acceptable to an informed oustee community, is a must before even the first spade hits the ground at a dam site. The provision for penalties against involved individuals and institutions is required to ensure that rehabilitation finally lives up to its commitment all over Southasia.

When all is said and done, with the surging economy of the entire region, it is a given that high dams will invade the highlands of Southasia. It is important, therefore, to resist where the need is felt, but also important not to stick one’s head into the silt of knee-jerk rejectionism. The power of the political-technocratic-industrial complex is so strong that the average mountain community will not be able to resist unless organised with the combined tools of politics, community activism, economics and engineering. Those who believe that a dam should never be built must have the right to express their rejection. But even there, it may be wise to have a fallback position when a dam, in any case, does gets built. The communities may lose the river, but they should be able to recoup fair price.

The market, as it is understood by the leaders of government, business and bureaucracy, must be challenged with the real value of rushing as well as stored water. Today, a second generation of activism and scholarship is germinating, and propelling the discourse. In the future, a project must first justify itself on economic logic, rather than on the flawed calculations of ‘tied aid’, and greed of corrupt politicians, administrators, kickback merchants and contractors. If a high dam is to be built with all the conditions in place, it still must pay market value – as defined by the emergent discourse – for the water and energy that is stored and for the downstream benefits that accrue. Only then can Southasia’s white water be considered white gold.

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