Sustainability: Dam(ned) if you do, Dam(ned) if you don’t!

India’s newly elected government has reopened a festering ecological debate by accepting to raise the height of Sardar Sarovar Dam by 17 metres. The dam built on picturesque and culturally rich Narmada River was witness to a globally well publicised environmental movement during the 1980s and 1990s.
The dam has had a chequered history. It was conceived during the 1950s and the work could start only during 1980s. The cost escalation was huge and now the latest addition of another 17 metres will further escalate it.
When the dam was planned the area was thinly populated and it could have been easy to complete the task. However, with the delay of decades the population has grown and so have the complications.
The multi-purpose dam with its reservoir and power plant will serve four states including Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Millions of farmers in water stressed areas will receive precious water and electricity. But the flip side of the project is, it will submerge huge tracts of fertile land and forests and will also displace two hundred thousand people.
Those opposed to raising the height of the dam (they were opposed to the dam per se during the anti dam movement) say that the rehabilitation of those displaced earlier hasn’t been completed yet. Secondly there is not enough land left to rehabilitate the locals who are mostly tribals or small farmers.
However, the pro-dam lobby says the benefits of raising the height far out-weigh the negative consequences mentioned by those who are opposing it.
There is no doubt that every government in the last three decades in India has been caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of large dams. Whether it is a dam on Narmada River or in the Himalayas people in general and experts/ environmentalists in particular look at it with whole lot of suspicion.
They are not entirely to be blamed for such views as their fear for displaced as well as ecology are well founded. Hydro power developers throughout the country over the years have shown scant regard for any environmental law. Also the compensation to the displaced has been haphazard as well as ham-handed in many cases.
The projects have been delayed and the contractors have flouted all the norms of building. They have destroyed slopes, constructed poorly aligned roads, used dynamites indiscriminately and thrown the debris in the river channels.
All the efforts by locals and environmentalists have fallen on deaf years. The government has been able to browbeat them both in the court of law as well as on the ground. A small section in media has fought the losing battle for these brave men and women.
Due to being bulldozed by superior monetary and executive power of business and ruling elite has created a sense of resentment among people and the general feeling that has emerged has been — dams are trouble.
However, both the developers and environmentalists alike have been equally responsible for fuelling this quiet resentment among a large section of the society where the dams have been planned or are being constructed.
While the dam lobby insists on building as many dams as they can, the anti-dam activists are adamant that no dams should be built. Truth, however, lies in between the two extremes of no dams and indiscriminate damming.
It lies in the painful reality of a population struggling to make ends meet and an environment which is under severe stress. Close to 400 million people in India don’t have access to electricity. The rest 800 million who have access to it, are facing long outages. In such a scenario electricity is needed. However, another problem that plagues the country is lack of land. Growing population pressure has led to a situation where land is at a premium and every inch is important. Each time people are displaced, new land for their rehabilitation becomes an issue.
With such a chasm between needs and the constraints to meet them some hard choices are bound to be made. According to Stockholm Conference Resolution, poverty eradication is the primary objective of every national government.
Taking that as the guiding principle the government and the environmentalists as well as the stakeholders, in the regions where potentially disruptive development is going to take place, should sit together and deliberate on the issues.
The first question that should be asked – Do we need electricity? If yes then what is the ideal way of going about it? Coal fired power plants will destroy precious forests. Nuclear power is inherently dangerous due to radiation fears. Solar and wind are infirm and depend on the vagaries of nature. Hydro power is detrimental of ecology and also leads to displacement of people.
With this kind of options what should the society do? Should they bring down their electricity usage by remaining frugal in their lifestyle? Should we leave 400 million in darkness to save ecology? Or the society should go for higher efficiency technologies to utilise existing energy supply in an optimum manner and whether they will be enough to deal with the crisis?
Once the way forward has been decided and a decision is taken that yes some dams are needed then the second debate should be how many dams are enough? Given the population and the state of ecology and the impact each dam has on the long term health of the ecology their numbers should be decided upon. Once decided the numbers should be locked for the next 30 years.
In the third stage it should be debated if there are new technologies available that can decrease the ecological impact during the time of construction? If yes than will they escalate the cost of the project and by how much? When these issues are settled then bids should be invited and all the regulatory procedures should be followed in letter and spirit.
The environment impact assessment and environment management plant should be strictly adhered to during the construction period. As most of the developers have lacked in following the rules laid down by the government, it is here that maximum vigil would be needed. This is a bane not only in India but in all the developing countries where private as well as government contractors tend to overlook rules and cut corners to save cost.
The time has come to realise that old ways are not going to work anymore. Intransigent positions by business and conservation lobby will only lead to suffering of a large number of people caught in their crossfire.
Electricity is needed and if dams can provide it so be it. The thrust of both the conservationist and the developers should be that the project is being built according to the laid down rules and regulations with minimum ecological impact. This way they can achieve the elusive goal of inclusive and sustainable development.

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About indiadynamic

mediaperson worked for TWI, TVI, Dainik Bhaskar, UTV and Hindustan Times in all the divisions print, TV, radio and internet
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