The Financial Case against big Dams

MEDHA PATKAR has not been able to stop the Sardar Sarovar dam from being built, or tribal villages from being submerged. But her dogged agitation has led to Japan and the World Bank withdrawing from financing the dam. Indeed, she has buttressed the campaign of the now-powerful global greens against all big dams. The chances are that the World Bank will never finance a big dam again. Bilateral donors look like withdrawing too. This means that no new large projects are likely in India in the foreseeable future.

This will be celebrated not only by deep greens but also by environmental moderates like me, who feel that many large projects in the past have been disasters but still think that big dams can work in suitable conditions. My main objection to new behemoths is that they will divert scarce resources from the far more urgent task of improving and rehabilitating the existing irrigation system. At a time when state governments and the centre are broke, money for irrigation must be used where it yields the highest returns in a short period. That means completing ongoing projects and rehabilitating old, crumbling systems.

The Sone Canal is almost fully silted, depriving Bihar of a major source of canal irrigation. Waterlogging affects large canal areas in the black cotton soils of central India, as well as in the command area of the Sarda Sahayak. Punjab and Haryana suffer from waterlogging and salinisation of soil in some areas even as the water table falls in others. Many old canal systems are in disrepair, and farmers at the tail ends get no water at all. These are the areas where remedial measures will yield dramatic returns for modest investment. By contrast big projects take decades to complete, and their economic returns are uncertain. A recent World Bank review of past projects that the actual returns were one-third to half the original estimates.

ONGOING PROJECTS: In many ongoing projects the main canals are ready but the command area has not been developed by building subsidiary canals. Completing these systems will yield huge gains at low cost, since most of the necessary investment has already been made. Around 5 million hectares of irrigation potential is not yet utilised. It would cost Rs 22,500 crore to create this much new irrigation capacity, but less than a tenth as much to implement works which will ensure full use of potential. So we must abandon ambitious new projects and stick to rehabilitating old canals and completing ongoing schemes.

Human rights activists may find my attitude disgustingly money-minded: they object to large dams largely on the ground that it violates the rights of those displaced. But it seems to me that not building large dams can also violate human rights. Consider Bangladesh, which suffered disastrous floods in 1987 and 1988, which killed thousands and displaced millions, and will recur again and again. The only way to stop this human tragedy is to build giant dams upstream on the Brahmaputra and Meghna.

The proposed Dihang and Subansiri projects on the upper Brahmaputra will be among the biggest in the world. The two projects could generate 20,000 MW of power and irrigate millions of acres in Assam. They will reduce flooding in Assam and Bangladesh by several hundred square kilometers in a rainy year.

However, all deep greens will oppose these projects since they will displace perhaps 70,000 tribals. Besides, they lie in an earthquake-prone zone, though not quite such a seismily dangerous one as the Tehri dam. Activists will say that he human rights of the tribals will be violated if they are forcibly displaced.

DISPLACEMENT: Maybe so, wt what about the rights of the millions in the flood plains of \ssam and Bangladesh? Should 70,000 tribals in Arunachal Pradesh have a complete veto over lams that can prevent death and misery on a massive scale in the plains? Is the displacement of tribals in the hills a bigger issue than the displacement of millions by floods in the plains? It seems to me there are several moral dilemmas here, and any blanket con-demnation of large dams is fundamentalist.

I think I am on surer ground in pointing to the financial realities. Neither India nor Bangladesh has cash for such projects, even if they could overcome their political differences.

The little cash India has must be used where it gives the most additional irrigation at the least cost. For years state governments have charged so little for canal water that they cannot cover even the costs of canal maintenance, with the result that canal systems are crumbling. Tamil Nadu has not revised its water rates for 30 years, and most northern states have not revised their rates since the 1970s. The Irrigation Commission suggested that irrigation costs should be 5 per cent of the value of food crops. In fact, according to the Vaidyanathan Commission, the ratio is between 1 and 2.9 per cent for most states, and only 0.1 per cent for Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. There is an urgent need to step up-canal rates five times or more. And the extra revenue must be used for improving existing systems, not in new mega projects.

What do you think?