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For developing countries , big infrastructure such as buildings, industries, and dams are synonymous to development-the bigger the infrastructure, the more developed a country looks. In the same vein, the first prime minister after independence in India, Shri Jawahar Lal Nehru, had a dream of building dams across large rivers in India. He believed that dams were the temples of modern India and would bring prosperity to rural India through the Green Revolution. The prosperity Nehru envisioned did come to some parts of India.
The Narmada River flows through central India for 1,290 kilometers and divides north and south India. The Narmada Dam Project, another of Nehru’s visions, involves construction of a series of dams on the Narmada to support increasing demand for water for irrigation (especially in drought-prone areas of India) and to produce hydroelectricity. Although the idea was first conceived in the 1940s, the project did not begin until 1979.
The government plans to build 30 large, 135 medium, and 3,000 small dams to harness the waters of the Narmada and its tributaries. The height of the largest dam, named the Sardar Sarovar Dam after the first home minister, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, has led to a controversy. With a height of 163 meters it will be the third highest dam in India. The dam is also located in an area with high seismic activity. Social issues, such as relocation of people and allocation of land, add to the concerns about this dam.
Groups that support the building of the dam maintain that the plan would provide large amounts of water and electricity, which are desperately needed for development in the region. Some of the benefits expected from the implementation of the Sardar Sarovar Project are: irrigation, increased drinking water supply, power generation, and some employment. After submerging some agricultural land, it is estimated that building of this dam will allow irrigation of about 1,792,000 square kilometers of land. The water will be spread to about 3,393 villages in Gujarat (75 percent of this area falls in drought-prone areas) and to about 730 square kilometers in the arid areas of another state, Rajasthan (mainly a desert area, but agriculture has flourished where water has been brought in). The dam will also produce electricity and provide drinking water facilities to about 8,215 villages and 135 urban centers in Gujarat.
Although there are benefits to this dam, there is still resistance to its development. The Narmada Bachao Andolan, or Save Narmada Movement, questions the basic assumptions of the Narmada Valley Development Plan and believes that the costbenefit analysis is greatly inflated in favor of building the dam (and development) and that the plans are based on untrue and unfounded assumptions about the hydrology and seismology of the area. The opposing group believes that the planning of the project does not take all the environmental factors into consideration. They also feel that the construction is leading to large-scale abuse of human rights and the displacement of many poor and underprivileged people who will lose both their land and their livelihoods.
The Sardar Sarovar Project controversy ended up in the Supreme Court of India in the form of a lawsuit decided on October 18, 2000. In a two-to-one majority judgment, the Supreme Court allowed immediate construction of the dam up to a height of 90 meters. It further authorized construction of up to 138 meters in increments of five meters, subject to approval by the Relief and Rehabilitation Subgroups of the Narmada Control Authority. This unfettered clearance from the Supreme Court, despite major unresolved issues on resettlement, the environment, and the project’s costs and benefits, was seen as disturbing, especially considering the fact that the World Bank has withdrawn some project funding based on new facts.
A memorandum to the executive of the Operations Evaluation Department (OED) of the World Bank, leaked in 1995, admits serious shortcomings in the environment, resettlement, and rehabilitation components, the project’s appraisal, and supervision performance. The evaluation supports most of the conclusions of the Morse Commission on environmental issues and resettlement of people, and rates the World Bank appraisal and supervision as unsatisfactory. Citing problems with the resettlement process, the OED states, “substantial obstacles still remain.”
The World Bank had imposed basic conditions such as identifying the number of people to be displaced and completion of resettlement plans, which were supposed to be fulfilled as far back as 1985. On the issue of resettlement, the evaluation reveals that World Bank conditions, which the government of India failed to meet in March 1993, have still not been met. This will cause further delays in dam construction.
In spite of the court ruling allowing construction to proceed on the dam, the struggle continues. Leaders of Narmada Bachao Andolan, most prominently Medha Patkar, insist on their principles of justice, human rights, democracy, and equitable and sustainable development. In 2006 Patkar and others went on a massive hunger strike. The court and government proceeded with the project nevertheless.
The survival of a project of this sort, with its lack of international support and great local controversy, demonstrates the political and ideological momentum of dam building itself and the complex relationships between mastery of rivers, nationalist ideology, and resource politics.
- Patrick McCully, Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams (Zed Books, 1996);
- Sanjay Sangvai, The River and Life: The Story of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Earthcare Books, 2002);
- D. Souza, The Narmada Dammed: An Inquiry into the Politics of Development (Penguin Books India, 2002).