The dam debate

Print edition : February 05, 2016

A view of the Tehri dam in Uttarakhand. A June 2013 photograph. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

The anti-Tehri dam movement and other voices from the Himalaya.

FOR centuries the Tehri town sat on a silt bank, at the meeting point of the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana rivers—the rivers that join to build the body of the Ganga.

The Tehri town that I travelled to in November 1991, immediately after the Uttarkashi earthquake, does not exist any longer. It was not felled by the strong earthquake that measured 6.1 on the Richter Scale. Its drowning started 10 years later in 2001, when the diversion tunnels of the Tehri dam were finally shut.

The new Tehri town is on higher ground. The confusion and madness of an organically grown township is no longer there. This town has houses, businesses and schools set neatly along the hill slopes. But somewhere it misses the spirit that comes from centuries of living history and culture.

The Tehri dam is not just another dam. It holds a 260-metre-high wall of water in the Garhwal range of the Himalaya, which is highly vulnerable to powerful seismic activity. The top of the dam is at a height of more than 700 metres from sea level. Hence, the risks involved in the event of a dam failure are far greater than in the case of other dams.

This is why the people’s movement against the construction of the Tehri dam attracted national attention in the 1980s and the 1990s. The charisma of Sunderlal Bahuguna, the leader of the anti-dam movement and his many long-drawn but unsuccessful hunger strikes, also made headlines. Bahuguna was a leader of the Chipko Movement, which was launched to protect the Garhwal forests in the 1970s, and thus added continuity to the narrative of environmental movements in the country.

Hanna Werner’s The Politics of Dams: Developmental Perspectives and Social Critique in Modern India is a study of the anti-Tehri dam movement and the people’s protests that it spawned in the Garhwal hills, set within the framework of the development debates in colonial and independent India. Werner, an academic from Germany, travelled in the Garhwal ranges while researching for this book between 2008 and 2010.

The protests against the Tehri dam and the Narmada dam dominated the environmental discussions in the country in the 1980s and the 1990s. It was also a period of global interest in these two movements and the debates they evoked pitted development against environmental conservation, modernity against traditional values, and the state against communities.

Even though dam projects continue to raise the same issues today, they make a weaker impact on public consciousness. Hanna Werner writes: “Building dams is still high on the state’s agenda and constitutes a symbol of a certain kind of developmentalism that seems to not have lost much of its appeal since the early days of the large-project boom after Independence.”

According to Hanna Werner, the state’s zeal for dam-building continues from the colonial times into post-Independence decades and into the decades of economic liberalisation. It is a part of a political faith in the “total malleability of nature and the possibility of mastery over it in accordance with human, that is, societal needs. Dams, as gigantic infrastructural monuments signalled the capability of man, more precisely, the state, to announce its modern stance.”

In fact, the allusion to dams as “monuments” has a historical resonance in India, and Werner has used some space discussing it. Inaugurating the Bhakra Nangal Dam project, Jawaharlal Nehru had called large dams the “temples of the new age”. In his speech on July 8, 1954, he said: “As I walked round the site I thought that these days the biggest temple and mosque and gurdwara is the place where man works for the good of mankind. Which place can be greater than this, this Bhakra-Nangal, where thousands and lakhs of men have worked, have shed their blood and sweat and laid down their lives as well? Where can be a greater and holier place than this, which we can regard as higher?”

Gandhian way

In the first post-Independence decade of the 1950s, dam-building was India’s statement to the world that it had arrived, not as a colonial serf but as a modern nation state. Nehru’s words, however, came to haunt large dams in the 1980s, with environmental activists arguing that these structures were part of the Nehruvian vision, whereas what was needed was the vision of self-sufficiency at the village level that Mahatma Gandhi had promoted.

Thus, much of the alternative vision on water management rested on promoting micro-watershed development at the village level through a combination of soil- and water-conservation interventions. The alternative argument was that if each village took care of its water needs, as and where the rain fell, the country could take care of its water needs. Though smaller structures could have avoided some of the environmental problems and rehabilitation issues, it is a moot point if they together could have had the impact that large dams have.

The large dam discussion, however, was more about positions than engagement. For this, categorising the Nehruvian and Gandhian vision came in handy. “Acts of resistance that happen under the broad label of ‘Gandhian protest’ have mostly received a certain level of appreciation, since the historical legacy of Gandhi’s successful resistance against the British colonisers still allows them an operational space in Indian society which other approaches cannot claim,” says Hanna Werner. “Gandhi’s selective integration into the post-Independence nation building project has been based not least on his claims of an ‘authentic’ Indian modernity that was and still is used to legitimise a critique of a stereotyped modern (here ‘Western’) development.”

Hanna Werner correctly contextualises the nuances of the use of Gandhi’s image and name. The use of Gandhi’s name not only legitimises the approach and methods of the protesters, but it also helps the state to get validation for its development policies.

For the people’s movement in the hills of Uttarakhand, the Gandhian lineage came quite naturally. It is from these hills that Gandhians such as Sarla Behn (Catherine Mary Hellman) practised her social activism and was a philosophical guru to the leaders of the Chipko Movement. The methods of passive and non-violent protest that they used also had a Gandhian heritage.

The only way in which the state could get Gandhian legitimacy for its projects was by claiming that its vision of development was based on an Indian model and not a Western one. Interestingly, the state continues to use Gandhi’s name for legitimacy, even when the political party running the government has changed. The most recent instance was by the present Union government’s justification of its model of development as a preface to its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

A devastating verdict

From Nehru and Gandhi, Werner comes to the crux of the Tehri Dam dispute and how it links to other environmental movements in Uttarakhand and elsewhere in the country. And this boils down to these questions: “What kind of a country do we want India to be? Who defines her shape? Who counts as a citizen within this vision and who does not?”

In September 2003, when the Supreme Court in a 2:1 judgment dismissed the writ petition filed by N.D. Jayal and Shekhar Singh asking for a reconsideration of the safety and environmental aspects of the Tehri Dam, it virtually ended the people’s movement against the Tehri dam. The majority judgment by Justices R. Babu and G.P. Mathur said that the petitioners had not been able to establish that the project work was being carried out without complying with the conditions of the clearances given. Justice D.M. Dharmadhikari, in his minority judgment, wanted a monitoring mechanism to be established before clearing dam construction.

The judgment came 11 years after the filing of the petition in 1992. Jayal and Singh had filed it after the Uttarkashi earthquake of October 1991, which caused grave losses to life and property in the region. The dam project got its conditional environmental clearance in July 1990, and the petitioners were making a last-ditch effort to prevent dam construction. Before the earthquake, two out of three expert committees had submitted their reports questioning the safety of the dam, in 1986 and 1990.

The benefits from the dam project were the generation of 2,400 MW of electricity (final installed capacity), drinking water supply to Delhi, and irrigation support for 270,000 hectares of agricultural land. The rising waters of the Tehri dam drowned not only the old Tehri town but also many villages and their farmlands upstream on the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana rivers. It destroyed the history and culture of these villages and made travel along the valley difficult and cumbersome. One of the questions that the people in the valley asked 20 years ago was why they should bear the burden of meeting Delhi’s water needs.

This is the question that Hanna Werner asks in her book. “The question at stake is not so much what development is or if large dams are an advantageous tool in implementing an otherwise often abstract concept of development, but what people have meant and mean by talking about development in terms of preferred futures. Who gets a voice in defining and/or representing those visions is significant.”

Other protests

Thus, even though the anti-Tehri dam movement died after the Supreme Court judgment, it gave life to many other protests in the country. Also prominent—though not as well reported in the media as the anti-Tehri dam movement—are the protests against blocking and diverting the flow of the Ganga in recent years. Several projects are being planned along the Uttarakhand rivers to turn the rivers into a series of reservoirs connected by tunnels. G.D. Agrawal, an environmental engineer-turned-ascetic, undertook a series of fasts against the projects and in August 2010 got the government to cancel a few dams on the upper stream of the Ganga.

The Uttarakhand floods of June 2013 brought the issue of building dams along the Himalayan rivers back into national consciousness. The floods not only destroyed some of the projects but also brought down sediments and debris from them. The devastation was also greater where tunnelling and construction had disturbed the even otherwise fragile hill slopes.

In August 2013, the Supreme Court asked the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to constitute a committee to examine the linkage between the hydroelectric projects and the floods. The committee chaired by Ravi Chopra submitted its report in April 2014, where it recommended the cancellation of permission given to 23 out of the 24 projects studied.

Hanna Werner’s book brings the discussion on large dams back to the mainstream when the media, academia, the public and policymakers have forgotten about it. Except for a period immediately after the Uttarakhand floods of June 2013, the country has stopped taking cognisance of dam-related conflicts. Even the proposed Polavaram dam in Andhra Pradesh, which would result in the inundation of 276 villages and affect more than 100,000 people, has not found much media and public attention.

Coming at this juncture, Hanna Werner’s well-researched study sheds light on the debates that dam projects continue to generate in Uttarakhand. There are similar conflicts in many parts across the world. Thus, through its Himalayan window, the book also looks at other parts of the world. Hanna Werner writes with academic rigour. If only she had made an effort to write in a style that those outside the social science research fraternity could understand, the book could have reached a wider readership.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger.

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