The first Prime Minister of India had a fancy for things big and beautiful. Since he had a sway over her people his dictates were generally not questioned either in politics or in the economic development of the country. It was more so as his intentions were never doubted. His overall picture of the nation was adored by the intelligentsia and the common man alike.
The results of his handling of the situation at the time of the partition, of the foreign policy inclining left to the centre, of resorting to the building of huge plants (specially steel plants) in the public sector with the aid of the west, of continuing water resources in the hands of the government, of bringing power generation to the public sector and of many other such things could not be visualized during his tenure. The taste of their failure or success has stuck on the palate of the nation during the last six decades.
It has now been realized that the huge ambitious plants in the public sector have not yielded as much results as the public exchequer has invested in them. That is the story of the investments in the industrial sector. They have indirectly taxed the common man. But the story of the big dams is a bit different. The government had to spend a lot as it did in nationalized industrial projects.
The Bhakra Nangal dam of Punjab, the Damodar Valley Project of Bengal and Bihar, the Hirakud dam of Orissa and Nagarjunsagar dam in Andhra Pradesh were considered the grace of the Nation and the new places of pilgrimage as Nehru put it. In the huff of the things it was never envisaged what harm they would bring to the people who would lose their hearth, and to the ecology that would affect the whole surroundings.
The concentration of water resources in huge dams in the USA the USSR and other American and European countries has not affected the ecology of those countries much. As they have abundance of land as compared to thin population the denudation of forests in the dam area did not bring any natural calamity there. As the land was not much utilized and was mostly uninhabited the people did not lose their hearth.
But it was not a very wise step to copy the west. India has already a very small area of forests. Big dams rather ate these forests up. Losing the forests meant thinner rains. With the forests we lost the flora and fauna too. It affected the balance of animal life in the country. The forests in the country were already cut by contractors aided by forest officers. Dams gave a new spurt to these activities. They are still being denuded in the tribal areas. The movement of Bahuguna, later on supported by Baba Amte and organized by Medha Patkar against the Narmada Dam was based not on emotions but on these solid grounds. The thinking has come to maturity
The second aspect is of no less significance. The people who were uprooted from the dam area were given paltry sums as compensation. They had to leave their traditional homes and were deprived of their agricultural land. It was a great human tragedy as many became bonded laborers. A very large number of people had to go to big cities to be lost in hubbub as petty workers. Girls were subjected to flesh trade. The city dwellers and the high ups in the government could not and did not realize this great human tragedy of the common man.
The movement against Narmada dam brought these two factors to the fore. The agriculturists are not satisfied with the monetary compensation. They ought to have been given land. The government was not in a position to give them land. They were not ready to be forlorn as their predecessors were.
The big dams have not been economic too. The returns in the term of monetary gains to the government have not been in proportion to the investment. Moreover the dams have been against the very spirit of cooperative efforts by the people themselves according to their needs as proposed by Mahatma Gandhi. If we take only one example—the Damodar Valley Project has not served the agriculturist in Bihar as it ought to have.
The river water is not available to them as it is locked in the dam. The land having slopes the rain water flows down the sea together with fertilizers when there are heavy rains. It is necessary to have a large number of small earthen dams at different levels which may check this loss and supply water later on. There are such, similar or different situations in different areas in the country. The dam plans should neither be huge, nor centralized but diffused according to the need in different regions. Let us look according to our needs, not from the western perspective.