A recent study carried out by a team of experts and political figures found that increasing the height of the Narmada dam in India would submerge a much larger amount of land than had been officially estimated. Team member Soumya Dutta, an environmentalist and energy expert, warned that it would lead to a humanitarian disaster “worse than the Nepal earthquake”.
Last year, the Gujarat state government had approved a height increase of the dam from 122 to 139 meters provided that people whose lands would be flooded were compensated and rehabilitated (their consent to the increase was not taken into account). The new study’s findings call for a re-evaluation of the number of people that would need to be recompensed. When the dam was first contextualized in 1999 it was planned to be only 88 m high. Multiple Supreme Court rulings over the years have allowed a series of height increases, to the dismay of activists.
India’s long-contested Narmada Dam raises troubling conundrums for anti-poverty advocates. The dam is the second largest in the world after the U.S. Grand Coule Dam. It has provided drinking water, irrigation water, electricity and flood protection to thirty million people in drought-prone and underdeveloped areas. The government has lauded it as a steppingstone that would lift millions of people out of poverty.
But the dam has also inundated 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land, disrupted the river’s ecology and repeatedly flooded surrounding areas during the monsoon season. People who depend on this land and river are from India’s poorest and most discriminated against communities- Dalits, or untouchables, and tribals. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced without their consent and given neither adequate compensation nor rehabilitation.
Annie Raja, another member of the research team and general secretary of National Federation of Indian Women, emphasized that large-scale corruption and mismanagement surrounds the dam project. Rehabilitation sites often have no water, electricity, schools or hospitals. Thousands of families have received no compensation at all so far.
But the Supreme Court of India ruled in 2000 that the benefits of the dam “are so large that they substantially outweigh the costs of the immediate human and environmental disruption”, citing a ratio of 100:1 of beneficiaries to affected people. It maintains the position that sacrifices have to be made for development- whether people agree to them or not.
Through the troubled history of the Narmada Dam, activists have argued that the long-term so-called benefits of the dam do not stand up to scrutiny. Degrading the environment exacerbates food insecurity. Intensifying the plight of India’s most vulnerable people deepens inequality and makes it harder for them to climb out the poverty trap. Turning a deaf ear to people’s concerns weakens democracy.
Moreover, dams do not last forever. Eventually, reservoirs silt up, and huge amounts of money go towards maintaining them. Some dams have to be removed altogether after a few decades. More than a thousand dams have been taken apart in the last century in the U.S. alone. Reservoirs are also hugely detrimental to the environment. Worldwide, they account for an astounding 4% of all human-made climate change. The resulting fluctuations in weather patterns are highly detrimental to those who depend on the land for their livelihood.
Since the 1980s, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or Save Narmada Movement, has carried out mass protests and hunger strikes. Activists have refused to leave areas there were to be flooded. This grassroots pressure forced the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was lending money to the Indian government for the dam’s construction, to conduct a review of the project. It decreed that it did not meet its environmental and resettlement guidelines and withdrew its loans in 1993. While the Indian government has managed to raise money from other sources to cover the costs of the dam, the same concerns remain.
The controversy surrounding the dam raises more philosophical questions about India’s future. As Arundhati Roy, a famous Indian author and winner of the Booker Prize, asks, who owns this land; who owns its rivers- the government or the people who live off it? Can the lives of people be pushed through a cost-benefit analysis machine for the sake of overall “development”? Should the environment be sacrificed to help secure to livelihood of millions of people?