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DEVELOPMENT-INDIA: Poor Pay Social Costs of Big Dams Without Gain, says Global Report

By Meena Menon

MUMBAI, India, Oct 12 (IPS)- The hundreds of big dams built by India in the past half century have boosted national food and industrial production, but at a cost paid by the poorest, says a new study backed by both supporters and critics of multi-purpose river schemes.
The survey was sponsored by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), which has been set up by governments, aid agencies, non-governmental organisations and anti-dam movements from across the world, to review the gains and losses from the world's 45,000 large dams.

The India study is one of several country studies, which are helping prepare the WCD global report to be released in November. The India report, made available to IPS, has advised India to build big dams only if the benefits can be spread evenly among the people.

The WCD is funded by industry, governments and aid agencies. It has held nine public hearings on six continents and listened to experiences of 120 people from 68 countries, regarding 1,000 dams. Although the Indian government did not permit a WCD hearing in the country two years ago, it subsequently became a member of the global forum.

''Large dams...must only be implemented if they also serve the cause of equitable distribution of resources, wealth and opportunities,'' says the India country report prepared by a team of Indian experts.

According to the study, India's big dams have played an important role in increasing farm productivity, power generation and industrial water supply. However, they also had negative social and environmental effects, specially the eviction of a sizeable part of India's population from its ancestral home.

India has more than 4,000 large dams of over 15 metres height as defined by the International Commission on Large Dams.

Nearly two-thirds of the people displaced by multi-purpose river valley projects, are either tribals or members of the socially oppressed 'scheduled castes', who have the lowest incomes among the country's poor.

These groups had to bear a disproportionate share of the social costs of big dams, considering that tribals and scheduled castes make just one-fourth of the Indian population, the report notes. The big dams have been specially harsh on indigenous people, who are less than a tenth of India's population, but made up nearly half of those displaced by the projects.

''There seems no justification for the imposition of costs on millions of innocent tribals and other rural people, who lose even the little they have in order to benefit those who already have more than them,'' says the report.

The irrigation benefits of big dams are reaped by farmers and others in the command areas and the costs are borne by ''society at large, the taxpayers and the project affected people,'' it adds.

The report estimates that on average, each big dam in the country has submerged nearly 5,000 hectares of forest. In the last 20 years, big dams are estimated to have swallowed up some 9.1 million hectares of India's forests.

The study notes with concern that most of these schemes were not required to internalise the costs of preventing or minimising their harmful impact. It expresses greater worry over the Indian government's inability to enforce compliance with project conditions.

Moreover, the process of environmental impact assessment (EIA) of big dams was subjected to political and administrative pressures, it says. ''Pressure is brought upon the professional project consultants to prepare EIAs in a manner such that the project is cleared,'' it says.

India is estimated to have spent about 919 billion rupees (20 billion U.S. dollars) in the past 50 years on irrigation schemes. Most of these were linked to dams. However, India's big irrigation schemes have run up heavy financial losses, with annual operational losses of more than 30 billion rupees (680 million dollars) in 1993-94, the study estimates.

The report also expresses worry that the safety aspect of big dams has been generally neglected by planners. ''In dam after dam, it has been observed that the required attention is not being paid to this very serious aspect of dam appraisal,'' it points out.

Environmental clearance for big dams was made compulsory by the government 22 years ago, and ''that also more as a matter of policy than a statutory requirement.'' It became a statutory requirement only six years ago. More than 2,500 of the large Indian dams were begun before the year 1978.

''Consequently, for these 2500 plus large dams, no assessment was required to be done of their social and environmental costs or viability nor was there any attempt to prevent or minimise most of the adverse impacts,'' says the study. (END/IPS/ap-dv-en/mm/mu/00)



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