Why are we still building Large Dams?

Analysis of official information shows that Big dams are not longer necessary or viable or optimal in India. Most (over 95% of India’s 5701 large dams (5264 completed and 437 under construction as per CWC’s National Register of Large Dams[i]) are built for irrigation, but most of our irrigation now comes from groundwater. In fact, about 90% of additional irrigation in last four decades has come from groundwater.

And as far as sustaining India’s groundwater lifeline is concerned, dams do not help but surely harm in multiple ways. The best option for sustaining groundwater lifeline is to harvest rain closest to where it falls and either store it locally or wherever feasible, recharge groundwater. The groundwater aquifer is one of the most benign water storage option and there are other options too including local water storages and even soil moisture.

As far as Hydropower is concerned, from all accounts, it is clear that hydropower is no longer even economically viable, it was never socially or environmentally the best option. The cost of power from any under construction or new proposed hydropower project won’t be less than Rs 6-7 per unit (KWHr) when solar and wind can deliver at less than Rs 3 per unit. These alternatives do not lead to the kind of severe social and environmental impacts that hydropower projects do. Moreover, these alternatives have lower investment requirements, can be constructed faster and closer to the load centres. One of the biggest evidence of this non viability is the almost mass scale exodus of private sector from hydropower sector. The decreasing addition of hydro installed capacity over the last decade is another evidence that shows the hydro dams are coming closer to redundancy.

The peaking power advantage that hydropower projects claim has never been convincing since no agency was even monitoring as to how much of the generation from hydropower projects was during peaking hours, leave aside the question of optimising it. Now with the huge reduction in electricity storage costs, there are better and more economic options for providing peaking power.

Very few dams are constructed exclusively for water supply or flood control objective. And Dams have never been considered smart options for water supply when we are increasingly talking about smart cities. As far as flood control is concerned, existing dams can continue to provide flood moderation benefits provided they are operated with that objective. In reality, wrong operation of dams have increasingly been the cause of dam induced flood disaster, as we saw in Kerala in Aug 2018 and Krishna basin in Maharashtra and Karnataka in Aug 2019, among many others.

In that case, why are we still building dams and irrigation projects? The answer recently came from Shashi Shekhar, former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources[ii]: “… the biggest problem with the country’s water sector was the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus… The interest is not in irrigation but in constructing assets because that is where the money is. All the states have sizeable budgets for this. After all that, the total (canal) irrigated area in the country is 10-15%. So why should it get such vast resources? It does so because the contractor is interested, and there are below the table payments.” He was speaking at the valedictory function of the India Rivers Week at WWF-India in Delhi in Nov 2016.

People’s Movements Many factors have played a role in brining us to this situation, the people’s movements against the dams have played a major role. Narmada is the most celebrated movement. Agitation against Lower Subansiri hydropower project in Assam has been the most recent and spectacular one in being able to stop work on the dam for about eight years and contributing to stopping the large dam virus across North East India. The struggle against Lower Subansiri is also noteworthy for the number of people that came out on roads to stop the dam work. In fact, it was thanks to the power of that movement that no less than Mr Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh had to promise the people of North East India that if they do not want build big dams, government won’t built big dams.

Modi said it on Feb 22, 2014 at election Rally at Pasighat on the banks of Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh, as Down To Earth reported when he took a U turn a year later: Last year on February 22, [2014] at an election rally at Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh, Modi had said that he would prefer smaller hydro power projects in the region, honouring the sentiments of the region’s people. (https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/narendra-modi-takes-uturn-on-large-hydro-projects-in-arunachal-48706)

Another report dated Feb 22, 2014 about Modi’s rally at Pasighat: “Pointing to the hydro-power potential of Arunachal Pardesh, Modi said small projects could be built as the people were opposing big dams that were required for large power projects. “Arunachal Pradesh can light up the entire country. However, the people are opposing big dams but there is no harm building small projects to tap the potential of the state,” he said.” https://www.gulf-times.com/story/382131/Arunachal-an-integral-part-of-India-says-Modi.

“Even senior BJP leader Rajnath Singh voiced his opposition to the mega dam while participating in a protest rally in Gerukamukh in November, 2010.” Both statements also referred here: https://scroll.in/article/691695/bjp-appears-to-be-going-back-on-poll-promise-to-oppose-north-east-mega-dams; Rajnath Singh: https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-india-should-have-water-treaty-with-china-rajnath-singh-1468105; TOI reported on March 11 2016: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/guwahati/AJYCP-accuses-BJP-of-doublespeak-on-mega-dam/articleshow/51354735.cms.

As China’s proposal building Great Bend Hydropower project was discussed earlier in December 2020, India proposed that they would respond by building a 10000 MW hydropower project in Siang. We wrote in detail why this is unwarranted and unnecessary response here: https://sandrp.in/2020/12/23/why-is-india-not-demanding-teia-for-the-great-bend-hydro-proposal-of-china/.

Large dams have sparked people’s movements because of the enormous toll that they take on land, and both human and non-human communities. The movements that truly stand out include those against hydro projects in Koel Karo, Bedthi, Tehri, Athirapally, Silent Valley, and Bodhghat-Indravati, among others.

PMO, however, is pushing for new growth alphabet A for Athirapally, B for Bodhghat, C for Cauvery, D for Dibang, E for Etalin, seems to be the new growth alphabets from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). With the economic growth in negative territory, depression around the corner, the old and trusted formula of Dams as major infrastructure to push up expenditure is being tried. That was the formula used even in 1930s by US president Franklin D Roosevelt to bring the US economy out of the Great depression of 1929, starting with the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of May 1933. It was then pushed as growth model to other countries. In India it came in the form of Damodar Valley Corporation Act of 1948.

However that 20th century model was a failure even then, as the first CEO of the DVC, Sudhir Sen wrote. In “A Richer Harvest: New Horizons for Developing Countries”, (Tat McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1974),  Sudhir Sen, the first CEO of Damodar Valley Corporation wrote (P 86), brimming with caustic sarcasm: “While the DVC was still on the anvil, some Indian engineers got busy to forge their own TVA’s. And some of them proved adept not only in irrigation, but also in political engineering… One example will illustrate the point. During this TVA phase of India’s economic development, a well known Indian engineer used to proclaqim off and on that he was going to build the highest dam in the world, suggesting implicitly a new yardstick for measuring national greatness – the height of the dam and the millions of cubic meters of the congregate poured… That many engineers, in India as in other countries, would, if left to themselves, like to build monuments to themselves regardless of the time and cost involved is a commonplace of history. But India had yet to discover this. Thus, at the dawn of her independence India relied, wistfully, on her highdam-builders.”

In any case, that model is no longer relevant in 21st century except possibly an easy route to corruption and kick backs. In the changing climate scene they are even less relevant. Dams and hydropower projects are seeing slow down across the globe, not just in India.

We all love elephants, but government has preference for white ones, it seems, even in these “unfair and lovely” times! It would be best if the PMO were to not push down reluctant states’ throats this old alphabet wine with new brand names. It won’t help the cause of growth and it will bring huge negative impacts on people, environment, rivers and future generations. It will also possibly bring bad publicity to the government. 

Decommissioning The world, in fact is moving increasingly towards decommissioning of dams. A case study of decommissioning of dams in USA in 2016[iii] noted that since 1912 (till 2016), more than 1,300 dams have been removed across the U.S., and 62 dams were removed in 2015 alone. The case study report “describes the methods used to measure the benefits of dam removal when comparing costs to benefits, including five case studies and a summary of small dams. The case studies illustrate the range of benefits and costs that can be considered, multiple methodological approaches, and a range of locations.”

In India we may have to move towards that sooner rather latter. Some current candidates for decommissioning include: Mullaperiyar Dam in Kerala (operated by Tamil Nadu), Dumbur Dam in Tripura, Loktak Dam in Manipur and Maheshwar dam on Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh. But we are still far away from arriving at a consensus where we can practically start moving towards decommissioning and also include the decommissioning costs and impacts in our clearance calculus.

Dams and Temples Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru famously said dams were temples of modern India. The current government does not have much love lost for Panditji, but loves temples and also dams, though for entirely different reasons. Fortunately, the dams do not get associated with the emotional and religious fervor that current government’s temple agenda does. We are not committing blasphemy by advocating decommissioning of dams in India, are we? After all, prayers can also be offered at smaller religious places?

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)

Note: An edited version of this has been published in Sanctuary Asia in August 2020 issue, see: https://sanctuarynaturefoundation.org/article/india,-dammed


[i] http://cwc.gov.in/national-register-large-dams

[ii] https://www.thethirdpole.net/2016/12/09/politician-bureaucrat-contractor-nexus-biggest-bane-of-indias-water-sector-secretary/

[iii] https://headwaterseconomics.org/wp-content/uploads/Summary-Dam-Removal-Case-Studies.pdf

3 thoughts on “Why are we still building Large Dams?

  1. You have already mentioned the word nexus. Is there any other reason to choose to opt for large dams? Larger project, more time to finish line, more money to be involved, more to find loopholes to be drained and forget environmental damage or local lives lost. Decommissioning means another set of nexus. This corruption has eaten away our country like termites. People awareness is must just like the farmers movement now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the article mentions that we need to work to sustain our groundwater lifeline. Rain Water Harvesting is key, we need to go beyond the lip service we pay.


  2. A well written and thoughtful perspective on the whole issue of dam construction and removal. The current trend seems to be more for the latter option and to manage water resources in a more sustainable manner. Big dam projects are like flies to the honeypot – the resources used to build them would be much better spent on implementing locally-based projects. The Paani Foundation, for example, is doing some incredible work [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8nqnOcoLqE] and projects like its could be be replicated across India. / http://www.rainwaterrunoff.com


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