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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 43, October 16, 2010

Floods and Rivers: Blinded by Arrogance of Technology or Vested Interest?

Tuesday 19 October 2010, by Madhu Bhaduri

The Yamuna, a filthy drain for most of the year in Delhi, comes alive during the monsoon season. This year the river has not only spread itself over a larger expanse, it has driven home a point which many observers and experts have been trying to make unsuccessfully especially before the learned judges: that our rivers cannot be compared with European rivers like the Thames, Seine and Danube, because they are replenished only with the seasonal monsoon rains. Rivers in India shrink and expand seasonally. They require a different surrounding to stay alive. The Yamuna needs its flood plains to accommodate excess water during heavy rainfall, unfettered by built-up areas of immense concrete.

We live in an age blinded by technological arrogance to these simple facts. It has become received wisdom that nature and everything around can be controlled to our advantage, only if enough money is put into structural controls like building embankments and large dams. It would then be safe to expand urban space by building houses, factories, shops, metro stations, and whatever else we want on the flood plains of rivers. This belief has proved to be mutually remunerative for construction companies, governments and bureaucrats with large sums changing hands.

In consequence, despite every legal effort by experts and civil society to prevent encroachment on the Yamuna flood plains by taking the matter to the High Court and Supreme Court, the
issue has been resolved in favour of building permanent structures on the Yamuna flood plains. It is small mercy that the government after building the entire Commonwealth Games Village on the flood plains of the Yamuna now agrees to build no more!

Awareness is gradually spreading that enginee-ring and other structural interference with rivers are usually counter-productive. What was started with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, led by Medha Patkar, more than twentyfive years ago to focus on the enormous human and ecological cost of constructing large dams, reservoirs, canals and embankments, is far more widely acknowledged today. The enormous ecological, human and financial cost of large dams and similar interventions with natural flows of rivers almost invariably far exceeds the projected benefits. The benefits of the energy produced and irrigation facilities increased by large dams is now estimated have achieved not even up to 50 per cent of the projected level. Indeed, the potential achieved is seldom above 30 per cent, as in the case of the Tehri dam. On the other hand the forests destroyed and the soil denuded and the large scale displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of people amounts to massive actual destruction for largely fictitious potential benefits.

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The floods we are seeing today in Uttarakhand, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi press the point that impounding water in large reservoirs, and channeling water through embankment structures hardly help in reducing floods. On the contrary the flood is likely to be more devastating when large quantities of water are released. We are witnessing this being done right now, because the reservoirs have exceeded their capacity. Embankments too have given way in Haryana and Uttarakhand engulfing large areas in utter devastation.

In the USA and Canada legislation is already in place to allow selected rivers to flow in their natural ecological course without structural interference of dams and embankments.

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

The situation is even more compelling for us, because it concerns not only environment but the threat of more ferocious floods.

And yet, apart from the Brahmaputra, the natural course of every major river in India has been interfered with badly, often more than once. Some tributaries even of the Brahmaputra have also not been left alone. It is time that further damage is stopped, and where ever possible is reversed. That the government has reversed its earlier decision of constructing the Loharinag Pala dam on river Bhagirathi in Uttarakhand where construction was in progress, gives some reason to hope that this policy direction will be followed more consistently to cover more rivers. But one swallow does not make a summer, and one decision does not reverse the trend.

There is an even more urgent need to revive the dead and dying rivers and streams. Indeed a beginning has been made with the revival of river Arvari and its tributaries in Rajasthan by the Tarun Bharat Sangh. Rajendra Singh, the founder of the organisation, and experts like Gopal Singh, who understand their environment, have successfully brought back to life the dead streams and literally disappeared rivers. This was done at low financial cost with voluntary labour of the village community.

Indeed, Rajendra Singh and his dedicated team in the last fifteen years have shown an alternative model of water body management and development: One that relies on the expertise of the local people and traditional knowledge. It does not need expensive engineering technology that works against people and nature. And since traditional knowledge is based on local ecology, the new development initiatives have to be decentralised. And yet, while the ground reality supports such a decentralised and people-friendly model, it is unacceptable to our political class and centralised bureaucracy. The big contractors have much to lose directly but the kickbacks percolate to many others opposing it. It appears our policy-makers are not merely dazzled by high technology; they are wedded to it by vested interests. The motivation of money and the show of technology link the two current disasters facing us: the rising flood waters and the sinking national prestige around the Commonwealth Games.

The author is a retired Ambassador.

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