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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 32, July 27, 2013

An Introduction to the Issue of Dams

Sunday 28 July 2013


by Saurabh Mishra

Modern Temples of India by Radha Kant Bharti; National Book Trust, India; 2011; ix+173; Rs 90.00 (Paperback); ISBN 978-81-237-6335-4.

The book starts with contextualising the need of a large number of dams for a country like India. The Indian geography and climate compel the policy-makers to think of strong and efficient regulation and management of rain and river water through numerous large and small multipurpose dams on rivers.

The urge for freedom from dependence on monsoon rains for food and energy security to the extent possible led to dam construction in India. The author informs that more than 4500 dams have been constructed in India after independence and this helped the country to become free from the deadly clutches of famines which used to occur frequently in pre-independence India. These dams in a way deserve compliments for keeping life moving at a modern pace by generating electricity and providing water for irrigation. The ancient natural sources of energy and water—the sun and the rains—have been worshiped as god; so these huge artificial constructs of concrete keeping life on the move by sheltering and providing electricity should be called, in the words of Nehru, the “modern temples of India”.

Water management, in future, is going to be more important for a country like India. Hence, the study of the dams of India becomes vital. The book contains twentyfive chapters in all. The first three and the last chapter of the book discuss the important contextual dimensions and the need for dams in India. The need and impact of water resource development have also been described in the second and third chapters. The author says that the dams provide a dependable source of clean water, tourism, recreation, improvement in wildlife and ultimately prove a multiplier of socio-economic benefits. According to him, dams are preferable due to their environment-friendly nature in production of electricity compared to other sources like thermal power plants. He argues that hydropower dams are generally located in the remote inaccessible areas of the country and these help provide modern facilities improving the quality of life in those areas. He also regrets that the pace of hydropower development has been slow in India identifying the difficulties in investigations, R&R problems, long gestation period, delayed land acquisition, funds constraints and geological surprises as the main reasons for the current state of the affairs.

In this book, the author deals with and describes a total of 21 major and medium dam projects in India. He asserts: “It has now become essential to review hydro potential of major/medium schemes of India, and to bring out the most realistic features of major/medium hydro sites by making use of updated hydrological, topographical and water utilisation data.”

In the last chapter of the book, the author deals with the debate on the success, efficacy, efficiency and benefits of large dam projects. Once the “temples of modern India”, despite their success in many aspects like energy security, food security and flood control, these dams are no longer beyond criticism. Many rivers are facing extinction and even the economics of large dams have been questioned in the long term due to the lowering of the water table downstream, damage to soil health and adverse effects on the ecosystem. He says that only few projects are built keeping these aspects in mind. The United States, which has 5500 dams, has stopped building dams. He refers to the fact that the US has demolished 465 of its dams to keep the rivers and their ecosystem alive.

As regards the debate on the issue of large and medium-size dams, the author tries to find a solution in the construction of small projects and dams. Even this does not seem to be appropriate as the Central Water Commission engineers and planners currently hold the view that “construction of dams on main rivers is the correct solution for the development of irrigation and power in the country”.

Finally, the author appreciates the achievement, development and socio-economic improvement initiated and sustained by the dams of India, but is well aware of the other side of the story in the long run. He himself calls the book descriptive in nature rather than based on any problem. The book with its structure, approach and content as well as plenty of data is apparently informative rather than exploratory or enquiring; making it a concise introduction to the subject it deals with. This book can be used as an introduction for the students who plan to study the subject in detail.

The reviewer is with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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