Who takes decisions for large Dams?
How? Why? Who profits? Who pays?
Many questions, few answers
“At the dawn of independence India relied, wistfully, on her high dam-builders… During this TVA phase of India’s economic development, a well-known Indian engineer used to proclaim 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 a dam and the millions of cubic yards of concrete poured.”
Sudhir Sen (The first Chief Executive Officer of the Damodar Valley Corporation, called India’s TVA by many) A Richer Harvest: New Horizons for Developing Countries, Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co New Delhi, 1974
The above quote is remarkable for a number of reasons. It should be noted that Sen belonged to the mainstream official group of people that were at the helm during the first decade after independence in 1947. So this is not coming from somebody outside the system. Secondly, the “well-known Indian engineer” that Sen described here is Ayodhya Nath Khosla, who can be safely described as the first Engineer in Chief of Independent India (this title is used just to describe his position, it is true that no title like that existed). And lastly, the dam that is referred in the quote is the most famous icon of India’s dam building history, the Bhakra Dam.
The quote above is also remarkable because it in a nutshell reflects a reality about political economy of dam building in India. The people who took decisions about large dams in the initial years after Independence got away with a whole series of decisions about building large dams, for which they did not have to answer any questions. Sen goes on to say about Khosla and company, “That many engineers in India if left to themselves, like to build monuments to themselves regardless of the time and cost involved is a commonplace of history. India had yet to discover this.” These are strong words coming from someone who occupied a very senior position in the scheme of things then. What this means is that many of the decisions about the large dams were not taken on merit and that people who took the decisions were not answerable in any real sense of the term. Well known scientist of W Bengal, Meghnad Saha said in Parliament in 1954 about AN Khosla, who was the first chairman of the Central Water, Irrigation and Navigation Commission, “The chairman of the CWINC was combining in himself the functions of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar. He drew up the designs, he executed the schemes himself and as Secretary he passed the whole thing himself.” But the responsibility for the decisions about these projects do not rest with Khosla alone. The politicians, the bureaucrats and the various other institutions were equally responsible for the decisions that lead to water resources development being centered around large dams. The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself said on Nov 17, 1958, while addressing the 29th annual meeting of the Central Board of Irrigation and Power, “For some time past, however, I have been beginning to think that we are suffering from what we may call, disease of gigantism. We want to show that we can build big dams and do big things. This is a dangerous outlook developing in India…. the
idea of having big undertakings and doing big tasks for the sake of showing that we can do big things is not a good outlook at all.” It is another matter that Nehru could do little to reverse the trend of unaccountable decisions.
The trend that was thus established in 1950s has continued till today as far as decisions about water resources development is concerned. Nehru’s grandson and the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously said in 1986 while addressing a conference of Irrigation Ministers, “The situation today is that since 1951, 246 big surface irrigation projects have been initiated. Only 66 out of these have been complete; 181 are still under construction. Perhaps, we...
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