By Saurabh Bhatia
The construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam was approved on the Narmada in 1987, with 10 dams being constructed on the main river along with 20 more on its tributaries. The Sardar Sarovar Dam is a critical resource that provides water for irrigation as well as hydropower for the industrial sector in Western India. Since the 1980s, various political arguments have arisen regarding which sections of society have to pay the costs and enjoy the benefits of the dam construction. The construction of the dam was put off for several years due to this dilemma, and was finally approved in 1987.
Sustainability Issues: Major Environmental Impacts
The construction of the dam has major environmental implications on the surrounding areas, because it requires large amounts of land to be cleared to provide the space for building.
- Over 53,000 hectares of forest area was decimated, including deciduous forests that are valuable for firewood and forest byproducts.
- The habitat of endangered species such as the tiger and wolf were destroyed, bringing them closer to extinction
- The surrounding areas faced risks of water-logging and salinization, which can decimate agricultural crops.
The economy of states such as Haryana and Punjab depend on agriculture; salinization and water-logging problems have the potential to cripple the economy of these states
Political, Economic and Social Context
The construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam is an example of a development project, which is supposed to benefit all members of a society as opposed to only a few powerful actors. When it was initially proposed, it promised to bring advantages to millions of people while only displacing a few. However, the distributions of benefits were not equitable because influential actors in society such as the government and industrialists cornered the benefits of the project.
- The local people, adivasis, who were promised opportunities to develop due to the rehabilitation aspect of the project, were not fully compensated for their loss in natural resources and culture.
- This situation resulted due to a flaw in the 1979 Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, which was set up to protect the rights of the people being affected by the dams construction.
- Instead of protecting their rights, it ended up costing them because many of the affected people did not fit the definition of “oustees”, which would entitle them to compensation. Therefore, a majority of the adivasi population suffered because they received absolutely zero compensation.
Besides the economic impacts, other ways the marginalized population suffered was culturally: Many of the resettled people were compensated with land in far off regions, which forced them to move out of their homeland, where their families had thrived for many decades.
- This had an adverse impact on familial and social ties that these people had established over many years.
- In India, almost every state and district is unique, with its own set of languages and cultural practices. When relocated to a different region, the resettled population had to learn new languages and adjust to the new culture, which could take years to get used to.
- To summarize, it is a major inconvenience for resettled people to thrive in a location they do not have any prior experience living in.
The main group set to benefit from this project is the manufacturing sector, which utilizes almost 70% of the electricity generated in the country.
- Industrialists have a massive need for electricity as well as the most influence to guarantee they enjoy the benefits before other actors in society.
- Farmers are also set to benefit; however, the distribution of water property rights among the discussed farmers is not equitable.
- Farmers who use capital-intensive techniques and are at the primary end of the command area will receive the irrigation benefits first.
- The farmers in the non-primary areas will not have the same access to sources of irrigation, despite the fact that both areas are vulnerable to drought conditions.
Theoretical Analysis: Why did this happen?
The case of the Sardar Sarovar Project can be analyzed using the economic and social aspects of Mohai et al’s Environmental Justice theory.
- The economic explanation argues that the industrial sector and government are not marginalizing the affected population on purpose; rather, they are attempting to cut out as much of their costs in order to maximize their benefits.
- The social explanation argues that environmental injustices arise because the powerful actors in society purposely undertake developmental projects in areas where the local actors have close to zero influence in resisting their decisions.
Therefore, according to the 2 explanations, the reason the lands of the adivasis were targeted is because the government expected they could buy it cheaply and face little opposition from them, due to their lack of influence in the decision making process. Since hydroelectricity projects require vast amounts of land, purchasing cheap land can cut out a large chunk of the costs.
In post-colonial India, dams were considered the main tool that could be used to produce cheap sources of electricity. It is more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly to be producing electricity using hydropower instead of coal. In the 1960s, the Green Revolution was taking place; India had an agrarian based economy and the government realized it had to create more sources of irrigation and energy that would be able to support the growing agricultural production. As a result, it was absolutely essential to undertake hydroelectric projects in the country.
Since India is such a densely populated nation, in my opinion, a hydroelectric project undertaken anywhere in the nation would result in a large number of people being marginalized and displaced. It seems probable that the main reason the project was undertaken in the Narmada Valley region is due to the convenience in terms of actually building the dam in that location and having enough water pressure to produce electricity efficiently. I strongly believe the government analyzed these 2 factors as being more important than any other, which is why the dam was constructed in the Narmada Valley region.
It isn’t the fault of the government for undertaking the project in this particular region. There were major flaws in the resettlement scheme, which prevented a majority of the marginalized population from receiving any of the compensation benefits. The main fault of the government lies in the fact that they did not resettle the marginalized population into new areas where they could live a similar life compared to the one they had before being relocated.
A parallel can be drawn with the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and large dam projects that have been undertaken in other parts of the world, such as the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, which caused controversy because of the lack of fair compensation for the marginalized people. Alhassan uses the Akosombo Dam construction in Ghana as an example to prove that large-scale hydroelectric projects cause environmental injustices. However, the dam was expected to play a major role in supporting industrial production and irrigation, despite the fact that it would cause socio-economic and environmental problems. The development needs outweighed any other concerns, which is why the project was undertaken. Therefore, an argument can be made that large-scale developmental projects cause environmental injustices because it is an inherent feature that comes along with dam construction and development, despite the social, political and economic factors present at the time.
Plans for the Future
As discussed above, in order to keep up with the growing need for energy, it is necessary to undertake developmental projects that provide cheap and environmentally friendly sources of energy. However, the process of producing this energy has major environmental, social, and political implications that have to be taken into account. Hydroelectricity is an effective method of producing large quantities of energy, but it isn’t without flaws. In the future, the government and powerful actors need to take into account every single stakeholder who is directly or indirectly affected by the construction of large developmental projects, and ensure that the resettlement and rehabilitation schemes live up to their promise of providing them with a similar lifestyle to the one they were enjoying prior to being resettled.
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 Nilsen, A. G. (2010) The River and The Rage: Dispossession and Resistance in The Narmada Valley, India: CSSGJ, University of Nottingham: 8. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cssgj/documents/working-papers/wp005.pdf
 Khemani, H. (2008) Advantages of Hydroelectric Power Plants. Bright hub. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from http://www.brighthub.com/environment/renewable-energy/articles/7728.aspx
 Alhassan, H. S. (2009). Viewpoint – Butterflies vs. Hydropower: Reflections on Large Dams in Contemporary Africa. Water Alternatives: 148-160: 150. Retrieved April 26, 2016, from http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/allabs/42-a2-1-10/file