Column : Dammed if you do, and if you don?t?

There has always been a question mark against the Tehri dam project. It was planned with Soviet assistance and they had…

There has always been a question mark against the Tehri dam project. It was planned with Soviet assistance and they had a yen for huge electric projects since the days Vladimir Lenin produced the Gelro electrification plan. If mountains came in the way, they would be blasted. Rivers had to be tamed and so it went on. Mikhail Gorbachev was to admit that bad policies had led to irrigation growth becoming negative.

I am supposed to be a big dam man since I planned Sardar Sarovar. I am not. I support good projects that need careful work. The benefits have to be carefully worked out, not on paper but assuming normal behaviour by normal peasants. Soils have to be analysed to see if they will sustain the water and drainage has to be modelled and provided for. Not an acre of land should be allowed to waterlog. Above all, the fewest possible people should be displaced. They should be looked after not by irrigation engineers who are not good at it, but by professionals supervised by mentors.

The planning of Sardar Sarovar Project met all these tests and so I supported it. I chaired a civil society group and argued against the Ken Betwa Link Project because its own data showed that more than two-thirds of the soil was unsuitable for deep irrigation even as it provided for 60% irrigation of rice. I have seen flood irrigation damage the black soils of Malwa. When the concern was raised by Indira Gandhi, I vowed to stop it if I could.

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In the 1990s, Tehri was an enigma to me. I got suspicious because the design and location of the dam was changed more than once and the target of irrigation remained the same. This is strange and can only happen under very unusual circumstances. I later found out that the hydrology and seismicity of the project were done badly and there really wasn?t any rehabilitation plan.

Soon, I was to become the Union power minister. I asked my senior, Hanumantha Rao Garu, to chair a committee to build a real rehabilitation plan for the project-affected persons. He was to enumerate them properly, build up a rehabilitation plan and identify independent systems to implement and monitor the process. He did so and my argument with him was over why he did not provide land for land. To this, his reply was that in Gujarat, on account of fast growth, a shift was taking place away from agriculture so land was available. But in the Shiwaliks and the northern Gangetic plains, if land was found for the oustees there would be secondary displacement, so alternative livelihoods would need to be planned for, which he did methodically.

On seismicity, a lot of work had to be done and we entrusted it to the prestigious Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology.

It was to cost crores since models needed calculations outside the country, but it had to be done. I am not quite sure what happened to these reports, since I left the government after accepting them.

There was a strong activist movement against the Tehri project led by Sunderlal Bahuguna. Officers and contractors couldn?t keep up with him, and he would go on fast. I would take a helicopter and go down and assuage his concerns. The press would carry the story of Bahuguna gently chiding Alagh the next day, but he would break his fast. The trips were a bonus for me because Delhi is enough to give anybody a headache and Tehri is beautiful. Meanwhile, we got the project authorities to do small things like being generous to the hill people on Dussehra and building a memorial for the legendary Swami Ram Teerth who had led the Congress in Telangana in the late 1940s and had also come to Tehri. The other good thing was that, unheralded, an architect had produced a beautiful new Tehri town. I suggested it was an ideal place for a university and a hill campus was set up there.

The big questions on Tehri apparently still remain. As per press reports, when activists raise these, they are side-stepped. The hydel power Tehri will produce is probably very valuable, but a lot has to be answered for and provided for before we get there. The sooner we begin, the better off we will all be. But my experience in life is that nobody likes a good dam, for it takes a lot to projectise it, more to build it and we really don?t seem to have the discipline to go by the rules we set down when we give the go ahead. Meanwhile, it would be wise to recognise that even the Russians do not follow Soviet rules any more and we never followed them.

The author is a former Union minister

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First published on: 21-07-2010 at 20:30 IST