Who gives a dam?

By Chan Akya, January 05 2007, The South Asian Post:

2 excerpts: … The completion last week of a significant milestone in the construction of one of India’s largest hydroelectric projects, the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River, was greeted largely with indifference in the country and abroad, even though it puts an end to one of the longest-running controversies in the country’s modern history.

The contrast with China’s more majestic Three Gorges project is quite stark, particularly in terms of implementation speed, objectives and methods. The wrenching shortage of physical infrastructure in India cannot be resolved with an ambivalent attitude toward such projects; therefore there is much to learn from the Chinese approach in this matter …

… Primacy of economics: It is ironic to note the egalitarian attempts of India in the context of a deeply divided and unequal Hindu society, contrasting as it does with the substantial wealth imbalances in a nominally Communist Party-run China. The missing variable that explains this gap is not so much the current state of affairs as much as expected future outlook.

In essence, the Chinese have every expectation of and desire for material improvement, for which they are willing to bear small sacrifices at the present juncture, such as a regimented communist government. In contrast, Indians have had a poor experience of growth’s benefits until recently, and thus have greater inertia when it comes to matters of development.

The process of growth becomes easier when people likely to benefit from projects exercise their electoral rights in an equally fervid fashion as those that are likely to lose. In the Narmada calculations, securing the votes of millions of farmers likely to benefit from the irrigation provided by the project would have more than offset the negative voice of the few hundred thousand who stood to lose their livelihoods.

Greater economic growth would benefit even these poor farmers, by providing employment elsewhere. The inability of governments and politicians to communicate the benefits of such growth to their constituents remains a key impediment to India ’s progress.

The dry facts: The scale of the Narmada project pales in comparison with that of the Three Gorges, and yet construction on the former has taken a whole lot longer.

While India took almost 20 years to complete project works on the Sardar Sarovar Dam, China effected completion of the main dams over the Three Gorges in less than 12 years. Interestingly, both projects had a long history – the Three Gorges project was originally conceived by Dr Sun Yat Sen as a cure for controlling the Yangtze River, while the Narmada project was conceived in the 1940s by government officials keen to spur economic development in the western part of the country. (Read the rest on this page of The South Asian Post).

Read also: Deconstructing Narmada, Large Dams in Energy Policy, by Dweep Chanana, January 10, 2007.

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