The Price of Development



In his 1954 speech, during a ceremony commemorating the Bhakra-Nangal dam project, Jawaharlal Nehru famously referred to dams as the “temples of modern India.” A few years on, he revised his opinion, saying that such developmental projects reflect "a disease of gigantism." More than sixty years since then, the history of dams and irrigation projects is marked by stories of development—benefits for people, irrigation, and agriculture—that are eclipsed more often than not, by stories of social and ecological conflict, displacement, disaster, and corruption.

Join us on this interactive tour and chart the discourse on multipurpose river valley projects in India.


The history of multipurpose river valley projects and dams in India can broadly be understood in three phases: the period of political thought emphasising development and self-reliance in the years following Independence (1950s-1960s) under Nehru’s leadership, scaling up of dam construction in various parts of the country in the 1970s and 1980s aimed towards varying uses such as flood prevention, drought relief, irrigation for agriculture (green revolution), water security, and electricity generation, followed by organised protests against projects primarily on grounds of ecological and social impact starting in the mid 1970s.

The conflict over dams and multipurpose river valley projects is only one example of a range of conflicts over natural resources in contemporary India involving largely two stakeholders: industry/commerce and subsistence farmers. The most significant movements have been the struggles led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Madhya Pradesh (MP) against the Narmada river valley project, the opposition to the Tehri dam and the Vishnuprayag project in the Garhwal Himalayas, and the protests by tribal groups against Koel Karo dam in Jharkhand in the 1980s.

Under the present neo-liberal market-driven paradigm of development, hundreds of irrigation, industrial, mining, and infrastructure projects are being proposed. As and when they materialise, the social, cultural, and ecological landscape of both urban and rural India is likely to be permanently transformed.

Despite this, the debate on dams has not really become part of the policy discourse in India. What are the different positions in this debate?

Given the complex trajectory of these development projects as mapped in our timeline, three broad positions may be identified in the debate around large dams in India: one, that there is nothing wrong with big dams; two, that the huge social costs are paid by one section while the benefits accrue to others; three, that small projects may prove to be a viable alternative, but development often comes at the cost of ecology.
Click on each perspective to know more





“I look upon the Bhakra-Nangal project as a university for training our technicians and labourers in undertaking and completing [the] project for national development.” From Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech at the inauguration of the Bhakra-Nangal Canal, Amrita Bazar Patrika, 9 July 1954

Development projects are seen as symbols of national progress in the policy discourse. In the early years after Independence, large multipurpose river valley projects aimed to complement political independence with self-reliance. They were intended to provide perennial irrigation, reduce floods, generate hydroelectric power, and supply potable water.

The primary driver behind these projects in India has been the need for irrigation in large parts of the country that are dependent on agriculture. One of the main components of the green revolution in the 1960s in India was the diversification of irrigation sources, with dams playing a major role in the same. The long-standing project of the Government of India to interlink rivers is a related one, which aims to manage water resources effectively so as to relieve both flood-prone and drought-prone areas of the country. Aside from providing water security all year round, the river interlinking project is also seen by proponents to provide a fillip to water transportation, interstate trade, as well as broadening of income sources in rural areas through growth of industries like fishing.

Over the last fifty years, India has invested substantially in dams and related infrastructures, and ranks third after USA and China in the number of large dams. 5254 large dams are in operation in the country currently and another 447 are under construction (As per National Register of Large Dams) (Central Water Commission nd).
There are multiple benefits of dams in terms of electricity generation, industrial and domestic water supply to villages and cities along the canals.
India has been a major player in hydroelectric power development with an estimated total hydropower potential of 660,000 TWh/year.
Dams also have the potential to generate employment opportunities, facilitate skill development, increase income and consumption levels, alongside standards of living and improvement of infrastructure. Thousands of people are employed not only by the main project of the actual construction of the dam, but also in allied and ancillary industries like cement, steel, earth moving, etc.
Kumud Bhushan Ray | 1949
Ramaswamy R Iyer | 1989
Shiv Visvanathan | 2000
Pradip Baijal, P K Singh | 2000
J Bandyopadhyay, B Mallik, M Mandal, S Perveen | 2002


“The theory that ‘development’ entails ‘costs’ and that this is a ‘sacrifice’ that some must accept in order that others might benefit must be recognised to be disingenuous and sanctimonious; it must be firmly abandoned. Pain and hardship imposed by some on others cannot be described as a sacrifice by the latter…” Ramaswamy Iyer, Towards Water Wisdom: Limits, Justice, Harmony

Most development projects, including dams, redefine land use patterns. Even though carefully planned and executed development projects have been instrumental in the faster economic growth of the nation, they have often also proved to be destructive.

It is true that the massive river valley projects of the 1950s—the Bhakra–Nangal, Tungabhadra, Hirakud, and Rihand—met with little opposition despite displacement of tens of thousands of people (Gadgil and Guha 1995). But over time, the actual experience of these communities in terms of inadequate compensation, poor quality of new lands, and unfamiliar and hostile surroundings, has changed this.

Over 11.5 million people had been displaced by development projects in India without being properly rehabilitated in the last three decades of the 20th century alone (Gadgil and Guha 1995).

The Upper Krishna Irrigation Project (the reservoir and two major dams), for instance, displaced about 3,00,000 people (Parasuraman 1999:167).

Environmentalists and social activists have been sceptical about the sincerity of governments at both the state and the centre at various times because governments have had a poor record in implementing rehabilitation programmes in projects. For example, though the government of Andhra Pradesh came out with a resettlement and rehabilitation policy in April 2005, no consultations were held with the people from the submergence area.

The annual budget allocation of Rs 300 crore for the year 2004-05 did not even explicitly mention rehabilitation activities.

The controversy has been around questions of the vast submergence of houses and farmlands, a low benefit–cost ratio, and the loss of livelihood. There have been umpteen number of instances of ex parte land allotments in Gujarat villages where oustees have been allotted lands that are stony and uncultivable due to water logging, salinisation or grass. There have also been serious lapses in the basic records of oustees’ families, displacement and resettlement.

To add to the people’s woes, gram panchayats and local mandal parishads often do not have any information about the extent of submergence or what government plans have in store for them. The growing agitation by civil society groups against land acquisition for various projects now mainly questions the privilege of the state to acquire lands or properties of people under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, in the name of “public cause”. They also question the “public purpose” of many projects, proposed or executed by the private sector or even by the public sector, given that the proposed benefits of projects often do not reach the intended beneficiaries (Sharma and Singh 2009). Most significantly, they challenge the projects on the basis of their violation of the right to life of tribals and marginalised farmers.


A 1990 World Bank paper on watershed development had also concluded that in India, "erosion and [reservoir] sedimentation are not only severe and costly, but accelerating.” Excerpt from Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, by Patrick McCully, Zed Books, London, 1996

Given the vast catchment area of dams and their reservoirs, there is bound to be a loss of biodiversity and wildlife. There exists a significant risk of water pollution and loss of aquatic life; not to mention the submergence of heritage.

When discussing the ecological impacts of hydel projects, an important distinction needs to be made between developed and developing societies within the country. While an argument for bringing development to the “hinterland” holds massive electoral currency, the introduction of this development to areas that have hitherto lived a subsistence lifestyle (for example, farming for their own consumption) poses significant ecological risks. Local populations downstream are likely to prosper but at the cost of making the environment unstable and unsustainable.

The NCA [Narmada Control Authority] reports that compensatory afforestation has been completed in 42,064 acres of land in Gujarat, MP and Maharashtra. But field assessments on 1,242 acres of land have determined that 86% of the afforested areas are found to be highly degraded with little or no tree cover (Parasuraman, Upadhyaya, and Balasubramanian 2010).
Then, there is the major question of seismological feasibility. Dams are often built-in active earthquake areas such as the Himalayas from where several major Indian rivers flow. Large reservoirs can also trigger earthquakes due to change in stress caused by the weight of water or by increased pressure weakening the rock under the reservoir. The earthquakes can further destabilise unstable slopes that have already been weakened by the rise in ground water levels and lead to increased cases of landslides. Loss of control over water supply can have disastrous consequences for areas of human settlements. Factors such as soil erosion and silting of the river beds upstream of the dam can also cause devastating floods.

Whether on cost, irrigation, or power generation, calculations speak against the building of more dams. The amount of land irrigated is less than double the land lost to submergence and water logging. The cost of such inefficient irrigation runs to 10 times the cost of local watershed development. Once we factor in soil degradation, loss of forests, biodiversity, and livelihood; spread of diseases and geological instability, even the proposal of a large dam appears questionable (Aravinda 2000).

Curated by Sohnee Harshey

Editorial inputs: Abhishek Shah and Shruti Jain

Design inputs: Vishnupriya Bhandaram and Gulal Salil