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Bhakra Nangal and the Green Revolution

Letters

Bhakra Nangal and theGreen Revolution

T
his letter has been prompted by A Vaidyanathan’s review (December 3, 2005) of the Manthan (Shripad Dharmadhikary) study of Bhakra Nangal (BN). There have been very few ex post facto reevaluations of completed irrigation and multi-purpose projects in this country. The Manthan study of BN then is a pioneering venture and is to be welcomed.

Coincidentally, there was another such study at about the same time – by R Rangachari under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Research (published by Oxford University Press). While the findings of the Manthan’s study are unfavourable, Rangachari’s research comes to favourable conclusions about almost all issues of the project. It is interesting that both the studies arose from a common starting point. In the context of the prolonged and fierce controversy about big dams, which intensified after the publication of the Report of the World Commission on Dams in November 2000, both Rangachari and Dharmadhikary independently decided to choose Bhakra Nangal, a project that had acquired iconic status, for an ex post facto study to see whether it did indeed conform to the popular perceptions. Both claim to have made an effort to distance themselves from the biases that might arise from their past affiliations and to have attempted an objective study. It is necessary to consider the two studies together in a comparative manner.

Dharmadhikary points out that BN antedated the green revolution (GR), while Rangachari explicitly refrains from commenting on the GR. Nevertheless, the provision of irrigation water was part of the GR strategy, and the nexus between big irrigation projects and GR cannot be denied. GR did bring about dramatic short-term gains, but many adverse consequences emerged in the longer term. Today, the former lustre of GR stands somewhat dimmed. My point is that a part of the criticisms of GR must apply to large irrigation projects as well. Assuming that Dharmadhikary understates the role of BN in the GR and that it was in fact a more significant contributor to the agricultural transformation of Punjab and Haryana than he thinks, the question is: was that a good thing, to be commended without qualification?

The argument that a dam cannot be blamed for the consequences of bad agriculture is not wholly valid; the provision of abundant water from a reservoir does facilitate bad agricultural practices (water-intensive crops, wasteful use of water, etc) and leads to certain consequences (waterlogging, salinity). If one must give credit to big projects for increased agricultural productivity, then they must also share a part of the blame for bad agriculture. (Incidentally, the emergence of paddy as a dominant commercial crop in Punjab and Haryana was an outcome of the increased availability of water from BN or from tubewells or both. This in turn leads to an ever-growing and unsustainable demand for more irrigation water.)

Meanwhile, there seems to be no disagreement on the point that there has been heavy mining of groundwater in Punjab, and that as the availability of groundwater declines sharply, agriculture in Punjab faces a crisis. Prima facie, this seems to indicate that the exploitation of groundwater (in excess of natural recharge and recharge from canals) played quite an important role in agriculture in Punjab. If so, it seems to follow that water from BN must have played a smaller role than generally believed, even if it was not as small a role as Dharmadhikary argues.

RAMASWAMY R IYER

New Delhi

(Continued on p 80)

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Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006

Letters

(Continued from p 2)

Electricity Reform

T
he special issue on ‘Global Experience with Electricity Reform’ (December 10, 2005) has punctured the myth that problems in the power sector are merely waiting to be solved by the (supposedly) simple expedient of creating competitive markets for electricity. Those who claim that domestic consumers in particular stand to gain from “open access” need to take note of this special issue. I would like to add the following comments: (1) It may be oversimplified and teleological to conceptualise a “standard model” for power sector reform (represented by the current UK model) and then consider the steps taken in different countries in terms of the degree of movement towards it. The creation of some markets, which may help to optimise capacity utilisation, and with some scope for competition, especially between generators, does not have to be an allor-nothing process. That apart, there was a case for breaking the State Electricity Board (SEB) mould (and for privatising distribution utilities where possible) in the interests of more accountable and transparent management. Open access in distribution and retail competition though were certainly not among the conscious objectives with which nine SEBs from Orissa to Delhi were unbundled before the Electricity Act, 2003 was enacted.

(2) It is not correct to say (‘Of Rocks and Hard Places’, Dubash and Singh, p 5249) that in Delhi “each bidder was guaranteed at least one company”. Six bidders were shortlisted, of which four were still in the field when the final bids were invited; the stipulation that no bidder would be allotted more than two of the three Discoms did not imply a guarantee. Further, there was no commitment to privatise all or any of the Discoms, and the government retained the absolute right to reject any bid. There was no question of such a guarantee even after the bids were opened and it was found that there were only two bidders.

JAGDISH SAGAR

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    Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006

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