Why belittle Bhakra?
THE Bhakra Dam, Nehru’s temple of modern India, is under attacks from pseudo environmentalists. These self-appointed experts have been, for the past two decades, unleashing a venomous propaganda against India’s major water resource development projects within and outside the country.
They had condemned the Indira Gandhi Nahar Project (IGNP) as a pipe dream, but retracted when the Rajasthan Canal started blooming parts of the Thar desert.
They had prophesied that not a single drop of water from the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) would reach the distant regions of Saurashtra, but when the Narmada waters from the semi-finished Sardar Sarovar Dam gushed to that region they chose to hide themselves ostrich like in the sands of ignorance.
In their newly acquired wisdom, they had even attributed the primary cause of terrorism in Punjab in the nineties to the Bhakra-led Green Revolution!
Though they claim that they are fighting for the sustained development of water resources, it is apparent that their crusades are aimed to ensure their own sustained development and to remain in the limelight for their continued survival.
Irresponsible criticism against such mega projects by self-appointed experts masquerading as environmental activists got a boost in the latter part of the 20th century with the media providing adequate space for such debates.
Chanting the mantra of environment, these self-avowed champions of ecology indiscriminately attacked every developmental effort in the country to get national and international recognition.
The report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), a report specially designed for the “sustained underdevelopment” of countries like India, came handy to them to oppose major water projects in the country then.
The activists have again surfaced now, this time to unravel the Bhakra, to belittle its contribution to the country and to prove that it had brought nothing but disaster to the people.
Quoting the WCD report, they have questioned the very need for the dam, since according to them, irrigation in Punjab and Haryana had begun many decades before the dam came into existence and the existing diversion schemes had met the food needs then and would still have met the needs of the nation even if the Bhakra had not been there.
As the flood-waters would have been passed over these small diversion structures, there would have been less submergence upstream as compared to the dam storage and the impact in terms of displacement, submergence of forests, etc could have been avoided with a no-dam option.
Since much of the Bhakra command was already irrigated, according to these cynics, irrigation from the Bhakra canals played a limited role in these areas as tubewell irrigation has been the overwhelming major source.
According to their present findings, the Bhakra dam has played only a limited role in the Green Revolution and hence they have suggested alternatives such as the options of local rainwater harvesting.
They have quoted the success story of Sukhomajri where they saw a large variety of crops, and greater yields. They insist that the same principles can be applied anywhere and a moderate increase in yields spread over large areas can meet our food requirements.
Unfortunately, these activists appear to be suffering from an ideology-induced myopia and afflicted by bouts of amnesia regarding the ground reality. The Bhakra Relevant District Gazetteers have documented famines occurring in the 18th, 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, thus nailing the claims of happy, pristine conditions of the countryside then.
The Bhakra came and its storage assured irrigation to 0.9 mha erratically served by the then existing diversion schemes and facilitated new irrigation to 2.6 mha. The recharge from the irrigation system helped extensive groundwater development.
The Bhakra power enabled massive industrialisation and electrification of many villages and towns. Assured drinking water from the Bhakra reached millions of households spread in villages, town and even in Delhi. The frequent flood havoc downstream from the Sutlej became a part of history with the reservoir absorbing most of the floods.
The opponents of major dams have been unduly optimistic about stand-alone local options. However, a study of the performance of these much-hyped alternatives reveal that while the success stories of such efforts are few, the failure stories can fill volumes.
For example, in Andhra Pradesh under the “Neeru Meeru” scheme many failures have been reported after sinking millions of rupees in the project by the state government.
In Gujarat, though thousands of local harvesting structures were constructed in the last decade in the Saurashtra region for providing water to the people, many failed and the Narmada waters from the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) had to quench the thirst of lakhs of people.
The yeoman’s service done by Anna Hazare of Ralegaon Siddhi in greening the area with local water harvesting structures is always quoted. But the contribution from the Kukat canal, which irrigates a major part of the area and recharges the groundwater from this irrigation system, finds, very little mention in such propaganda blitz.
The experiment with check dams in the Shivalik foothills in Haryana is yet another story of failures.
The bunch of arm-chair theorists out to prove that the Bhakra is a disaster has made a lopsided, distorted presentation of the ground reality and has suggested alternatives for future which have not been replicated successfully.
The writer is a former member-secretary of the Indian National Committee on Irrigation and Drainage