A myth demystified
A four-year study of the Bhakra Nangal project dared to examine the most sacred `temple' of India's development.
THE LARGER PICTURE: Shripad Dharmadhikary.
IT'S the stuff of legend. "When we first went to Punjab and Haryana, we were taken aback by the visual impact of agriculture. It is stunning... . a highly prosperous image," says Shripad Dharmadhikary.
But this "awesome display" of the Green Revolution did not hold him for long. His four-year study on the Bhakra Nangal project, "Unravelling Bhakra: Assessing the Temple of Resurgent India" has stirred the proverbial hornet's nest. It has dared to examine the most sacred "temple" perhaps of India's development.
"We thought we may have a different conclusion on the Bhakra Nangal dam. But when we started digging up facts, we found the role of Bhakra was limited in agriculture and food grain production. The project had a severe social and environmental impact and the resultant growth, which is highly unsustainable, has led to a crisis," he said.
A mechanical engineer, he gave up his job in the industry and then worked with an NGO on developmental issues. That was when he came across the anti-dam struggle in the Narmada valley, even before the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) was formed. He worked with the NBA for 13 years and some of that experience has definitely shaped this study.
"The point is our exposure in the NBA gave us a heightened sensitivity. I don't think it's biased stuff against the project but our research revealed shocking facts. We found 7,200 families displaced due to Bhakra are yet to be resettled and they are extremely unhappy," he explains.
After leaving the NBA, and forming "Manthan", a research organisation based in Badwani, Madhya Pradesh, he decided to take on the somewhat daunting task of unravelling Bhakra because of its larger-than-life image.
"We were involved in the issue of large dams and every time the example of Bhakra was used to end all arguments on large dams. Bhakra was used to justify other large dams because of its much-touted benefits. But when we asked for exact figures we never got any. We only got the big picture," he said.
For the first 15 to 20 years after the dam was built, there was a spurt in food grain production and agricultural prosperity and then there was a collapse. This, he says, is a "classic example of short-term benefits and long-term catastrophe."
Early on the report says that, "We found that as in most other dam projects, the figures put forward for areas to be irrigated by the Bhakra project were highly exaggerated. The startling finding was that Bhakra did not add any new areas under irrigation ... "
A 40-year myth
Dharmadhikary says, "This is a myth built up for over 40 years, the making of it begins in the textbooks of standard four. Our research is a document which lays down a comprehensive assessment of the dam and, for the first time, whatever claims have been made have been shown up for what they are using actual figures."
"If this is the model of agriculture then we have to rethink it seriously as it's a potentially catastrophic situation. We need to debate these issues and learn from the Punjab experience," he points out.
A significant finding for him is that the landless farmers did own one or two acres. "But here because of falling productivity, increasing chemical inputs and falling groundwater levels, such small pieces of land were quite useless and people who owned them considered themselves landless," he adds.
The issue of big dams has never really been debated by the powers that be. A government that is forging ahead with the gigantic Sardar Sarovar Project is certainly not open to unravelling myths of this sort.
Breaking down myths is a precursor to any informed discussion and Unravelling Bhakra seems to have set the stage for that.
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