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Debunking a Dam Legend

New Book on India's Bhakra Dam

In 1963 India's then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru gushed at a ceremony for a new dam project: “The Bhakra Project is something tremendous, something stupendous, something which shakes you up when you see it. Bhakra, the new temple of resurgent India, is the symbol of India’s progress.” Shripad Dharmadhikary’s newly released report “Unravelling Bhakra” deconstructs this myth, Ann Kathrin Schneider reports.

The infrastructure project is said to have irrigated the granaries of the nation, India’s North-western states Punjab and Haryana. The legend goes that after the construction of the Bhakra dam, food grain production in those two states soared and India was able to become food self-sufficient. Bhakra is said to have provided the agricultural underpinnings for the newly independent state.

* Not just about the past
The author asks whether the dam deserves the credit for having rescued India from hunger and famine, and from the demeaning position of being a receiver of food aid. He asks whether the spectacular growth in food grain production, credited to Bhakra, is replicable and sustainable. Dharmadhikary explains: “Investigating the Bhakra project is not just about the past. The Bhakra project is even today used to justify almost all large dam projects in the country.”

The author finds very little evidence to prove Bhakra’s alleged contribution to the country’s development. He reveals that the Green Revolution in Haryana and Punjab, the increase of yields that resulted in an impressive surge of food grain production, necessitated a large number of inputs, few of which were connected to Bhakra. Fertilizers and machinery were necessary, a new high yield variety of seeds (HYV) was instrumental, but water was critical.
Surprisingly though, this water was not supplied by the Bhakra canals. The author reveals: “Irrigation was there over a hundred years before Bhakra, and the Green Revolution came in 12 years after the irrigation from the project had begun.” Farmers in the area report that the inadequate, unreliable and limited supply of canal water was not conducive to intensive farming with the new seeds. Dharmadhikary quotes B.D. Dhawan, “the HYV seeds, unlike the earlier or desi seeds, perform well only when pampered with requisite inputs and care.
In view of their exacting demands for water, ensuring timely irrigation for them is impossible unless a farmer has control of the source of irrigation…a condition easily fulfilled by groundwater as compared to surface water…”

Farmers then turned to tubewell-based groundwater irrigation, which proved instrumental for the success of the Green Revolution. The number of tubewells in Punjab increased twentyfold between 1965 and 1975. This dramatic growth preceded the growth of agricultural output in the 1970s. Groundwater mining now constitutes around 50% of Punjab and Haryana’s irrigation. The remaining irrigation is canal-based, but only around ten percent of the canals in Punjab and slightly more than twenty percent of the canals in Haryana are fed by Bhakra waters.

The Green Revolution in Haryana and Punjab had a steep price. The increase in tubewell-based water mining has resulted in a drastic fall in groundwater levels. The extensive chemical fertilizer use as well as a cropping pattern dominated by high-yield rice and wheat have destroyed the soils of Punjab and Haryana.

* Increasing suicide rate amongst farmers
Today's farmers are struggling to pay ever-increasing prices for agricultural inputs and electricity for pumping water, while having to cope with declining agricultural returns. The author reports, “In almost every village we went, we found large numbers of farmers who were in debt – and where trapped in it.” The suicide rate amongst farmers in Punjab and Haryana is fast increasing. The agricultural system is on the verge of collapse.

Still, the author demonstrates that the farmers in Punjab and Haryana are not the only ones paying a high price for a development model that favours quick returns for some over sustainable progress for many. Fifty years after their displacement, the oustees of the Bhakra project are still struggling to put their lives back on line. More than 36,000 people had to leave their homes and fertile lands on the river banks to make room for the dam reservoir. Before displacement, they cultivated corn, wheat and cotton, had fruit orchards and a thriving cattle economy. Chemical fertilizers or pesticides were not used.

The land in the resettlement sites was of very poor quality. The weather was hot and dry with frequent dust storms. Dharmadhikary quotes Ajmer Singh, who lives in a rehabilitation site in Haryana, as saying “ When we came here this was all a jungle. There was overgrowth and thick bushes. The land was completely uncultivable. […] There were also many wild animals and snakes, making habitation on these plots very dangerous.” Irrigation was almost non-existent. Most families were given plots of land that were much smaller than what they had left behind. It took almost twenty years before the displaced had access to drinking water and electricity.

“Unravelling Bhakra” is essentially a report about the double failure of modern irrigation policies. The first mistake is to strive towards a dramatic increase in agricultural output by increasing the inputs, both natural (water) and chemical (fertilizers and pesticides). This intervention does irreparable harm to the very basis of agricultural food production, the soil and water. The second mistake is to believe in large infrastructure projects. Bhakra demonstrates that huge sums of money, large stretches of fertile land and thousands of self-sufficient farmers were sacrificed for a project that was not able to fulfil the water needs of the area it was meant to serve.

* Choice between spectacular and sustainable
The report’s finding that unsustainable groundwater mining, rather than dam and canal irrigation, was the most important driving force behind agricultural growth in India has important implications for today’s development decisions. Dharmadhikary reminds readers that it is impossible to continue unlimited groundwater mining. Sustainable irrigation methods, such as conserving the water in soils and local rainwater harvesting are proving to be more promising than both groundwater mining and large water infrastructures. The author describes the case of Sukho Majri in Haryana, where farmers successfully harvest a large variety of crops, irrigated by rainwater and fertilized by organic manure.

Dharmadhikary reminds us that in making choices about agriculture and food in India, the choice is between “spectacular” and “sustainable” growth. “Unravelling Bhakra” shows that the “spectacular” option has high social and environmental costs that are difficult if not impossible for future generations to manage. The “sustainable” option, like the tortoise in his race against the hare, can keep going for generation after generation, and ultimately, wins the day.

Ann Kathrin Schneider lives in Berlin and Berkeley and works with the International Rivers Network.

(Posted 15 July 2005)

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