Neo-Gandhian Maoists vs. Nehruvian Stalinists
When everyone thought that the day of the large dam was over, the tables turned with a sudden agreement on a massive project on the Indo-Nepal border. Will all of South Asia follow suit, blundering into fiscal haemorrhage and social strife?
Much as environmentalists and social activists all over the world may want, it is too early to write an obituary for large dams. Though there are signs of new and alternative thinking, with opposition seen in Narmada, Tehri, Nepal´s Arun-3, the Bangladesh Flood Action Plan, and even the immense Three Gorges in China, the undercurrent of old thinking and entrenched interests is still the rule, and is strong enough to force decisions in favour of large dams.
Narmada and Tehri in India, and Three Gorges are relentlessly moving ahead, despite protests nationally and internationally. Now Nepal, too, joins its two giant neighbours in pushing forward a high dam project in the Himalaya that is about 25 times larger than the country´s entire installed hydroelectric capacity.
On 29 January 1996, a new draft treaty on the “integrated development of the Mahakali river” was signed by the foreign ministers of India and Nepal. This accord and the letter exchanged with it commits the two countries to build the Pancheswar hydroelectric project and its 315m high dam within ten years.
Age of the High Dam
That the Pancheswar mega-project, conceived and pushed by India for its large system—and resisted by Nepal for over two decades as inimical to its smaller development needs—could be on the front burner so soon after the demise of the controversial Arun-3, which was ´only´ two times larger than Nepal´s total capacity, holds several lessons.
The first is that no economic or policy lessons have been learnt by the powers that be, either in Nepal or India, regarding the unacceptable levels of risk imposed by importing the experimental technologies of large dams to societies with tiny incomes. Dominant thinking is still supply-led, and insensitive to conservation-oriented demand management. (In both India and Nepal, given the extent of electricity theft, it would make more sense to prevent leakage than to build new dams.)
Secondly, South Asian infrastructural planning is dictated by short-term strategic gains for the political parties jousting for power, backed by large business interests with an unjustified belief that bigger is necessarily better. Thirdly, with Pancheswar, those who advocate the alternative mode of more people-centred, conservation-oriented and fiscally-prudent development have lost a major battle without even having had a chance to fight it.
Thinkers and activists of this school should wake up and gear up if they wish to win the war. For, while the Age of High Dams may have ended in North America and Europe, the starting gun has just been fired in Asia. In the coming decades, we can expect nothing but a surfeit of hype from the political and technocratic elites who will advocate high dams, and angst among the victims.
Even before the ink has dried on this new agreement, Pancheswar has already done what mega-projects do, i.e., induce major distortions into a society´s institutions. Nepal introduced the famous Article 126 in its 1990 Constitution, requiring a two-third parliamentary approval only for projects of a “pervasive, serious and long-term nature.” It was included primarily to improve Nepal´s bargaining position on natural resource sharing and not to be forced willy nilly into large-scale projects without the chance for a national consensus. Indian officials regarded it as an anti-Indian measure.
Article 126 is a unique and controversial provision, and it cries for interpretation However, this has never been done. The Supreme Court passed the buck to Parliament when a case was filed before it on the issue of the controversial Tanakpur project. The Parliament waffled for three years but provided no answer.
Now, comes the Mahakali agreement as a political jack-in-the-box. By engulfing Tanakpur within the larger Pancheswar mega-project, Nepali politicians of all shades have skipped the need to provide necessary justification for not accepting it in the first place. The political wounds continue to fester, charges of “sell-out” on Tanakpur have not been given a decent burial, and the rationality of the Constitution´s clause remains unexplained and thus, by default, debased.
This Pancheswar precedent now leaves India less worried about Article 126. It corrals political parties in Nepal to look for two-third support without first fixing the criteria for invoking Article 126. Given the political energy that would have to be expended to justify why a project is of a “simple” nature (and not requiring a two-third approval), any normal government would now balk at reaching a settlement on the smaller rivers of Nepal. These smaller rivers are more productive as far as the small farmers of Nepal and India are concerned. If the entire rigmarole of parliamentary approval is required, so the thinking would go, why not just go for a mega-project?
The political groundwork for the Age of High Dams in the Nepal Himalaya has thus been laid, thanks largely to the unprofessional nature of Nepal´s bureaucracy and the rivalries of Nepali politicians who are fixated on personalities rather than on issues and their implications for national development.
Nepal is not only a country comprising mostly of land-hungry subsistence farmers hovering near the official poverty line, but also a country where an absolute monarchy changed into a constitutional one in a fifty-day agitation with less than fifty people killed. The country has a poor stomach for violence. It might all change. How? One may ask a Cold War American congressional committee for an answer.
In 1959, a group of US senators and American power company chiefs visited the USSR, amid growing uneasiness that the Soviets were surpassing the Americans in hydropower development. During their visit, the Senate team (which included Edmund Muskie) was suitably impressed not so much with the advances in technology, but with the fact that a totalitarian and monolithic system of government could push its dam-building program faster and more efficiently than a democratic government. They saw the Stalingrad dam (now Volgograd) fill its reservoir and inundate a considerable section of the fertile Volga Valley (and a section of the city of Stalingrad). It had required the resettlement of a hundred thousand people.
The Americans, who had bled through resettlement battles at home, were incredulous when told that the Russians had faced no relocation difficulties. On the pre-determined day, 100,000 citizens were simply invited to quit their homes and move to new communities—which they did without a murmur of protest. The Senate team, in its report, concluded that “regardless of the pros and cons of broad political philosophy, it is simpler and faster in many ways to drive a vast power programme under a totalitarian, monolithic Communist regime than under an American democratic system of government.”
The lesson of this dog-eared archival report is not that we need a Stalinist government to exploit Nepal´s much-vaunted 83,000 MW of hydroelectricity potential. Rather, the danger is that political parties of all democratic persuasions in Nepal and in India (and the government machinery they command) would—if they uphold the large-dam dream—probably take on totalitarian attributes. The political dynamics of building and running a megaproject are such that, as far as the population directly affected is concerned, the state and its partners turn inevitably totalitarian.
The most obvious example is the matter of forced relocation of populations, in which the South Asian record is nothing to be proud of. India, according to Thayer Scudder of Caltech, has the “worst resettlement record in the world.” Nepal´s is not much better: the Marsyangdi project, completed in 1989, required fully compensating and resettling all of seven families; even that it was unable to do. While unilaterally constructing the Tanakpur project, India caused the erosion of about 36 ha of farmland in Nepal, which affected 77 families. These les miserables are yet to receive compensation.
It is sobering to think that the new pact, which engulfs the Tanakpur project within a larger Mahakali package, did not even bother about compensation for those 77 families. Now, Pancheswar´s high dam will force the two governments to resettle thousands in a land-hungry part of the world. One may be forgiven in wondering which will be more difficult—the technicalities of building a high dam or educating and moving governments onto a higher social sensitivity curve.
Speaking of sensitivity, Nepal´s Water Resources Minister Pashupati Shumshere Rana, in an interview with the official daily Gorkhapatra on 2 February, three days after the deal, sounded like any Gujarat chief minister when talking about Narmada. Mr Rana said that mega-projects could not be built in Nepal and India because they were democratic, whereas in Pakistan (which presumably is not up to the high standards of its eastern neighbours), a large 1500 MW hydro project was built with World Bank support without a murmur of protest. What is significant is not the inaccuracies in the minister´s statement, but the wistfulness in his voice for an order that is more conducive to building large dams.
Large-scale hydraulic civilisations are, after all, built on the totalitarian traditions of an all-powerful bureaucracy identified by sociologist Karl Wittfogel as “Oriental Despotism”. It is a path that, once entered, is near-impossible to reverse. It is similar to an evening out. Once one chooses to go to, say, a Chinese restaurant, the possibility of asking for naan tandoori is out. Decentralised communes and gram swaraj will give way to or come under the grip of a centralised managerial bureaucracy which, because it is dependent on the efficient operation of these mega-structures for its maintenance and prosperity, will perforce have to adopt policies of total power that can hardly be called benevolent.
In Wittfogel´s words, “A pirate does not act benevolently when he keeps his ship afloat or feeds the slaves he plans to sell. Capable of recognizing his future as well as his present advantages, he is rational, but not benevolent.” The same can be said for those who would build high dams.
An intellectual examination of the serious social implications of large dam-building programmes has not been done thus far in South Asia. This is because the intelligentsia has been bowled over by the Pollyannish dreams peddled by political merchants. Because of sheer social diversity, there is tension in South Asia between what may be termed the neo-Gandhians (after the Mahatma) and the Nehruvians (including the Gandhis of this dynasty). Even though historically the latter are the political heirs of the former, the economic philosophies they represent are poles apart.
Neo-Gandhians uphold equity, self-reliance, local capacity enhancement with small scale and decentralised schemes. This approach is perfectly comfortable with a heterogeneity of solutions and their inevitable clumsiness. The Nehruvians, on the other hand, put production efficiency on the hallowed pedestal. This approach naturally leads to large-scale, expertise-based, often imported, hierarchic structures, for whom pushing a neat single-minded mission is as important as promoting the welfare and protecting the legitimacy of the missionary.
This same tension between two forces has existed in modern China since the 1950s, where the fight has been between the Maoists who promoted massive micro-hydro development programmes controlled by the communes, and the Stalinists who went for heavy industry controlled by the bureaucracy and who today push the Three Gorges project. Even though, politically, they seem to be each other´s inheritors, sociologically, the Maoists and Stalinists are diametrically apart.
While they are constantly accused of holding the view, the neo-Gandhians do not actually say that small is beautiful, because they know beautiful is beautiful, small or big. What they do maintain is that small is less risky, more self-empowering and, ultimately, more beneficial The neo-Gandhian view is that economic analyses that are exuberant about technologies would externalise social and environmental costs. They would jettison risks onto an unsuspecting population either in the margins of society or in the future. On the other hand, economic analyses which are true to society rather than technology would show that one should not risk more than is necessary. Or, as a Nepali saying goes, “Swallow a bone only after you size your gullet.”
Indeed, large engineering projects seem to have a Vedantic attribute to them: like the outer manifestations of an onion, they embody a poor society´s hopes and visions of development, but when one looks closer, veil after veil can be peeled off without arriving at any real substance inside.
The Kosi Project, one among the many “temples of modern India”, is a good example. While billions of rupees have been expended since the 1950s to make an immense network of canals in North Bihar, it is the growth of private tubewells—sometimes right by a flowing canal—in the Kosi command area which is boosting agricultural production in this area. This is a classic case of designing an expensive Porsche when all that was required was a bicycle. The farmers of the area needed water, the water bureaucracy needed construction work, and the twain could not meet. The canal project itself has managed to put more land out of production than it has been able to irrigate, and continues as a major fiscal haemorrhage for the Indian exchequer.
Smug Northern Certitude
South Asian boondoggles such as the Kosi Project and elsewhere, on the arid Punjab-Rajasthan plains or the northern dry zones of Sri Lanka, are not bom out of the “ignorance of the natives”. They result, instead, from the way institutions are organised. Single mission outfits—of the types that are designed to build large dams or canals —suffer from the hubris of over-confidence. They are known for their smug certitude that “there is no alternative” to whatever it is that they are proposing. They suffer from hype, boast of capabilities they do not really have, and they erect a protective wall around themselves to effectively filter out criticism. Voila, Oriental Despotism!
This institutional malaise is not limited to the Third Worldanditsunder-development. The late Arun-3 project, which was aborted before the World Bank´s elitist bureaucracy could foist it on Nepal´s unsuspecting poor, has shown that the First World is as susceptible as anyone.
Sweden entered the Nepal Aid Group in 1990 after a gap of thirty years. Its democratic socialist government pulled out in the 1960s after a royal coup overthrew the democratic socialist government of B.P. Koirala in Nepal. Its first act upon re-entering Nepal was to pledge 30 million dollars for the 1.1 billion dollar Arun-3.
What is surprising is the apparent institutional amnesia on the part of the Swedish donors. Between 1978 and 1985, Stockholm had provided almost two-thirds of the funds required for the Kotmale hydroelectric project in Sri Lanka, which is identical to Arun-3, with three turbines totaling 201 MW. The only difference was that Kotmale was five times cheaper.
Now why would Sweden go and get involved in a controversial project in Nepal at five times the cost of an identical project that it had funded in Sri Lanka? And, what entrenched force of belief in distanced institutions such as the World Bank would cause a US ambassador to write to the State Department urging it to support Arun-3 because, without it, “democracy in Nepal would be in danger”?
The answer seems to lie in the sociology of large bureaucracies. Questions raised earlier in the South regarding the technical and economic flaws of Arun-3 were screened out by the protective filters of the large Northern agencies. These institutional filters are not bom of the stupidity or incompetence of any individual, but arises from the nature of the institution itself. For donor agencies, in protecting the mission as well as the missionary, truth becomes one of the parameters juggled among many others.
Moreover, with the Second World´s communism basically becoming part of the Third World, Northern governments did not have an institutional tool other than the World Bank with which to modulate the behaviour of raucous Third World governments. It was important, therefore, for foreign policy establishments in the North to protect the image and legitimacy of this powerful agency, be it the Swedes or the Americans.
The politicians and technocrats of both the North and South may be prepared for the Age of High Dams, but are the people of South Asia ready for it? The answer, clearly, is no. If such is the case, the task now is to chisel away at the inherent belief systems of large hierarchic institutions, the perceptional filters that operate therein, and the international co-geniality of the cultures of these mega-institutions that support them.
Breaking the barrier of institutional filters, such as those erected by the World Bank and its partner bureaucracies of the South, requires a North-South partnership that is not pre-defined by bureaucratised international agreements in such a way as to make arriving at a “Three Gorges” Chinese restaurant inevitable. Mega-dams require more and more esoteric expertise, much of it imported and operated through international institutional arrangements, something not intelligible even to the average intellectual.
If the kind of misplaced belief that occurred with Arun-3 could happen with Sweden and the US, governments that are known for their egalitarianism and accountability to their taxpayers, what might happen with mega-projects such as Pancheswar or the proposed Kosi High, that need accountability of the state structures of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal?
Accountability must be forced, and it requires shattering the smug certitude that allows large bureaucracies to get away with boondoggles. This task must be taken up by those outside the hierarchic framework, such as activists, voluntary groups and independent intellectuals, who can shout from the mountaintop, that the emperor has no clothes. Civilised pressure must be applied at minimum cost and maximum benefit, but it must not be forgotten that such pressure points in South Asia are far fewer and more calloused than in the North. Southern bureaucracies, after all, do not depend upon their taxpayers.
Manasa Karmana Vacha
Sunderlal Bahuguna of Tehri is fond of expressing the need for a unity of the head, the heart and the hands (the scientists, the poets and the activists) for successful agitation. This then, is what civilised pressure is all about, using good science, committed activism, and staying power, to strike at the very root of the intellectual and political legitimacy that sustains Oriental Despotism.