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Damned If You Do...
by Kumud Biswas Bookmark and Share

The year 1943 has perhaps been the worst of times in the history of modern Bengal. It is notorious for the Great Bengal Famine. The Bengalis call it 'panchaser manwantar' or 'the famine of the fifty' because it happened in the year 1350 of their calendar. It was totally man made. The second world war was in its heights and its theatre, so long mainly restricted to the western hemisphere, had, after the active participation of Japan, now extended also to the East. The 'Yellow peril' was irresistible and posed a real threat to the British Indian empire. All the plans and activities of the British in this country were therefore geared up to meet this menace. And the chief victim of this policy was Bengal. Though there had been more or less normal harvests in Bengal since the war began, most of the foodgrains got siphoned off by the war time inflationary market forces.

By 1943 the prices of foodgrains prevailing in 1941 had increased more than 3 times. It was being hoarded by the traders who were doing a brisk business by exporting great quantities out of the country every day and earning enormous profits. The people who had built up an empire on the principle of plunder ' the so-called laissez faire -- did nothing to intervene in this free trade which was destabilizing the market and creating an artificial scarcity. What is worse, the government itself was also busy building a reserve stock as a part of its war efforts by buying and often requisitioning whatever little stock the poor farmers had retained for their own consumption. Its purpose was also to deprive the Japanese of foodstocks in case they succeeded in occupying this easternmost province of the empire.

The Japanese had already occupied Burma and the 'Rangoon rice' was therefore no longer available. The scarcity was great and the market was almost completely dry. Whatever little stock was there it was beyond the purchasing power of the people which had steadily eroded by the war time inflation. The sufferings of the people knew no bounds. According to Rudyard Kipling, who unceasingly sang the paeans of the empire, the best of the British breed was sent forth to take up the 'white man's burden' which, among many purportedly noble things, was

'To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain'

and also to

'Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease'.

But during this great catastrophe, which was solely their own creation, all these flaunted noble sentiments were belied. The 1943 Bengal famine was only one of the many famines which occurred in this country during the British rule. They were virtually without count and prove that what Kipling claimed for the very people whose systematic exploitation made this country poor and caused these famines was nothing but high sounding humbug. The second world war had brought on the greatest ever crisis for their empire and the British were chiefly concerned about its safety and security. Relief measures were inexcusably inadequate and were meant mainly for the urban and industrial population to maintain war supplies. The rural people suffered the most. This man made famine and the epidemic that followed in its wake carried off millions in the countryside. To downplay the effects of the government's callousness and inhuman misdeeds the total mortality was underestimated by half by the Commission which was set up to investigate into this famine. Exactly 41 years after its occurrence this fact has at long last been  admitted by none other than a member of this Commission, W.R.Aykroyd, in The Conquest of Famine published by him in 1974. Because of the Quit India Movement launched by the Indian National Congress in 1942 it was also a time of great political turmoil. In these troubled times vast areas of western Bengal were served an additional blow by nature. It was the 1943 flood caused by the river Damodar. Compared to catastrophic floods which this river is used to cause now and then this one was rather a moderate affair. But its timing made its devastations more cruel. 

In fact Damodar has the ill reputation of being the 'sorrow of Bengal' because of the floods it causes almost at regular intervals. What did the common people use to do to avoid its devastations prior to the coming of the British? There is no doubt that they had to help themselves, for it was rare that any ruler did anything ever for the ruled in such circumstances. The common people put up earthen bunds or embankments, more or less ramshackle, either individually or through co-operative efforts, because the financial resources necessary to do something big they could hardly pool together, nor could they mobilize enough man power and their technology was primitive. These bunds could also not be maintained efficiently and were therefore not always effective. If they could withstand the onslaught of moderate floods during high floods, if not altogether washed away, they were invariably breached at many points. There was very little interference with the natural regime of the river itself and the helpless people could not but allow it to flow freely and inundate extensive areas almost annually. To mitigate the devastations by dispersing the flood water as quickly as possible they led it through natural and man made channels to the furthest limits possible. It helped them also to reap the beneficial effects of these floods which not only caused devastations but also enriched and refreshed the country and made it prosperous and healthy.

In his Ancient System of Irrigation in Bengal Sir William Willcocks speaks very highly of this system of irrigation. According to Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, whom the East India Company had engaged to prepare a gazetteer and who had travelled extensively during the closing and the early years of the 18th and 19th centuries respectively, the district of Burdwan, which forms a major part of the Damodar valley, was one of the healthiest and most prosperous regions in the whole of the Company's dominions. As the size of the population during those times was small its pressure on land was not much and it could afford not to settle in low-lying flood prone areas, nor did it use such lands for any economic purposes. They remained fallow mostly as inland water bodies like bils or marshes which to some extent acted as buffers by absorbing considerable quantities of flood water and thus mitigating the severity of high floods. Moreover, they did not yield cereals it is true but produced something else no less precious and virtually without any investment. They were an abundant source of poor men's protein food, the sweet water fishes. They supported a host of aquatic plants, insects and birds and other living organisms. They provided a haven for large flocks of birds from high latitude lands of the north which came every year for wintering. Their influence was considerable also on their surroundings and the local weather and they maintained a salutary ecological balance between man and nature. 

With the coming of the British interference with the rivers gradually began in an organized manner not so much to control the floods as it was for the augmentation and protection of land revenues and other interests the British had developed, like the railways and the coal mines in the Damodar basin. The East India Company was basically a commercial organization. On its acquisition of vast territories it had become a political entity. Yet the chief objective of its operations had not become good governance but remained earning of good profits and disbursement of handsome dividends to its shareholders at home. Initially the chief source of its income was land revenue. To ensure a steady income the Company made undue haste in settling the lands. To avoid the bother and save on the cost of collection it made the settlement permanent after brief experiments like annual and decennial settlements not with the tillers of the soil but with a handful of zamindars who were merely the farmers of land revenues and yet whom it declared quite arbitrarily as 'actual proprietors' of land. There could indeed be no better entrepreneurs than these two sets of profiteers ' the Company and the zamindars -- whose enterprises were, in the words of Mr Tulliver in George Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss, 'smartish businesses as are all profits and no outlay'. They did nothing more than what was absolutely necessary to secure their income and increase their profits. They operated as two grinding stones between which the poor peasants were mercilessly ground. Occasional floods, which is a characteristic feature of floodplains all over the world, added to the miseries of the cultivators of the Damodar basin. None of these profiteers came to their rescue in times of floods, for implementation of flood control measures involved heavy expenditure. On the contrary, if schemes like digging of canals or construction of embankments in the long run could create any scope for augmentation of their income and profits by irrigation or reclamation of land by draining the bils or swamps, or clearing the jungles they would persuade themselves to undertake them after a lot of calculation and carefully apportioning their respective shares in the income and the expenditure. The permanent settlement with each zamindar also included an agreement to the effect that the zamindars would maintain the existing embankments. It also contained a pious expectation that these parasites would take measures to improve their estates. In reality very few, if any, zamindar took good care of the embankments or fulfilled those expectations. 

Thus the embankments which were found to exist at the beginning of the British rule along both the banks of the Damodar for the purpose of flood protection were initially built not by the landlords or the rulers but by the villagers themselves. Against high floods they were useless. As their failure now affected not only the hapless cultivators but also the railway companies and the coal mine owners the Company's government became concerned about their efficient maintenance. According to Mr W.A.Inglis, in the year 1851-52 one Lt. Beadle first suggested the removal of the embankment on the
right bank, along the northern borders of the district of Bankura, to allow the river to spill a part of its waters during high floods to mitigate their devastations on the left bank where there was a railway network and also a large number of coal mines to be saved. At first a stretch only of 20 miles of the right embankment was abandoned and deliberations about its likely effects continued for quite some time and it took almost half a century for the government to pass in 1891 final orders for the full implementation of this scheme. The reason for this inordinate delay was not because the scheme was considered by the experts as unsound but because of the question of costs of removal of the embankment and of payment of compensation for lands likely to be inundated. The British were also very much concerned about any adverse effect that any interference with the course of the Damodar might have on the regime of the river Hoogly and eventually on the port of Calcutta. According to one view one of the concomitant results of this removal of the right and retention of the left embankment was the appearance of a dreaded scourge known as 'Burdwan fever' which ravaged the district of Burdwan where the affected people developed an enlarged spleen, far larger than that of the people of the district of Bankura on the right bank. 

But even after the removal of the right embankment floods kept on occurring like before. As a more effective flood control measure building of dams and reservoirs had also been considered by the river engineers and investigations had started from 1863 onwards about suitable sites. Each time they came up with a proposal it was shelved by the government in consideration of the heavy costs involved. For example, while turning down the first proposal the Secretary of State for India had remarked, "I do not think, therefore, that the scheme under consideration could be proceeded with immediately without risk of serious financial loss". As the 1943 flood had disrupted the communication system, particularly the railways, threatening to cut off Calcutta from the rest of the country, and was hampering their war efforts, the British initiated action in good earnest. A Committee was set up with the Maharajadhiraj of Burdwan as its chairman. It submitted its report in the early part of 1944 recommending construction of dams and reservoirs. The British thereafter secured the expert services of Mr. W.L. Voorduin, a senior engineer of the Tennessee Valley Authority, to study the problems of the Damodar and to make recommendations. Mr. Voorduin submitted his report in August, 1945, by which time the British had come to know very well that their days in this country were numbered and hence their efforts from then on appear to have lost the earlier earnestness. It was left to the government of independent India to take action on the report of
Mr Voorduin. 

One of the members of the 1943 Damodar Flood Enquiry Committee was the eminent astrophysicist Dr. Meghnad Saha. He was included in the committee not because he was a scientist but because he had been taking great interest in the river problems of Bengal in general and in the floods in particular. In fact he had contributed a number of articles on the subject specially in Ramananda Chatterjee's English periodical Modern Review. The interest which he took was not purely academic. He was an activist. He actively participated in flood relief works that were being done by many non-government organizations. In such relief works he got, among many social workers and freedom fighters, another eminent scientist and nationalist, Sir Prafulla Chandra Ray, as co-worker and leader. Dr Saha pursued the scheme with dogged determination. It became a reality after the Independence when Five year Plans were launched for the economic development of our country and modernization of agriculture was given the topmost priority in the first plan. There was a great sense of urgency and optimism. For extension of irrigation a large number of muti-purpose river valley projects were undertaken. Damodar valley project became the pioneer of these schemes. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, took personal interest in it. For its speedy and effective implementation bypassing red tape and too much beaureaucratic interference an autonomous body called the Damodar Valley Corporation or DVC, on the pattern of the TVA in the USA, was also set up by a Central Act within a year of the achievement of independence. 

The Damodar Valley Project was not implemented fully as it was originally conceived. In place of a system of as many as 8 dams only 4 dams at Tilaya, Konar, Panchet and Maithon, each with a reservoir, and a barrage at Durgapur were constructed. Generation of hydroelectricity, irrigation, flood control and soil conservation were the chief objectives. The project became a symbol of modern India ' the first time application of modern technology on a very large scale in this country to harness the forces of nature for the benefit of the common people ' and it was taken up with great enthusiasm and high hopes. Jawaharlal Nehru described these dams as the 'temples' of modern India. And these high hopes have not been belied. It has caused a kind of revolution of far reaching consequences.

The face of agriculture in the Damodar basin has radically changed. It has become more extensive and intensive. It does not have to helplessly depend always on the often erratic monsoon. The agriculturist is no longer a fatalist. He is the architect of his own destiny. He does not view his occupation any more merely as the means of his subsistence. Now he thinks about agriculture in terms of profit and loss. He has brought under his plough lands which previously lay uncultivated for lack of irrigation. And he does not raise only one crop on his plot in the whole year, uses fertilizers, pesticides and machineries and high yielding seeds. He has diversified his operations. He does not produce only rice but also vegetables and other crops. Because of assured irrigation facilities from Damodar canals the district of Burdwan was selected to be included in the IADP or intensive area development project during the Second five year plan.

Before the partition of 1947 the district of Barisal was known as the granary of Bengal and its long grained rice balam was famous. Today Burdwan in the western part of Bengal with its high yielding varieties of paddy has acquired similar fame. Earlier any cultivator in Bengal growing wheat was a queer character. Today per acre yield of wheat in many parts of West Bengal is comparable to that of Punjab or Haryana. The lower Damodar basin has also become a great producer of potato and the countryside in the districts of Burdwan and Hooghly is dotted with a large number of cold storages for storing not only potato but also other agricultural produce.

Agricultural progress made in the areas irrigated by Damodar canals encouraged cultivators of the rest of West Bengal to adopt the modern and improved farming practices. The partition of 1947 gave most of the more fertile districts to East Pakistan and the number of refugees which the state of West Bengal received were far more than the number of people who migrated to East Pakistan. Moreover, almost immediately after the second World War the world as a whole experienced a phenomenal growth of population and India had more than her share of this growth. In spite of the corresponding growth and progress of agriculture and foodgrain production the stress of this population growth began to be felt very acutely by the close of the 'sixties and by the early 'seventies many areas experienced severe food shortages. In fact few food riots took place in several places of West Bengal at that time. But for these river valley projects the food crisis could have been much worse and taken place much earlier.

The so-called 'green revolution' of the mid-'seventies which saved our country from inevitable famine also became possible largely because of these projects. In addition to modernization of agriculture and increased food production these river valley projects acted as catalysts in the overall economic development of our country. For example, rich as the Damodar valley is in coal deposits, in addition to its hydropower stations, the DVC has also developed a large number of thermal power plants which are a major supplier of electricity in the region and have encouraged industrial growth.

The Damodar valley is one of those areas which enjoy the blessings of monsoon to an extent which many other areas in India do not enjoy. This is particularly the case with the western parts of Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra, Rajasthan and Gujarat. They are however served by the third largest river system of India, Narmada. During the British rule it was for the first time thought that the water of this river system should be tapped for extension of irrigation facilities to areas which are water-stressed and drought prone. But nothing came of it. After independence when a large number of river valley projects were being planned and implemented Narmada valley was also identified for a very ambitious project. Sardar Ballavbhai Patel, who hailed from Gujarat, was one of those who dreamt about such a scheme. On the 5th of April, 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime minister of India, laid its foundation stone. But this project bogged down in the quagmire of a dispute over the sharing of its benefits among the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra and Gujarat. To resolve this dispute an expert committee was set up in 1965 under the chairmanship of the famous river engineer and hydrologist Dr. A.N. Khosla whose award however failed to satisfy all the contending parties. Ultimately in 1969 the government of India set up the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) under the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act,1956.

After almost 10 years of legal wrangling the Tribunal came out with its final verdict according to which the states of M.P, Gujarat, Maharastra and Rajasthan will share 18.25, 9.00, 0.25 and 0.50% of water and 57, 27, 16 and 0% of hydroelectricity respectively. This award is binding on all the parties concerned and till the year 2025 it will neither be reviewed nor changed. According to current plans the Narmada basin will have more than 3200 dams of which 30 will be big, 135 medium and the rest
small. The largest of them, the Sardar Sarovar Dam, will have a height of slightly less than 500 ft. The whole scheme has been phased out over a period of about a century. In financial terms the costs will be astronomical and like most of the big dam projects all over the world it will be funded mainly by the World Bank loan.

Almost half a century has passed since its conception yet the project has not made much of physical progress. In its early stages disputes delayed its planning. Now stiff opposition from the adversely affected population has arrested its execution. The movement known as the Narmada Bachao Andolan or 'Save the Narmada' has brought out in sharp focus all the negative aspects not only of the Narmada Valley Project but also of all the large dam projects all over the world which are facing similar opposition from the adversely affected people. The tribal woman who inaugurated one of the dams of DVC became an outcast in her community. It was a token protest by the tribal people whose land had been desecrated and many of whom had been displaced and made landless without being adequately compensated or rehabilitated. They had also no share in the benefits that accrued from these dams. Their culture and the very way of their life were destroyed. The kind of environmental disaster these dams caused for these rural people could not be appreciated by the city based baboos who planned and executed them. In their calculation they never thought of taking into account the inestimable costs, not measurable merely in financial terms, these tribal people dumbly incurred. The urban baboos were still suffering from the nation-building euphoria which had gripped them during the independence movement and advised the people adversely affected by development projects to suffer for 'a greater common good', the good of the nation. In India this attitude was reflected in the legal provisions of the time which allowed only small compensation for lands acquired for 'public purposes' like development schemes. Such compensation was chiefly monetary and did not include any compensation for loss of income or means of livelihood.

At that time there was no Medha Patkar or a Sundarlal Bahuguna to agitate for the cause also of environment. Now the times have changed. The cause of these silently suffering victims of inequity and injustice has now been taken up in good earnest by many individuals and non-government organizations not to gain any political mileage but purely for humanitarian reasons. And those who have joined hands with these activists are many environmentalists who feel that large dams cause death and devastation not only to the rivers but also to the environment as a whole. How determined these agitators are is evident from the fact that one of them, Ms Arundhati Roy, has not been deterred by the punishment inflicted on her by the Supreme court of India for contempt. In fact the Narmada Bachao Andolan has today come to symbolize the fight for the causes of the victims of injustice and against the destructiveness of modern technology.

For time immemorial man has used water not only as it occurs in nature but also by 'managing' it, i.e. by interfering in its natural state. In the earlier stages of his civilization such interference was minimum because his life was simple and his number was small and hence his needs were limited. With the increase in population and progress of civilization his needs have increased and become sophisticated. This has necessitated increased interference in the natural sources of water. He manages his water resources by various means, one of which is by building dams across a stream, river or estuary. The purposes are to store water to supply for his domestic consumption, irrigation or industry; to reduce peak discharge of floodwater; to increase available water stored for generating hydroelectric power; or to increase the depth of water to improve navigation. The reservoirs created by dams are often used as lakes for recreation. In the beginning because of technological backwardness dams were built on a small scale mainly for domestic and agricultural purposes. Sometimes flowing water was used to run some mills no doubt but generation of hydroelectricity to run mills and factories was still a thing of the distant future. But with the progress in technology dams began to be built on larger scales to meet man's multifarious needs. Today they are constructed on gigantic scales.

Notable dams built to provide hydroelectric power include the Aswan Dam in Egypt, the Kariba Dam in Zambezi, the Daniel Johnson Dam in Canada, the Guri Dam in Venezuela, and the Itaip' Dam between Brazil and Paraguay, which at 623 ft (190 m) and generating more than 12,600,000 KW of electricity is the largest hydropower dam in the world. The Grand Coulee Dam, located near Spokane, Washington, is the largest hydropower dam in the United States, producing 6,465,000 KW. Over the past 100 years the United States led the world in dam building. There are approximately 75,000 dams greater than 6 ft and according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers there are tens of thousands of smaller dams across the country. The 20th century witnessed many great dam projects in the United States like the Central Valley Project; Missouri River Basin Project; and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Oroville Dam, located in California, the tallest in the United States, is 770 ft (235 m) high; the Rogun Dam, in Russia, the tallest in the world, is 1,100 ft (335 m) high. A large dam in Panama forms Gat'n Lake, the key to the Panama Canal system. Worldwide there are more than 45,000 large dams. They have played an important role in helping people to manage water resources and enjoying enormous benefits.

The credit for the opening and ultimate development and prosperity of the arid Wild West of the U.S.A. goes more to the dams than to the legendary cowboy. According to current estimates 30-40% of the 271 million hectares of irrigated land now relies on dams. One-third of the countries in the world rely on hydropower for more than half their electricity and large dams generate about 19% of world electricity. During the 20th century dams became one of the most significant and visible tools not only for water management but also for the socio-economic development activity as a whole. When Pandit Nehru called the dams 'the temples of modern India' he was not using empty rhetoric, it was the most appropriate expression of the perception about dams prevailing at the time throughout the world. From the 1930s to the 1970s, to most people construction of large dams became synonymous with development and economic progress. They were viewed as symbols of modernization and man's ability to harness nature and their construction therefore accelerated dramatically. This trend peaked in the 1970s, when on an average two or three dams were commissioned each day somewhere in the world. Dam building virtually became a kind of industry. And the enormous investment in large dams worldwide, estimated at more than $2 trillion, were justified not only by their immediate benefits but also by their secondary and tertiary benefits like food security, local employment and development of new skills, rural electrification, industrialization and development of other physical and social infrastructures which brought about revolutionary changes in the lives of the people at large.

These benefits were so obvious that nobody could raise any objections to such heavy investments, nor in the calculation of these investments did anyone think of taking into account anything beyond the costs of construction and operation. And the adverse consequences of damming were thought to be minimal and could easily be offset by its socio-economic benefits. This is the main reason why there was little, if any, opposition to dam building during its earlier stages. In over-enthusiasm the losses suffered by a few who were displaced by a dam and its reservoirs without being adequately compensated or rehabilitated were ignored for the benefit of many. And most iniquitous was the fact that these unfortunate few generally did not share the benefits which accrued from these dams. There could be no worse case of inequity and injustice. Have the poor people, the majority of whom are tribals, inhabiting the hilly jungles of the Chotanagpur plateau, where the DVC dams have been built, been 'rehabilitated' in the proper sense of the term? The jobs created by these dams require technical skills which these ignorant and illiterate rustics do not possess and hence they are unsuitable for them. They are mostly land-poor and their loss of land to DVC dams and reservoirs made them poorer. Moreover, as they were upstream their land cannot benefit from irrigation by DVC canals. And once agriculture began to prosper and industries to be set up land became more and more precious in the Damodar valley.

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