Dam Building: Who’s “Backward” – Subsistence Cultures or Modern “Development”?

Vinod Raina

Very often, the collective assertions of movements for economic, political or social justice represent just the surface of a complex agenda. If one clicks on their claims, like on a hypertext, one might unravel its layers and discover the less visible spheres of values, traditions and philosophies that animate them – in short, the identities of the people involved. It is worth looking in this fashion at the social movements of India, which have ranged from Maoist type left-wing armed insurrections to campaigns by adivasi (tribal), peasant, worker and dalit (low-caste) movements, all of which are overshadowed by the mostly nonviolent nationalist independence movement inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, which enabled the country to oust the British colonialists in 1947. Many of these social movements continue today, supplemented by the post-independence women’s and environmental movements.

The vibrancy of social movements is perhaps the best indicator of the deep roots of the democratic ethos in India, far more so than the rituals of elections. And as Priya Kurian notes, “Rarely have we seen the democratic process at work so palpably and so effectively as in the growing mobilization of people against large dams” (Kurian, 1988). During the past ten years or so, anti-dam movements, particularly the one against the Narmada dams, have received national and international attention, both from supporters as well as critics who see resistance as a revival of anti-developmental Luddism, the 19th Century social movement of textile workers that destroyed mechanized looms.

Dam building has a long history. Nearly 8,000-year-old canals found near the Zagros mountains in the eastern side of Mesopotamia suggest that the farmers there may have been the first dam builders. These primitive dams might have been small weirs of brushwood and earth to divert water into canals. Nearly 3,000 year- old dams were found in Jordan, as part of an elaborate water supply system. Evidence of such dams dating back to the same era exists also in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, China and Central America. Later on, the Romans were excellent dam builders.

A frenzy in dam building since the Second World War has resulted in more than 40,000 large dams on the world’s rivers, according to the “World Register of Dams” maintained by the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD). An incredible 35,000 of them have been built since 1950! A large dam is usually defined as one measuring 15 meters in height. China had eight of them in 1949; forty years later it had around 19,000! The US is the second-most-dammed country in the world, with around 5,500 large dams, followed by the former USSR (3,000), Japan (2,228) and India (1,137).1 ICOLD defines a mega-dam on the basis of either its height (at least 150 meters), volume (at least 15 million cubic meters), reservoir storage (at least 25 cubic kilometers) or electrical generation capacity (at least 1,000 megawatts – sufficient to power a European city with a million inhabitants). In 1950, ten dams fell in this category. By 1995 the number had risen to 305. “Better river planning” now sites dams so that they cover an entire river basin, emulating the model set by the Tennessee RiverValley development project. “Many great rivers are now little more than staircases of reservoirs,” as one scholar puts it (McCully 1996).

Resistance to dams grows

Many of the early movements of resistance to dams, like the hard-fought campaign against the 191-meter New Melones Dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills during the 1970s, did not succeed. But the struggle of Cree Indians against Quebec’s mammoth James Bay Project led to the abandonment of the last two phases of the project in 1994; the Katun Dam in Russia has been suspended; and the campaign against dams planned for Chile’s spectacular BiobioRiver is still going on. The struggle against the Narmada dams in India since the mid-eighties has become a global “symbol of environmental, political and cultural calamity,” according to the Washington Post. And Narmada is only one of a long list of examples. In nearly all the cases, citizen opposition to dams is not enough to stop them, even though the people resisting were not remote conservationists, but those directly threatened with displacement.

It is therefore curious that the first successful anti-dam campaign in India, against the SilentValley dam in Kerala, was motivated by conservation. Unlike most Indian dams, few people would have been displaced by the project, but it would have destroyed a major rainforest of the country. The concern for the forest and its endangered inhabitant, the lion–tailed macaque, persuaded the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to stop the project. The success of the campaign helped stop other proposed dams on the Godavari and Indravati rivers, at Bhopalpatnam, Inchampalli and Bodhgat, which together would have displaced over 100,000 adivasis and flooded thousands of hectares of forests.

Dam building in India after independence in 1947 became a major symbol of modernization, scientific progress and a matter of national pride. The first Prime Minister of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru described them as “Temples of modern India.” At the time of opening of the 226-meter-high Bhakra dam in 1954, Nehru exulted: “Which place can be greater than this, this Bhakra-Nangal, where thousands of men have worked, have shed their blood and sweat and laid down their lives as well? Where can be a greater holier place than this, which we can regard as higher?”

The impact of dams soared when dam construction was combined with river basin planning in 1948 with the formation of the Damodar Valley Corporation. Modeled on the Tennessee River Corporation, the project envisaged many dams on the DamodarRiver and other projects on a number of rivers in the eastern Indian state of Bengal. Though there was no visible campaign against this project, a former civil engineer, Kapil Bhattacharya, in a series of brilliant articles in Bengali, analyzed the likely consequences of the projects with astonishing accuracy (Raina, 1998).

Bhattacharya pointed out that the Calcutta port remained functional only because rivers flushed away silt that had flowed into the port during floods; damming these rivers for flood control, he predicted, would make the port non-functional – which is exactly what happened. He also predicted that government engineers would be forced to divert water into the port from an upstream river flowing into the region then known as East Pakistan (Bangladesh), and that this in turn would create international tensions. Again, this is exactly what happened. He foresaw a backflow of city sewage flowing into Calcutta’s port and raising its bed. He even predicted that people would blame the local municipal council, not the dams that were far away from the city and beyond the control of the council. Damodar projects today are seen as a curse by hundreds of thousands affected by them; no one realizes that a rigorous social, economic and environmental impact analysis could have saved a lot of misery.

The Gandhian vision vs. Nehruvian development

From its inception, the Indian state was confronted by two different visions of reconstruction; the Gandhian project of reviving the village economy as the basis of development, and the Nehruvian plan of prosperity through rapid industrialization. Gandhi put his views together as early as 1921 in his book Hind Swaraj (India’s Self Rule). On the threshold of India’s independence (October 5, 1945), Gandhi wrote to Nehru:

I believe that, if India is to achieve true freedom,...then sooner or later we will have to live in villages – in huts not in palaces. A few billion people can never live happily and peaceably in cities and palaces.... The villager in this imagined village will...not lead his life like an animal in a squalid dark room. Men and women will live freely and be prepared to face the whole world.… No one will live indolently, nor luxuriously.

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization in the manner of the West,” Gandhi observed. “If an entire nation of 300 million (nearly one billion today) took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” In 1940, he had already expressed his misgivings regarding centralization, saying, “Nehru wants industrialization because he thinks that if it were socialized, it would be free from the evils of capitalism.... I do visualize electricity, shipbuilding, ironworks, machine-making and the like existing side by side with village crafts. But…I do not share the socialist belief that centralization of production of the necessities of life will conduce to the common welfare.” The liberation that Gandhi promised was not merely an economic independence; it was, most profoundly, an assurance that the culture of the Indian peasantry would reign ascendant.

Jawaharlal Nehru brusquely dismissed Gandhi’s vision: “A village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment.” Nehru’s own ambivalence was to surface only a few years later when he talked of the evils of gigantic projects.

The Nehruvian developmental agenda has predominated for over fifty years now. There has of course been a great deal of industrialization in these years and a basic technical and service infrastructure laid for self-reliant development. Poverty persists unabated, however.

In their assessment of the Narmada dams, a large number of well-meaning professionals and intellectuals as well as ordinary middle class people ask, “Where then will power come from?” and “How can we do without irrigation – what about food?” and so on. These concerns – which need to be differentiated from similar sounding but more aggressive, self-serving arguments made by politicians, construction agents and other vested interests – need to be taken seriously. They are at the heart of the development debate everywhere. But it is necessary to situate the movement against the Narmada dams within the larger socioeconomic, political and cultural realities of India.

Dams and the poor

It is generally believed that any kind of development is finally for the benefit of the “common people.” But who are they in India? The general consensus would be the “poor.” I believe that an adequate definition of “the poor” is still missing in India.

In developmental terms, the Government defines all those who do not get to eat 2,200 calories or more per day in terms of food as poor. It is highly debatable whether something like poverty should be characterized by an exact line, defined by a single parameter; orders of estimates, based on qualitative criterion, would likely be more helpful.

We do know, however, that indigenous people, or adivasis, are at the poorest rung in the economic ladder of India. They number about 7 percent, or around 72 million people (more than half the population of Japan) out of a total population of nearly 1.2 billion Indians. On a par with them are the landless laborers and marginal and subsistence farmers with up to an acre of land. There is also a large population of people who subsist on their traditional artisanal skills, as potters, iron smelters, bamboo and grass weavers, small-scale handloom workers, leather flayers and tanners. If we add the slum dwellers of the cities, there are about 600 million poor people in India. About two thirds of the population somehow manages to survive and subsist, and another one third, composed of lower, middle and wealthy classes, lives in varying degrees of material comfort.

Except for the urban slum dwellers, the rest of the poor population of India subsists mainly on some form of common natural resource – land for subsistence farming, bamboo, grass, leather, minerals for artisanal occupations, various biomass sources for fuel and housing needs. The best example is that of the adivasis (indigenous people). Living mostly in or close to the forests, their economy, culture and society are organically linked to these forests. The material that goes into making their dwellings, most of the food, firewood for cooking and water is obtained as a free common resource from their immediate physical surroundings. Their encounters with the market are mostly at the weekly travelling haats, which provide essential items like salt, kerosene for domestic lighting, and bare minimum clothing. Items like cooking oil, cereals and pulses, sugar, spices and soap are luxuries to be indulged in once in a while.

Fifty years ago, after more than 150 years of colonialism, the expectations of the people were boundless. The state opted for a mixed economy of private and public, and embarked on a massive industrialization and infrastructure program, hoping that the benefits would trickle down to the common people. Absolutely no concern was given to the forty million people involuntarily displaced through dam building, urbanization, mines, the setting up of industries and the like. The basic premise has been that national development can not be achieved without a certain sacrifice. Whatever benefits accrued from these projects, in terms of increased electricity, irrigation or industrial products, have generally enriched the richer one-third of the population, and have not trickled down to those who need them most.

There have been other adverse effects on the “common” population too. Since many of them survive only through free access and use of common natural resources, new legislation transferring forests, minor forest produce, land, water and minerals to the state threatens their basic subsistence and cultures. Contrary to government allegations, the adivasis rarely fell entire trees, but rather lope off branches or collect dead wood. The felling of trees is done by contractors who supply fuelwood to big cities, with permission from the same forest department that harasses the poor for using their traditional commons. Even though kerosene and cooking gas is subsidized, it is clear that biomass is going to continue as the main source of energy. Forests have to be conserved so that they can be used sustainably, otherwise most of the Indians will be unable to cook their food.

It may be clear now why people who are likely to be affected by development projects struggle so fiercely against them. Dams, trawler fishing, the siting of power plants and hazardous industries, missile and artillery ranges and a long list of other development projects either take away or pollute the shared natural resources that are critical to the poor’s very subsistence. Despite promises to help commoners make a transition to more secure industrial labor, they generally remain dispossessed, and must fend for themselves in the so-called informal sector.

A question of cultures and beliefs

Every social movement is almost always a cultural movement too, so if we wish to understand its motivations and persistence, we must understand how the movement derives its sustenance from deeper cultural roots. To understand the motivations of the Narmada movement, we must therefore understand the cultures of human settlements on rivers.

Rivers have played an integral part in the rise of civilizations all over the world. The people who live near rivers have a deep-rooted reverence for rivers, as seen in the riverside temples and holy sites in every nook and corner of India that regard the river as the form of a goddess. Bathing in most rivers is seen as a process of washing away one’s sins. The flow of the river is basic to these beliefs, the goddess associated with each river is seen as virginal, and their purity is supposed to be maintained because of the flow. These beliefs are affirmed by the daily rituals followed by millions of people in temples on the river banks, and in numerous songs and stories that honor the river as a provider and giver. In many women’s songs the allusion is to that of an empathizer; it is only the river that will understand the sadness of a woman’s existence, and its constant flow signifies steadfastness, a constant companion whose life-sustaining qualities act as a balm in her life. This is not surprising since a woman in India spends a large part of her life in and around the river, fetching water, washing clothes, and bathing in groups.

It is common in the adivasi belief system to honor the forest, the fire, thunder and rain, sun, moon and stars, animals and other external elements that influence their lives, for good or for bad. Therefore, most of their ritual is based in keeping peace with these elements. If they feel a militant possessiveness for their land, it is because their ancestors’ bones lie there and their ancestors’ spirits hover above. A faintly ridiculous simile comes to mind: just as in satellite-based global communications technology, ground stations provide the necessary and critical link to the invisible satellites above. So, it seems, the adivasi see the spirits of their ancestors as the link to the external elements of nature that influence their lives. Their ritual, centered around the totem pole placed at the burial site, suggests a considerable dependence on these spirits to keep the external elements calm, which provides them with a sense of security. Since the proximity of the sites where the ancestors are buried is critical to this belief system, displacement from such sites is such a puzzling, alien and incomprehensible thought that it can arouse im­mediate militancy.

Imagine what would happen if the land beneath all the world’s ground stations for satellite communication were to be acquired for other purposes, say agriculture. The adivasis see their lands as similar “ground stations” for their belief systems, and naturally try to resist any attempts at displacement. And they feel puzzled and angry when offered land-for-land compensation. For a non-adivasi farmer that may be a reasonable choice, provided the land in exchange is adequate and of good quality. But for the adivasi, land is not merely material, so how do you exchange one piece for the other?

These are just two examples of what could be considered as the propelling elements for the local people involved in a movement like that against Narmada dams. These concerns remain mostly invisible, however, since the discourse is mostly about “development,” which does not recognize beliefs as part of human development. But in fact, the agenda of modernization is not only about “development” (albeit of a very particular, material sort), but philosophical, too. In such an agenda, traditional and ritual beliefs are indicators of “backwardness” that need to be altered and scientifically tempered. Maybe that is why Nehru saw village-based cultures as backward. In a mechanical Marxist framework, such belief systems constitute the “false consciousness” of people that hinder a “proper” understanding of the material basis of life and existence.

Dam proponents see their scientism as self-evidently superior to traditional cultures: Should the adivasis live as they have for centuries, as museum pieces, with their cultures and beliefs intact? they ask. Do they not have a right to progress? Of course any social group must have the right to change. But that must happen through a process that ensures that the concerned population is socially, economically and politically empowered to make their own decisions. It must be a process that ensures their dignity to make the encounter between tradition and modernity assimilative rather than violative.

A curt order to vacate traditional habitations for the national interest can in no way allow the marginalized to modernize. It can and does, however, further alienate them. A much deeper debate seems necessary to explore and understand the notion and importance of “belief security,” in the same manner as we recognize it in the material sphere. Lest the allusion to something like belief security be misconstrued as a glorification of misconceived irrationality, we need to remind ourselves that beliefs play an active role even in the domain of the rational, the sciences.

The great physicist Max Planck, reflecting on the fierce opposition to ideas of quantum mechanics (about which he himself was initially skeptical even though he was the first to uncover them), maintained that logical arguments and experimental evidence did not immediately change his previously held beliefs. Opposition to new views wanes, he argued, simply because the older generation of scientists dies and the new ones with different ideas grow up – an idea not much different from the Kuhnian notion of the paradigm shift that occurs over periods of time in the evolution of scientific knowledge. These shifts have to take place in an atmosphere that provides the freedom to explore and exercise choices. When that freedom is taken away, the opposition and resistance of people can be stunningly powerful. After all, cultures, beliefs and local life systems cannot be forcibly changed, no matter how competent the coercion is technologically.


  • All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN). 1994. “Report on the Consultation for Restructuring the Sardar Sarovar Project” (mimeo). New Delhi, India.
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  • International Commission on Large Dams. 1998. World Register of DamsParis, France.
  • Kurian, Priya. 1988. Land and Water Review.
  • McCully, Paul. 1996. Silenced Rivers, The Ecology and Politics of Large DamsLondon. Zed Books.
  • Raina, Vinod. 1994. “Sardar Sarovar: Case for Lowering Dam Height,” Economic and Political Weekly, April 2, 1994. Bombay, India.
  • —————. 1998. Waters of ConflictAlternatives in River Valley Projects; Rediscovering Kapil Bhatacharya and Megnad Saha, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.