Remembering Ramaswamy Iyer: A Visionary Who Deeply Cared About Water Issues
By Association For India's Development
13 September, 2015
Ramaswamy Iyer: Photo Credit, The Hindu
Ramaswamy Iyer, former union secretary of Water Resources for the government of India, and professor at the Center for Policy Research, passed away yesterday in Delhi. His contributions to research and policy in the public interest, and steadfast solidarity with people's movements gave hope to many in difficult times.
In 2014 Ramaswamy Iyer was awarded the Padma Shri for his contributions to science and engineering. Many of his talks and papers are available at the Center for Policy Research, the India Water Portal and the sites of various policy and campaign organizations and in journals such as Economic and Political Weekly. He edited a volume of essays called Living Rivers, Dying Rivers published by Oxford University Press.
As a tribute, we share the transcript of an engaging talk he gave to Association For India's Development (AID) volunteers in January, 1999.
Water Resource Planning: Large Dams and Development
Talk at AID by Ramaswamy Iyer, IIT Chennai, 1999.
THANK YOU VERY MUCH. First I must apologize for being formally dressed. I keep shivering in conference halls. It is a pleasant surprise to find that this is not a/c and I am not shivering.
Mine is an unplanned appearance. I met Aravinda in Colombo at a hearing organised by the World Commission on Dams and she thought that what I said there would be of interest to you all here. There the focus was on large dams, here you are on a much wider range of issues, and more down to earth practical problems. But large dams do stand out as dramatic symbols of a particular approach to development and a certain relationship between humanity and nature so sooner or later you start discussing the question of large dams. Starting with the crucial question of the need for such projects which leads to the larger question of what constitutes development.
I was responsible for initiating the national water policy in 1985-87, when I was Secretary of Water Resources. I found that there was no such thing as a water policy. Concentration was on big projects. Ministry of Water Resources was dominated by engineers. Water resource planning at the time meant only civil engineering. Before the British period, water resources were a local affair, community managed. In British period with advent of modernity, ownership of natural resources passed from community to the hands of the state, management passed from the community to the technocrats, engineers, civil servants, politicians. Introduction of western engineering favoured large dams over the traditional systems like tank and canal systems of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and the step wells of Rajasthan. These went into disuse. They deteriorated and they are hardly in use now.
In fact we learned to think of these huge, technology driven, engineering dominated, top-down, non-particiaptorily managed projects as symbols of development. You will remember Nehru’s famous phrase on large dams “temples of modern India.” This was not only his view, it was a prevalent view of the time. Over the years disenchantment has set in for many reasons.
Today they have fallen into disrepute. There are many reasons for this: financial, economic, they are viewed as guzzlers of resources subject to enormous cost and time overruns. There is a collusion between engineers, civil servants, contractors -- no one consults the people concerned. In the process even worse hardships are inflicted on people, and in the end you will find that they do not achieve the projected benefits. The main justification, that you will yield a larger social good, often turns out not to be the case at all. The justification for the cost thus disappears. This is why movements have arisen against these projects. All of you know about the Narmada Bachao Andolan which has brought the SSP to a halt. In Tehri a movement led by Sunderlal Bahuguna is opposing the hydro electric project. Both projects are facing public interest litigation in the supreme court.
Similarly in Nepal, there is a movement (not so strong) against large water projects. In Nepal the dominant view was that water is to Nepal what oil is to the middle east. There is a series of large projects -- Pancheshwar, etc. In India we also want Nepal to take on these projects so that we can import power from them. But World Bank, which got its fingers burnt in SSP was even more burnt in Arun III of Nepal, and withdrew from Nepal. In Pakistan there is opposition to the Kalabagh project. In Sri Lanka we find that the much touted Mahaveli project is questioned by many people. So this kind of atmosphere prevails at present.
I shall not enumerate all the difficulties that arise when these projects are taken -- agricultural land and forests are lost, wildlife is affected. Flora and fauna are severely affected. We have loss of biodiversity. There is violent disruption of nature and the people, often tribal people. Catchment deteriorates, Siltation is often faster than planned so that the project life gets reduced. As the waters become available, they are commandeered by the people nearer the catchment, so that even though a long canal network is planned, very little reaches the end of it.
Creation of a reservoir promotes diseases like malaria, filaria, schistosomiasis, etc.
As irrigation is practiced for 5-10 years, the land gets waterlogged and salinized. Good agricultural land goes out of use -- this has happened again and again in project after project. And even the justification offered to the people in the upper catchment, which is that people in the command area will benefit -- whether this is a correct kind of equation is questionable, we will come to that -- but even that is lost because much of the benefit goes to the richer farmers and little is left for the poorer farmers.
So there is a whole host of environmental and social problems.
Even the people displaced, for example by the Pong dam, have never been properly rehabilitated. In Tehri you will find that 15 years after displacement began the original displaced people are still not resettled properly and are living in conditions of misery as we found in our research.
Narmada resettlement policy for the SSP is touted as very enlightened, which it is to some extent, but you find on the ground that land is just not available for land-for-land resettlement, cluster settlement is promised, but not practically feasible. Very often some of the displaced families get scattered over different resettlement areas, sometimes in distant and unfamiliar places, and there is an uneasy relationship with host communities.
In the Rajasthan canal project we found that there was a mistaken notion of introducing irrigated agriculture into desert land. We were also asking a nomadic community to become settled agriculturists -- this just does not happen. You bring in a community from elsewhere creating social tensions.
The answer to all these issues goes as follows:
First: We can study all of this. There is a notion that we can study all the effects through Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
Second: having done EIA we can reckon all the costs and do a cost benefit analysis on which to base the project decision
Third: whatever adverse impacts are anticipated, whatever harms result, we will address through mitigative, compensatory and ameliorative measures.
These are the arguments through which the projects are justified.
Problems with this:
It is extremely difficult to foresee all the impacts of these projects. There are many things unforeseen, as we find in project after project. Even SSP, which is claimed to be the most well studied of projects, has many things not accounted. When the dam comes up what happens to the people downstream, fisherpeople, what will they do -- this is not studied.
Some of the consequences are truly irremediable. When you stop flowing water you completely change morphology. Water becomes poison. The aquatic life dies. You may say that you will grow other kinds of fish. But that does not compensate the devastation inflicted on the original habitat and population. Once you dam the river you cannot prevent the change in morphology
If you say, we will drown a forest here and create another forest elsewhere, even that does not make up for the loss of the ecological system. There is no way you can compensate for this. Quite often the new forest is created not in the same ecological zone but in another. It may well grow into a new ecological zone but the ecosystem which has been lost has been lost. There is no way you can recover it.
Whatever social measures are stipulated, have to be implemented through the government machinery. When people are dissatisfied and start agitating, the state tends to act with force, because that is what they are familiar with. Many things cannot be handled. This is why one of the reports said, perhaps questionably, that rehabilitation is impossible. That is an extreme view but we (the Committees of which I was a member) did find in the Narmada and Tehri cases that resettlement and rehabilitation was fraught with enormous difficulties, particularly where the numbers are large.
Unfortunately the whole prevailing policy framework is inclined towards large projects.
There are two syllogisms -- it is a logical form of argument, in which from two premises, we draw a conclusion.
The engineering syllogism is that water availability is distributed unevenly over time and space. We don’t have precipitation 365 days a year in all areas -- rain comes in a few months (few weeks) in only a few places. How do you transfer water from wet to dry season and from wet zones to arid zones? The second premise is: science and technology enable to harness these waters. Another assumption is: whatever water reaches the sea is wasted.
Conclusion: stop the water and transfer it over time and space.
The economic or developmental syllogism begins with a definition of civilization which is a multiplication of demands or wants. Demands must be met. This is sacrosanct. We project a demand of x Mega watts, we need so much water for the expected population. Therefore you must meet it through supply side solutions. Supply side solutions being, creation of large projects.
With a combination of these two -- you may have heard of the former minister K.L.Rao who talked of a Ganga Cauvery link. He wanted to bring water from Ganga to Cauvery, but given up because it involved so many links that the energy required would have been simply unmanageable. There was another person (Dastur), not an engineer but a pilot. He flew over the entire coast of India and from there the wisdom came to him to build a “garland canal.” You may laugh but these ideas exercise some influence over people’s minds. Even today people think in these terms. Transferring water over long distances.
When we look at water resources of India, we see that there is a lot of water in the Brahmaputra. Where is the Brahmaputra? It is in some remote place. So how do you get the water? You build a canal. At one state in India-Bangladesh relations this became a big issue. They wanted to build a huge canal of 100,000 cusecs. I don’t know if you can imagine a 100,000 cusecs -- it would be twice as large as the Cauvery. Wanted to build it from Joghigopa in Assam, across Bangladesh, and drop it into the Ganga, near Farakawa.
Of course Bangladesh objected very strongly.
No, no they are not more enlightened than we are, they were also thinking of some other project -- but they were afraid of the security implications. So the mad idea was given up. But not totally given up.
I am now a member of a National Commission in integrated water resource planning. One of the terms of reference of this commission is inter-basin transfers. That is, if there is not enough water in one river basin, we will bring in water from another basin which has surplus water. There is a body called National Water Development Agency. They are exploring possibility of transferring waters from Mahanadi to Godavari, from Godavari to Krishna, Krishna to Penang and Penang to Cauvery.
Unfortunately, Orissa does not admit that there is any surplus in the Mahanadi, AP does not admit there is any surplus water in the Godavari. You will be surprised to know in the course of the Indo-Bangladesh talks, both countries did agree that Ganges was short of water. I would question that but it was a common ground between the two governments. But you will be amazed to know that the Bangladesh engineers seriously advanced the proposition that there was not enough water in the Brahmaputra! Now the Brahmaputra is one of the mightiest rivers in the world, perhaps smaller than Amazon, but not much. So if you say there is not enough water in the Brahmaputra you may have to bring in water from another planet. Maybe some ice planet which is being discovered.
Current consumption patterns make us project unmanageable demands. In order to meet those demands we promulgate these mad technology driven supply side solutions. There is no room at all for participatory management. The nature of the project is such that it rules out participatory management.
Sooner or later I think that small efforts at the local level will have to fit into some larger policy framework, or it will come into difficulties.
What we drafted in 1985 was a first pioneering attempt. I would consider it an imperfect, flawed first start. Much more needs to be done. Unfortunately nothing has gone on after that, either to operationalize what was done, or to take it further. How would I improve it?
I would say that instead of projecting demands and seeking supply side solutions we should reverse this process. We should take supplies as given and manage the demand. Much can be done. There are examples, very striking examples of local water management and social transformation.
You might have heard of Ralegaon Siddhi of Anna Hazare, or the pani panchayats. Of Sukhomarji in Haryana. There are many such examples.
There is a group of people who are trying to increase local water availability in the National Capital Region through a variety of means, such as increasing the in-channel storage in the Najafgarh storm-water drain, reviving defunct water-bodies like the Hauzkhas, promoting rooftop collection of rainwater, etc. In Madras they are doing more rooftop collections. If you talk to engineers they will say yes yes, we need all this, but these can at best supplement the large projects. But this is an unfair statement. We know what will happen in large projects because we have tried it.
We don’t know what will happen with these local solutions because we have not tried it on a larger scale. We need to replicate this in the thousands. We need to shift to local water management, demand management.
The apex board on water policy is entirely a body of engineers. There are no agriculturists, no environmentalists. Water is not a matter of engineering. It is a much wider question.
These are some of the changes that need to be done. I am on the national commission, I keep talking about all this, the reception I get has not been very positive. We must involve communities right from the beginning. Not when the project has been prepared and then it is thrown to the public for opinion. That is not the right thing to do. These changes have to be implemented. I have no great hope that these changes will take place but we have to keep trying.
Question & Answer with AID volunteers
Ramani: how has the government reacted to your ideas?
Ramaswamy Iyer: I am not very popular. I was very popular earlier because it was in my time that a conditional clearance was given to the SSP. At that time if I went to Gujarat they would have rolled out the red carpet. Now I might even get arrested. I am persona non grata in Gujarat. In the engineering community I do get invited to seminars, but people are wary. But there are others like Center for Science and Environment, they had a conference on water harvesting, which I attended. It was inaugurated by Government of India. Four people doing very good work locally were honoured. I may find positive response in that sort of organisation or Ministry of Environment but in Water Ministry I am no longer welcome.
Meera: You say the people in the government are corrupt. How do you find the anti-dam protestors?
Ramaswamy Iyer: well unfortunately the issue has become totally polarised. People talk about the anti dam people as being anti national, anti dam people talk about the engineer contractor nexus. These things may be true in some cases to some extent -- but there are also genuine people who hold genuine views. There has to be a dialogue. If I may encapsulate the two views:
1. For meeting the projected needs for water energy & food, whatever you do locally is good but not enough, we will still need mega projects, particularly in the field of energy. Energy is the most critical constraint in our development, how can we meet the demand?
Of course they have adverse impacts, we will manage them.
2. Another view is that you simply cannot manage all the adverse impacts because half the time we don’t even know what they are. Whatever we do we must rule out these projects. These projects do more harm than good. These needs are based on current patterns of consumption. We can do with much less. To add extra capacity, we can try various other things:
Revive the dying traditional methods.
Practice local water harvesting in the large scale. Replicate these in the thousands.
If you talk to Dr. A.K.N. Ganguly and Girish Sant they will tell you that much can be done through increased energy efficiency, and extensive decentralized energy generation. Keeping large projects as the projects of the last resort.
This is the kind of debate which needs to take place, which I hope will take place under the auspices of the World Commission on Dams which is to report by 2000. In India the issue is so polarized that if one group holds a meeting the other group won’t go to it. You may have a meeting of engineers and some other meeting of environmentalists and they do not have any meeting ground, no discussion between the two groups.
Question: [concerning floods]
Ramaswamy Iyer: Over the years a view which has been widely accepted by the engineering community is that floods cannot be controlled. We can at best mitigate disaster. When floods come we need space for the river to expand then there won’t be such a problem. But if we keep on building then the water has no where to go. For example, in Delhi where there is so much housing on the banks of the Jamuna. So what happens when the floods come?
Take Bangladesh. Every two years it gets floods. This year’s floods were some of the worst -- not in terms of magnitude but in terms of damage. 1988 was more severe but caused less damage. Why? In the first place, the country of Bangladesh is created by the same process which creates the floods. The Himalayan silt is Bangladesh. The same process is continuing. It will continue. Fortunately in most years when the Ganga is in high flood, the Brahmaputra is not. Occasionally once in 6 years, both of these rivers are in high flood and then you have had it. It is a disaster. A third factor sometimes contributes as it did in 1988 -- these two coincided with high tides from Bay of Bengal. With all three together nothing can be done. No project can deal with this.
If you want to operate a dam as a flood control dam you will have to make some sacrifice on the irrigation side or the power generation side.
I don’t know if you are aware, but there is a very strong movement in Bihar against embankments, which were built to protect people from floods. People say their lives are now much worse than before. Earlier we could deal with floods, we cannot now deal with these man made floods. So there is a growing consensus that structural measures are not the answer.
Flood control is never the justification for a dam or large project.
Aravinda: I want to ask you about the departments or instruments the government has in place to take into account the people's view and look out for our interests. I guess these are things like Ministry of Environment and Forests, or the Environmental Impact Assessment. Do these things have potential to look out for our interests? Since most of the accusations against people’s movements are that we only object but don’t do anything, can we do anything without government cooperation?
Ramaswamy Iyer: Within the government the Ministry of Water Resources itself is supposed to look after the people’s interests. It does talk about the environment, etc. But the engineering point of view tends to take precedence. There are other specialized ministries, For example SC/ST Commissioners do care about what is happening to these people. Many of these projects are constructed in remote areas where the affected communities are the poorest of the poor.
Unfortunately the general climate of opinion is that you need these projects. You have to meet water requirements. Where would the country have been without such projects? It is difficult to question this. People who object to this kind of development are not taken seriously or they are called “eco-terrorists.” You may have come across this phrase. Every project must be cleared by the Environment Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Tehri project was not approved at all, it was rejected by this committee. But nevertheless the Indian government went ahead and cleared it because of promised Russian assistance. Government overruled the Committee. In the case of Narmada, there is a Narmada Control Authority (NCA). There are two subcommittees, the Environment Sub-Committee and the Rehabilitation Sub-Committee. The Environment Committee is presided over by Secretary, Ministry of Environment, and the Rehabilitation Committee by Secretary, Ministry of Welfare. They do their best but they are under tremendous pressure, peer pressure. People say, yes we are concerned about all these issues, but for heaven’s sake don’t stop the project. So, there is machinery available but it does not always function as we might wish. As far as the other question is concerned, projects like Ralegaon Siddhi must be replicated in the thousands.
Aravinda: how can we do that?
Ramaswamy Iyer: We need a much stronger local effort and stronger NGO action.
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