Sound Effects of Large Dams

Sound Effects of Large Dams

by Aravinda Pillalamarri

Sound effects of large dams may precede the completion of the dam itself. For example, the silencing of women. Those with the power to review at the world scale, the decision making process on dams are urged to reflect on “hearings” – what they hear and what they silence, be the site a district meeting, a Supreme Court, or a World Commission.

Sound Effects of Large Dams

Civil engineers say a dam lasts only 60 years. But some of its effects are irreversible. If we can ever start learning from our own experiences we may have to unlearn some of the lessons that have passed their expiry date. One such lesson, which has deafened us to the voices of reason and to our own experience, is that dams bring progress. Are the hearings of the World Commission on Dams, which at least question that lesson, a chance to undo some of the deafening? My experience as an observer in the South Asia regional hearings of the World Commission on Dams led me to probe the sound effects of large dams. What do they make us hear and not hear?
Why did I travel all the way to Colombo for the hearings? Am I an engineer or social scientist? Have I any expertise on dams? No. Still, as an ordinary Indian citizen I had been following the debate for quite some time, visited both tribal and non tribal areas of the Narmada Valley, and was curious about how the global policy would take into account the knowledge and experiences of the people and places I beheld. The meeting was originally to be held in Bhopal but the Government of India rescinded the invitations at the last minute and so it was shifted to Colombo. Though I might not have originally planned to travel so far for this meeting, I was angry at the government for trying to suppress the public’s access to this kind of process and determined to cross the information barrier myself.

From the five South Asian countries, I heard 30 speakers. Of these, only one was a woman. Women were, however, present in other roles. Women opened the hearings with song and oil lamps. Of the 13 or 14 distinguished persons arrayed at the panel in the front of the room, to whom the speakers addressed themselves, 4 were women. They were Commissioners. And, at the end of the hearings, among the journalists who sat in the press conference, over half were women. We can imagine these three panels to be the three sides of a doorway, which allowed the presenters to enter the arena of global public policy making.

I cannot say that women were walking through that door, because in fact only one woman did. Though women were not present among the speakers, this did not prevent them from discussing the situation of women with respect to dams. From India’s Center for Policy Research, B.G. Verghese commented that large dams especially benefit women because they relieve them of the drudgery of carrying water home every day from far off places. What was the experience of the woman who was present?

Her name is A. R. Karunawathie and this is what she said, in her own language, as translated for the public record (since the public hears in English):

About her homeland:

“Kinchigune was a rich, fertile, beautiful village surrounded by forests ad water… This village never suffered from a lack of water, food, or money”
About her resettlement site:
“[48 families] were subsequently relocated in Rye Estate No. 3. The Ceylon Electricity Board has put up a Plaque near the Temple stating that they provided houses, water, roads and electricity free of charge to the settlers, but the truth is that the people of Kinchigune actually had to live under the trees until they put up huts and then built their own houses by their own efforts. Nothing was provided free of charge.”
About water in the new site: “This is a land without a single spring”

About the Samanalawewa project’s benefits to others: “It has not been possible to achieve the expected result of filling the reservoir due to the leak that sprang up on the banks of the reservoir”

Such clear and direct presentation characterizes the participation of many women I have heard in meetings about dams and development policy. Karunawathie speaks from the world that is considered, in damspeak, to be the “cost” of building dams. To pay this cost is to buy her silence. Silenced, she is claimed by Policy Researchers in the “benefits” column.

This kind of silencing is manifest in many aspects where dams are concerned. It has even deafened us to voices of such command as Pandit Nehru, former Prime Minister of India who in 1958 decried the showiness of big dams and the “disease of gigantism”. He said, “It is the small irrigation projects, the small industries, and the small plants for electric power, which will change the face of the country more than half a dozen big projects in half a dozen places”. Instead we only hear, echoed by a hundred voices, his outdated phrase, “temples of modern India.”

Silenced Women

On the banks of the Ganga I was first enlightened on the wonderful possibilities of the small which Nehru hailed so many years ago. It was the Lokvidya Mahadiveshan, or Traditional Sciences Congress, held in Varanasi in 1998. It made me curious about village life and how development could be conceived from within a village. And so I went for the first time to Nimgavhan, in the tribal area of the Narmada Valley, where farmers, craftspeople and scientists from near and far were meeting to discuss and plan projects in the region. There I was pleased to see women coming forward and taking a fair part in the discussions and activities.
So I was surprised after the Supreme Court’s decision of February 99 permitting the height of SSP to increase up to 88 , thereby threatening Nimgavhan and 50 villages like it with submergence in the coming monsoon, to see that in a meeting with the Collector of Nandurbar District where 33 of those villages are located, the tribal women were silent. How could this be? I had witnessed their outrage and their sharp analysis … then I realized that I had heard it only in translation. These women spoke a language out of reach of even the District Collector.

India, though thought of by the First World as a Third World country, comprises four worlds. Those fluent in the first world’s first language live in the first world, with its facilities and its authority. Those accessing the national language, Hindi, inhabit the second world. State level languages like Marathi, which the Collector spoke that day, define the third world and even this is a foreign power to those who are said to live in the fourth world, even though they are adivasis – original inhabitants! These are the natural resource based communities who have sustained and been sustained by the land, river and forests for generations, and who are asked to sacrifice all future generations to a mega project that will last only for 60 years. In fact, compared to their time scale of life, these dams are more like mini-projects.

There was a district level official who spoke their language. He was the Deputy Collector of Nandurbar District, who accompanied the people to the ostensible resettlement site (which was already promised to and occupied by another set of oustees). In fact, he shifted from Marathi into the tribal language when the time came for him to tell the truth: “We have stated in our affidavit that we have 285 hectares, but as you can see, we don’t have it. On what we do have, there are prior claims to be settled. Only when these are settled will we know how much land we have, if any, and until then no one should move. Until this matter is resolved you should stop the dam.”

Though he was applauded by the assembled villagers, his words were not heard in the worlds that count for policymaking. He also promised before the people to discuss these matters in his committee, which was to meet in the following week. “What I have told you here today”, he promised, “I will report honestly”. However he never attended these meetings as he was transferred the next day. The truth he spoke never reached the Supreme Court, as they meanwhile diverted their attentions to statements made (in English) by a woman called Arundhati Roy. Their indignation, though barely audible at the back of the courtroom, resounded all over the press and in the valley. Meanwhile, those who had heard the truth from the collector’s office remained on their lands and wondered if the Court would decide not to hear their case at all.

If the women were silenced so close to home as their own district level officials, then what hearing can they expect as the radius of policy making enlarges?

To silence is also not to hear. In the development planning process, we hear about these people, if at all, only as oustees, because we assume that they are kicked off their lands forever. What happens to them when the dam is no longer functional? When the dam is decommissioned will their lands be returned to them? Then the public purpose of the dam is only for 60 years, isn’t it? As the government leases land for 99 years, can it not also acquire it for a defined time period? If so, then aren’t the women and men who are living in the acquired land really lenders? Shouldn’t we speak, not of just barely “compensating” them but actually of fulfilling their credit terms and repaying them with interest? In order to do this, we must stop thinking of them as merely oustees.

To hear them only as oustees is not to hear them. It is another method we use to deafen ourselves. The first world knows only how to deceive, invade, and bribe the second and to teach the third world to loot the fourth. There are few Indians with conscience enough to move freely among its four worlds, who have learned even one language of the fourth world.

The Supreme Court’s flirtation with contempt proceedings against one such woman was a failed attempt to silence. Their refusal to consider the comprehensive issues with respect to the Sardar Sarovar Project is another instance of silencing, made possible only because they see the villagers only as oustees with a rehabilitation problem, and do not hear them as articulate citizens with legitimate concerns about the project’s social and environmental impacts upon all of the people, and their own analysis of development policy which can contribute to a fresh review of the project.

Dams are being decommissioned in Western Countries like the US because they do more harm than good. Dismantling a dam, however is not sufficient to reconstruct the lives and communities it has broken, or regain the traditional knowledge which has been irretrievably lost to present and future generations – which, had we heeded, we might have avoided the massive scale of destruction in the first place.

I hope that those with the power to review at the world scale the decision making process of dams will reflect on the role of “hearings” – what they hear and what they silence, be the site a district meeting, a Supreme Court, or a World Commission.

This essay was submitted to the World Commission on Dams following the South Asia Regional Consultation in December 1998 .  It is posted without date as Sound Effects of Large Dams on the AID Website and AID PSU’s site, and mentioned in AID News April 14, 2000.


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