History and extent of dams in India

  • India’s first dam is the Kallanai built on the Cauvery river by King Karikalan of the Chola dynasty around 2,000 years ago. The dam, which is still functional and irrigates millions of acres, spans 329 m in length and 20 m in width.
  • However, it was only post-independence that India’s love for big dams became more intense with the commissioning of a slew of projects including the Hirakud (1957), Gandhisagar (1960), Bhakra-Nangal (1963) and Nagarjuna Sagar (1967). Since then, the country has been continuously working on reining in its rivers for want of power, irrigation and domestic and industrial water supply needs.
  • Almost half of the large dams in the country were built in the two decades of 1970-90. Maharashtra has the maximum number of large dams in the country (1845) followed by Madhya Pradesh (905) and Gujarat (666).
  • A multi-purpose dam project includes one or more dams, infrastructure for generation of hydropower, infrastructure for housing of workers and for offices, a distribution network of canals and pipe systems, and access roads.
  • All these have their individual and cumulative impacts on the river and the surrounding environment. Here also lies an opportunity to minimise the ‘collateral damage’ caused by dam projects by minimising the footprint of these adjuncts.

Dams as power generators

  • Hydropower is often billed as a renewable, economic and non-polluting source of energy and hence there is an increased emphasis on building dams especially in the hydrologically-rich but geologically-fragile Himalayan states.
  • An assessment study put the hydroelectric power potential of the country at about 84,000 MW with maximum schemes envisaged on Brahmaputra basin (226) followed by Indus basin (190) and Ganga basin (142).
  • Possibility of revenue generation through sale of power units to other states and private players remains the main draw for state governments to invite project developers.
  • However, reports suggest that poor financial conditions of discoms make it a poor proposition. Average generation per MW of hydro capacity in India in 2014-15 was over 20 per cent less than that in 1993-94.

Dams and canals for irrigation

  • Canal system of irrigation had been prevalent in India for centuries but it was the Ganga Canal that laid the foundation for large scale diversion of water to farms.
  • Though the work was undertaken under the leadership of British Colonel Proby Cautley, it was the traditional acumen of local villagers that made the vast network possible. The canal was commissioned in 1855 irrigating around 5,000 villages.
  • Today, the system irrigates nearly 9,000 km² of agricultural land in 10 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
  • The start of the Green Revolution in the mid 1960s put the spotlight on canal irrigation as the new hybrid crop varieties bred on heavy dose of chemical fertilizers and pesticides demanded assured irrigation.
  • However, the increased investment and network expansion dealt little benefits.
  • The World Commission on Dams in its year 2000 report found that the contribution of large dams to increased food grains production in India was less than 10 percent.
  • Loss in seepage, huge demand-supply gap, diversions under political pressures and comparatively easier and local availability of groundwater through pervasive use of borewells are the reasons for decline in efficiency trend.
  • Between 1996-97 and 2002-03, the area under canal irrigation declined by 2.4 million ha (13.8 per cent), the area under tank irrigation fell by 1.4 million ha (42.4 per cent), and the area irrigated by all other sources declined by 1 million ha (28 per cent).
  • The only irrigation source that increased its share was groundwater wells, by 2.8 million ha (more than 9 per cent).
  • A study of 210 major and medium irrigation projects by SANDRP used the data supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture to show that after investing Rs 130,000 crore, these delivered 2.4 million ha less irrigation during 1990-1 to 2006-7. This means, the governments have to invest twice as fast in canal irrigation projects every year just to keep their command areas from shrinking
  • The study said that around Rs 1,00,000 crore was wasted in the name of improving irrigation. Feasibility studies were fudged in the case of most of the projects with huge investments, over-optimistic predictions were made and very little money was earmarked for basic maintenance such as desiltation. In some cases, political interests ensured that water was diverted to unviable areas at the cost of needier regions.

Dams and flood control

  • The efficiency of dams to withhold floods has always been put to question. Critics have also termed dams as harbinger of floods claiming that the essential scientific assessment for consistent release of water to avoid build up is rarely done.
  • Absence of a standard operating procedure for releasing water from the dam gates was evident in 2014 when 24 students picnicking in a river were swept away due to sudden release of water from Larji dam in Himachal Pradesh.
  • Similarly, area downstream of Hirakud dam in Odisha has witnessed 14 floods in recent past with nine caused by sudden release of water from the dam.
  • A major reason is that the dam has not changed its flood control strategy for 23 years while the rainfall pattern has undergone major changes in local areas.
  • Lack of a coordination mechanism between neighbouring states about water flow also leads to emergency situations like one in 2011 when sudden release of water flow from upstream dams in Chhattisgarh led to breaching of danger mark in Hirakud.
  • In Gujarat, sudden release of large quantities of water from Ukai dam led to the biggest flood of 34 years in Tapi river submerging over 80 per cent of Surat, killing 150 persons and stranding over 20 lakh. Similar examples have been reported from other states.


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