Energy-hungry India can neither abandon dams nor embrace the Chinese policy of building many large ones

Foto: FInancialTribune

 

The constant clackety droning of drilling machines and excavators punctures the idyllic surrounds of the Temghar dam, some 50 km west of Pune. Opened in 2010, the dam, with a capacity of 3,000 million cubic feet, was a key supplement to the ever-thirsty and fastgrowing Pune city and district.

The Rs 314 crore reservoir is empty. It has been drained to facilitate a Rs 100 crore repair for a dam that leaks 10-12% of its contents due to poor construction. On a mid-November day, when this writer visited the site, the gates to the dam were shut and a handful of workers milled about. On one side, a massive mound of debris lay waiting to be cleared by an excavator that had yet to be pressed into service.

Opposite a gate at the dam’s base, a tea stall owner snagged a couple of customers curious about the dam, but in a rush to head to Lavasa, a new city being built 20 km to the south. “This dam has been forever under construction… there’s nothing here for you to see,” smirked Suresh, the weary tea seller.

Temghar is the kind of fodder that critics of reckless, unchecked construction feed their diatribes on. While large dams in the past have been attacked for displacing large numbers of people, more recent protests have centred around the long-term environmental impact, the top-down decision-making to decide their location that bypassed local communities, and abstruse technical details and hazy economics around dam construction. Once hailed as temples of modern India, when several large projects were started, dams today are facing much closer scrutiny.

Maharashtra is among the top three builders of dams in the country. Underlining the irony is the 148-year-old Khadakwasala dam, next to Temghar, which barely leaks and has survived an inescapable deluge in 1961 and stands strong. The leaky Temghar dam has been problematic since its opening, with leaks springing up rapidly and the state being forced to blacklist its contractors and rush repairs.
Energy-hungry India can neither abandon dams nor embrace the Chinese policy of building many large ones

Energy-hungry India can neither abandon dams nor embrace the Chinese policy of building many large ones
Dam Safety
As large dams built just after Independence reach their sell-by dates, tough questions are being raised on whether India needs such aggressive investments in dams. According to estimates, 80% of India’s large dams are over 25 years old, while as many as 170 are 100 years or older. India ranks third globally with 5,254 large dams in operation and 447 large dams under construction.

Few among the older dams, many in need of varying degrees of repairs, match current design and safety norms. There are other issues too — one study by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, estimates that over half of India’s dams are in seismically sensitive zones.
“India is the third largest builder of dams in the world and yet lacks a dam-safety mechanism that is transparent and participative. People who are most impacted by the construction of a dam are often left out of this process,” says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a civic advocacy outfit. “Operational safety is very important to people who live downstream due to to the looming risk of flooding,” Thakkar adds.

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