On of my professors has been lecturing for the past couple of weeks about the mega dam projects on the Narmada River in northeast India. The history of these huge dams go back all the way to the 1940s when India was still a British colony, but here’s a 10-cent version: Expert planners envisioned builting thousands of dams, some absolutely enormous, on the river to provide a steady supply of water to a huge swath of drought-prone land. Who can argue with the government’s desire to feed its people? Trouble is, the government made no plan to relocate many villagers who lived in the to-be-flooded river valley, and a social movement began out of the issue, has elevated into an international cause celebre, and now questions the rationale for the dam altogether. Today, the dam is about two-thirds built and is under construction.
So we’ve been discussing the problem at length. Was the problem the idea of a dam at all, or just the way in which it was planned and left out the displaced valley-dwellers? Was this planning from above vs. planning from below? Transnationalization of counterhegemonic resistance movements, the role of modern technology and footloose global capital and the World Bank, etc. All sorts of smart-sounding, the-more-syllables-the-better academic babble to describe some honestly fascinating stuff. This is what graduate degrees are all about, right? 🙂
I’m cynical about some of these explanations, though, and suspect they miss soomething. I wonder if the main problem is that people just want to build stuff. Forget the mutisyllabic jargon, the real issue here is human selfishness and pride. I saw some of this at my old job in a public transit agencty where our General Manager told us we were “master builders.” People in power want to be known, and to create a legacy for themselves – that’s one of the personal qualities that drew them to power in the first place. These people will try to manipulate institutions, technical data, plans, and rhetoric about “national interests” – just to get their way. Not a far cry from a toddler in a sandbox, a rich tycoon establishing a foundation, or a Puritan believing in an afterlife, leaders are simply bowing to the very human desire to build something that will endure beyond their lifetime.