Posted by: jdantos | October 12, 2005

Damming the Narmada River

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.



  1. Has the Three Gorges Dam in China entered the conversation? I ask because the issue is parallel, in that a central gov’t built a dam to solve problems, but in the act of filling the lake behind the dam flooded out the ancestral homes of a million people.
    I would say that the British rule over India in the 1940’s included a Christian sentiment that is only now just starting to fade: God gave the world to man, for us to rule over. That sentiment brought us the idea of “taming the wilderness” until folks like Muir and Thoreau came along to plant a new seed (pun WAY intended) in our collective consciousness.
    I suspect including human nature in a conversation about our impact on the environment is important, though to look past the culture and society that is present I think is to miss a big piece of the puzzle. You can discuss the desire to build and create, and the tunnel-vision that can come with good intentions; both being really important aspects of the issue. Religion & Imperialism belong in there too, especially when talking about India in the 20th, and it appears the Middle East here in the 21st.
    Transnationalism is a buzzword in Geography too, and is starting to gain lots of research dollars and interest. The social and business networks that are appearing in this information age are fairly new in the forms. How is the Indian Dam related? Is there private investment? Or is the transnational part the protest against its construction?
    One fellow student of mine is working on transnational networks of migrant farm workers in CA who support families in Guatemala. Her presentations about her thesis have seemed fascinating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: