Damned chicanery

  • 14/07/1995

Damn this chicanery. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao has firmly rejected the demand by opponents of the Tehri dam for an independent review of the controversial project. With a media anaesthetised by the fact that he is really into his 4th year of governance, against all expert punditry that he would come a cropper, Rao can rest assured that his inflexibility on the issue will be seen as strength, not another of those rounds of dithering he is famous for. And Sunderlal Bahuguna, the sexagenarian Sarvodaya leader who was recently force-fed to break his fast, can go hang.

And in a way, Rao is right. What will yet another review achieve, especially when the clutter of previous ones have all indicted the dam on every possible ground -- costs, safety, seismicity and design? Rao's own government's Cabinet Committee has indicted the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation for ennui and prevarication. Even its disaster management plan has not been submitted to the ministry of environment and forests (MEF), nor has the Bhagirathi Basin Management Authority been formed. The implementation of various safeguard measures is, says the report, lagging far behind schedule.

Rao claims that the project has been reviewed thrice since 1992, and once by himself: he holds that every objection has been adequately met, and there is no need for a review. Unfortunately, Rao is neither a seismologist nor an earthquake scientist. Furthermore, he is inordinately bright, as politicians go, and there is no doubt that he comprehends the best of opinions in the country on the subject. Critics gawk at the fact that instead of heeding the advice of seismologist -- including foreign experts like the Soviet project chief Engineer Alexander Fink or US expert Kenneth Campbell -- not to build the dam, he has relied on the advice of an earthquake engineer, Jai Krishna of Roorkee University. But is Krishna the best man for the job?

In the construction of dams, a supremely important factor is a trade-off -- the balancing of costs against associated risks. All risk calculations are ultimately slave to the law of probabilities. The High Level Committee appointed in 1990 had used a 50th percentile estimate of peak ground acceleration during earthquakes, implying that in 50 per cent of cases, it would in fact, be higher than what the dam was designed for. In simple terms, this implies that half the total number of earthquakes, the dam would be in great jeopardy.

Most international scientists, including Campbell, however, point out that the 84th percentile is the cut off point the world over. Campbell calculated the 84th percentile peak ground acceleration for sites similar to Tehri as 0.75 g during an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 on the Richter scale -- thrice that estimated by the High Level Committee, which is what Rao probably relies on when he gives a clean chit to the dam. Campbell's calculations have been disputed -- but when so much potential damage can, even probably, be caused, there are no 2 opinions that the lower the risk the better: the chances of going wrong 16 times out of 100 are better than erring 50 times out of 100. Given the latter, any gambler would foreclose.

The very assumptions on which seismologists make their calculations about the safety of any structure in a seismic zone are being changed. The earthquake in Kobe in Japan on January 17 this year has rudely woken earthquake engineers to the fact that their science still has a long way to go before it can provide foolproof structures, whether they are dwellings or dams. In fact, large dams themselves have been the focus of much concern, especially after the World Bank -- which has so far financed 87 mega multipurpose projects in India -- shows in its own study that 80 of these dams are unsafe.

The prime minister of the world's largest democracy cannot afford to be wrong, not when the general elections are almost round the corner. Playing to the gallery of megaproject supporters and lobbyists, whose votes and money will count more than most, Rao has chosen to ignore the warnings of his own ministry of environment and forests. The MEF's warning is that in the case of an earthquake-induced dam failure, the reservoir will empty out in 22 minutes; in 63 minutes, a 260-metre-high column of water will hit Rishikesh; in 80 minutes a 232-m-high water column will inundate Hardwar. If this is just collateral damage, it's too much to gamble against it.

Agreed that power, irrigation and development are imperative. But the local people stand to gain little from the project, both in terms of power and irrigation. The point here is that if the state of Uttarakhand were not just a distant dream, the local people could draw solace from the fact that they could sell water and power to earn revenue for the state.

And if developing the local people were the government's concern, alternate models of generating power, like microhydel projects or run-of-the-river schemes could be explored. As it is, the dam region's traditional water harvesting and distribution systems are famous. These could be revived and extended with the help of community institutions.

The nation needs people like Bahuguna to rouse its conscience. But Bahuguna himself has to rethink his strategy and not still hope to move leaders unburdened with a conscience. Rao has declared Bahuguna a "friend", but even his telex to him to give up his fast was not out of genuine concern; it was sent, it said explicitly, because someone else had asked Rao to write in.

Bahuguna has to devise ways and means to take the movement to the people, just as he did during the Chipko days or the way his mentor, poet Suman Dev, took the movement against the Tehri Raj to the masses.

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