The completion last week of a significant milestone in the construction of one of India’s largest hydroelectric projects, the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River, [1] was greeted largely with indifference in the country and abroad, even though it puts an end to one of the longest-running controversies in the country’s modern history.

The contrast with China’s more majestic Three Gorges [2] project is quite stark, particularly in terms of implementation speed, objectives and methods. The wrenching shortage of physical infrastructure in India cannot be resolved with an ambivalent attitude toward such projects; therefore there is much to learn from the Chinese approach in this matter.

Local opposition

Even as the Indian project started in 1987, attempts at resettling villagers affected by the dam construction did not begin in earnest until about four years later. In the case of China, resettling most villagers was generally a simple affair, although the menace of corruption proved problematic in securing clearances. In the case of India, the role of “professional protesters” became more important, compounding the problems of corruption and bureaucratic incompetence.

Opposition to both projects comes mainly from people facing displacement in surrounding villages. However, government authorities moved quickly to effect resettlement of individuals in China starting in the mid-1990s, in contrast to the longer process required in the case of Indian villagers.

The nature of India’s government, which allows an independent judiciary to co-exist with an elected parliament and an appointed bureaucracy (executive), has obvious advantages in addressing imbalances. The contrasts with China’s unilateral approach, wherein all three arms mentioned above are controlled by the Communist Party, are stark, however, in terms of implementation rather than in concept.

A frequent complaint of protesters in India has been about their inability to secure proper government compensation, even after it is duly mandated by local state governments, because of bureaucratic corruption. While the problem of corruption is equally endemic in China, the need to achieve stated objectives by specific timelines provides a more efficient framework. That said, it also causes potential abuses of power, such as the number of people reported “missing” because of their opposition to the Three Gorges project.

Power to the people

Dams are controversial projects everywhere in the world, because of their high environmental impact, displacement of people and the large costs required to be borne up front. In the case of such countries as India and China, such hydroelectric projects prove to be essential because of their role in reducing dependence on non-renewable sources of energy, as well as the efficiencies to be had in the storage and distribution of fresh water. In essence, dams are a compromise between current costs and future benefits, and therefore require adroit management of society’s expectations to have any chances of success.

The scale of people benefiting from both these projects far outweighs the number of people facing displacement in both countries. While the Chinese Communist Party has managed to keep the calculations fairly simple and straightforward for the Three Gorges project, democratic India has had to fudge its accounts to push its project through. For China, the cost of the project has been compared to the economic benefits in terms of power generated and additional benefits from regulating the shipping on the river.

In the case of India, though, the calculations have been skewed for various reasons. First, power and irrigation benefits generated by dams cannot be easily quantified because of extensive state subsidies to farmers. These subsidies, on a range of inputs including electricity and fertilizers, must also be compared to the minimum price system in effect for agricultural production. Any attempt to cut farmers’ subsidies have proved to be politically suicidal, given the large number of farmers in the country who vote the politicians into power.

This is where political math becomes more complicated – while a political party espousing the cause of a hydroelectric project can expect to lose the support of people displaced, it cannot expect to gain patronage of people who stand to benefit until after the project is completed, by which time governments would have changed hands more than a few times. In the Narmada case above, a 20-year construction automatically implies at least five governments (not all serve their five-year terms).

The heart of the opposition to such projects stems from the lack of opportunities for farmers to improve their lot. It is a strange feature of India’s economic growth that a number of regions in the country have not enjoyed any industrialization, much less the attendant urbanization. Lacking employment opportunities in towns and cities, most villagers tend to stay put, and thus have greater reasons to fear displacement that could imperil their already hand-to-mouth existence.

Therein lies the Hobson’s choice for India, or at least its politicians. The country’s ability to grow its economy in a sustained fashion in coming decades depends almost entirely on its ability to upgrade physical infrastructure such as water, roads and power. As all these projects require significant investment, a government unable to trim subsidies and other expenditures will find itself unable to fund projects. Meanwhile, opposition from the vested interests emerges as politically unacceptable in terms of cost.

Primacy of economics

It is ironic to note the egalitarian attempts of India in the context of a deeply divided and unequal Hindu society, contrasting as it does with the substantial wealth imbalances in a nominally Communist Party-run China. The missing variable that explains this gap is not so much the current state of affairs as much as expected future outlook.

In essence, the Chinese have every expectation of and desire for material improvement, for which they are willing to bear small sacrifices at the present juncture, such as a regimented communist government. In contrast, Indians have had a poor experience of growth’s benefits until recently, and thus have greater inertia when it comes to matters of development.

The process of growth becomes easier when people likely to benefit from projects exercise their electoral rights in an equally fervid fashion as those that are likely to lose. In the Narmada calculations, securing the votes of millions of farmers likely to benefit from the irrigation provided by the project would have more than offset the negative voice of the few hundred thousand who stood to lose their livelihoods. Greater economic growth would benefit even these poor farmers, by providing employment elsewhere. The inability of governments and politicians to communicate the benefits of such growth to their constituents remains a key impediment to India ‘s progress.

The dry facts

The scale of the Narmada project pales in comparison with that of the Three Gorges, and yet construction on the former has taken a whole lot longer. While India took almost 20 years to complete project works on the Sardar Sarovar Dam, China effected completion of the main dams over the Three Gorges in less than 12 years. Interestingly, both projects had a long history – the Three Gorges project was originally conceived by Dr Sun Yat Sen as a cure for controlling the Yangtze River, while the Narmada project was conceived in the 1940s by government officials keen to spur economic development in the western part of the country.

1. The Sardar Sarovar project comprises construction of a 163-meter-high and 1,200-meter-long concrete gravity dam across the Narmada River. The 458-kilometer lined canal will irrigate 1.8 million hectares of land in Gujarat and will also provide 616 million cubic meters of water to Rajasthan. The installed capacity of the riverbed powerhouse is 1,200 megawatts and the canal-head powerhouse is 250MW. The project will also cater to the domestic water-supply needs of 135 towns and 8,215 villages of Gujarat. The number of families likely to be affected by submergence, based on the 1991 census, is estimated at 40,727; of these, 33,014 are of Madhya Pradesh (from the International Rivers Network website,

2. When completed, the US$25 billion Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. With an installed generating capacity of 18,200MW, the dam will span more than 2km across and tower 185 meters above the world’s third-longest river. Its reservoir will stretch more than 600km upstream and force the displacement of more than 1.3 million people. Construction began in 1994 and is scheduled for completion by 2009. Construction on the dam itself was completed last May.