Big dams and protests in India: A study of Hirakud dam – An article in EPW

It is evident that the domestic resistance to the project was variously compromised by nationalist rhetoric, imperatives of state development and absence of transnational support. The Hirakud dam project has failed on all of its objectives – flood management, hydropower production, irrigation and navigation. Its socio-economic impact has been devastating.

The article begins by stating how protest move­ments may contribute to the legitimacy of democratic governance, as they signifi­cantly enhance the interactive space be­tween the rulers and the ruled. As a mode of political participation, they put pressure on the state authority. At the same time, however, the type or the form of govern­ment in a country also affects the number and intensity of such protests. The structure and ethos of democratic regime, as against an authoritarian one, better addresses and responds to protests.

In the developing world national development strat­egies were framed which essentially fol­lowed the western ideas of modernisation. “Mega-projects”, hence, became the dogma of the day. These countries realised that the availability of adequate infrastructure facilities was vital for the acceleration of their economic development. Post-second world war, the rapid eco­nomic growth seen in subsequent two decades accelerated the global dam con­struction rate. Four sets of factors could be attributed to this puzzling trend – technical, financial, economic and political and the article discusses them in detail. The major hurdle that makes dams unviable is the mounting political opposition signified by ever-increasing protests against them.

With dam construction being increas­ingly challenged in the First World by a vibrant environmental civil society net­work, dam construction declined. It forced transnational corporations and the fund­ing agencies to shift their activities to de­veloping countries.

There are ample historical evidences of dams-induced displacement in India since the British colonial period. There was large-scale opposition from the local population as soon as it was decided to build dam at Hirakud. The local leaders along with some ex-bureaucrats took an active role in opposing the dam construction. The demand for separation of Sambalpur from Orissa formed an important basis for organisation of the masses against the dam.

Although the nature of the domestic opposition to the Hirakud dam was strikingly similar to domestic anti-dam struggles that emerged in the greater numbers in India during the 1970s, it failed to prosper due to the absence of NGOs, transnational allied advocacy networks, legitimised global norms on human rights, indigenous peoples and the environmental lobbies.

The resistance to Hirakud dam could be justified on the ground that none of the four objectives – flood management, hydropower production, irrigation and navigation of the dam has been fulfilled even after its 50 years of completion. The failure of Hirakud dam could be easily seen through an empirical scrutiny of the fulfilment of its main objectives. Further, it can be argued that the Hirakud dam has submerged more lands and displaced more people than estimated in the feasibility report. Lack of proper compensations and rehabilitation by the government forced the displaced people to move to different places to settle themselves on their own initiative. It resulted in severe livelihood crises, health hazards and diseases made them victims in their initial period of self-resettlement. Submergence of their lands under the Hirakud reservoir forced them to reel under various socio-economic crises and marginalised them in various aspects of their life.


The study of World Commission on Dams report (2000) found that large dams display a high variability in delivering predicted performances and related social benefits with a considerable falling short of physical and economic targets. It is also less profitable in economic terms and has a range of extensive socio-economic and environmental impacts. Thus the true profitability of these schemes remains elusive (World Commission on Dams 2000). A close look at the performance of Hirakud dam clearly shows that it has underperformed in every respect and has had large-scale socio-economic impacts.

Given these circumstances, the question arises that should large dams be built? The unfortunate answer is yes. Large dams remain a necessary development option for providing water and energy resources to populations in developing countries that are in crisis. Taking the case of India, its growing population and rising need for food and water present a difficult situation.

Further, it is compounded by dwindling monsoons that concentrate rainfall within a relatively short time period and in such a situation, it is hard to see an alternative in some large storage reservoirs. But dams should only be constructed after a “best practice” options assessment process that gives sufficient emphasis to environmental and social issues and only where adequate policies exist and are implemented and where project authorities, contractors and consultants have a legal responsibility to follow whatever contractual conditionalities are necessary to implement the project as intended.

Besides, dams should not be constructed in the most favourable zone of the matrix that gives exclusive weightage to only high technical-economic advantages. The process of dam building should be based on a thorough analysis of alternatives. Efforts for alternative dam site should be identified on the same river to fulfil the same objectives with least social, cultural and environmental impacts.

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