India’s Dam Building Abroad: Ignoring Lessons from Home?

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Indian companies and state-owned enterprises have rapidly expanded their domestic and overseas investments in recent years. Not least motivated by the example of Chinese investors, they are trying to gain access to foreign resources, win international contracts, and strengthen their relations with trading blocks such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They have long had a presence in neighboring countries such as Nepal and Bhutan, and are now also spreading to more distant countries in Asia and Africa.

This article looks at the track record of Indian institutions that are engaged in building dams in India and abroad, and analyzes some of the problems their new projects have created.

The actors and the stage

“>”Anti-Dam Protests Get Louder in Northeast India.” ) Adding fuel to the fire, China claims that Arunachal Pradesh is part of China. Building hundreds of large dams in the biodiversity-rich, seismically active, erosion-prone and mountainous northeast at a time when climate change is impacting river flows is a recipe for disaster.

India’s National Water Mission (part of its National Action Plan on Climate Change) has as one of its goals the “promotion of basin level integrated water resources management,” which appears to translate into exhausting the nation’s potential to build dams. Credible and comprehensive basin-wide carrying capacity studies or cumulative impact studies have not been undertaken in any basin. That said, the Federal Ministry of Environment and Forests continues to grant sanctions for hydroelectric projects even for rivers where river basin studies are just beginning, and mostly to agencies with questionable track records and where issues of conflict of interest linger.

Discussions on the new National Water Policy, to be finalized by March 2013, have already begun, but the water sector establishment has shown no interest in consulting the people and organizations working at the grassroots or those who have been critical of the government’s water sector agenda.

Exporting conflict?

Dams in India have a long and extremely divisive history. Poor, marginalized and often tribal people bore the brunt of dams’ impacts in India, but received few if any of their benefits. Dams have triggered many large-scale social mobilizations and huge demonstrations, the blockade of construction sites, hunger strikes, court cases and other forms of conflict. Indian dam builders and financiers have not developed credible policies to address the negative social and environmental impacts of their projects. In numerous cases, they have circumvented laws, government and court decisions. Already, dams with Indian involvement have also triggered protests and court cases in Nepal, Burma and Uganda.

In many host countries where Indian projects are being built, there are no appropriate laws or policies to regulate the social and environmental impacts of dam projects. In countries such as Bhutan, Burma, Ethiopia and Vietnam, there is no political space for an independent civil society, judiciary or media. In such countries, foreign investors and financiers have a particular responsibility to address the social and environmental impacts of their projects.

As they expand their foreign operations, Indian dam builders and financiers risk exporting their negative domestic track record and creating conflicts over their projects abroad. The Export Import Bank of India and Indian companies now building dams abroad are well advised to adopt the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams for good practice in water and energy sector development, to avoid getting embroiled in international conflicts over their projects, and to avoid bringing disrepute to their name and that of the country of their origin.