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Conservation and Society
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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 200-201

One Valley and a Thousand: Dams, Nationalism, and Development

Department of History, Uppsala University, Sweden

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Gunnel Cederlof
Department of History, Uppsala University
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Cederlof G. One Valley and a Thousand: Dams, Nationalism, and Development. Conservat Soc 2008;6:200-1

How to cite this URL:
Cederlof G. One Valley and a Thousand: Dams, Nationalism, and Development. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Jan 21];6:200-1. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/2/200/55778

Daniel Klingensmith. One Valley and a Thousand: Dams, Nationalism, and Development. Oxford University Press, New Delhi India. 2007. 315 pp. INR 650 (Hardcover). ISBN 0-195-68783-3.

Targeting the policy and implementation of two major twentieth century dam projects-one American and one Indian-Daniel Klingensmith's work is a thorough and well substantiated study of the appropriation of large scale technological projects in national discourses of progress and their unequal distribution of costs and benefits within the nation. The profound belief in the capacity to solve the bottlenecks of modernisation by means of technology, and rational, centralised administration was firmly established in both the United States of America (USA) and the British colonial administrations already in the nineteenth century. In India, the legacy was later maintained in post-Independence policies. In the utilitarian logic as defined by the USA, to achieve development for the 'public good' and for the benefit of the nation, large dams came to epitomise the essence of progress; according to Klingensmith, even more so in the Indian case than in the North American. Thereby, the two dam projects of the Tennessee valley in the USA (TVA) and the Damodar valley in India (DVC) already stood on firm grounds in their planning phases.

These two projects were both continuations of the ideas behind large dams built during the previous century. Yet they also represented the introduction of a series of megascale multi-purpose dams in river basins, built according to principles that had earlier not been put in force. The dams, the TVA being the model for the DVC, were intended to solve a whole series of problems in a region in one stroke. Land erosion, devastating floods, outmigration, increasing electricity demands and a deficient economy were all to be handled by the benefits of dam technology. The optimism of bureaucrats and politicians had no limits.

Klingensmith's study is an important contribution to our understanding of the early debates, which provided global legitimacy for large dams on an unprecedented scale in political and technocratic arenas. With roots in the colonial pasts, most of these dams in India were built after 1950-the 1970s and 80s being years of major expansion- and concentrated to three states. Out of India's present 4291 large dams or 9 per cent of the world's total (World Commission on Dams 2000) [1], only 292 were constructed before 1950. To that extent, the ideological grounding of the dams belongs as much to the colonial past as to the time of their broad distribution under Congress governments.

The study interestingly contrasts the combined political and technocratic vision of the original TVA project with the guiding idea of the Indian DVC. For David Lilienthal, one of TVA's directors and a dominant voice to spell out its meaning, the TVA expressed the leading role of the USA and Americans in the post-war world. In Lilienthal's bestseller Democracy on the March [2], the 'TVA idea' to promote production, consumption and growth was immediately identified with patriotism, anti-colonialism and humanism. Theirs was a march towards highly developed industrial production, based on an energy intensive economy, and lead by a democratic nation which had freed itself from colonial bonds. In contrast, even when portrayed as India's modern 'temples', Klingensmith argues that the Indian DVC project was driven by the idea that under technocratic leadership it was an apolitical enterprise.

Due to the influence of the USA on post-war economies, many countries found themselves heavy dependent on the policy and technology transfer of USA. Klingensmith argues that the Indian situation was different. India was 'large enough and already 'developed' enough' and could thereby avoid being co-opted through the dam programme into a structural dependence on the USA. The Indian version of the TVA was projected rather to promote a development autonomous of the emerging super powers. Meghnad Saha, physicist and a strong proponent of a TVA-inspired dam project in India in the 1950s, visualised India on par with the USA and the Soviet Union, as one of the only three countries that had the capacity for industrialisation based on national resources. The Cold War logic of visions and implementations of large scale technological projects is certainly worth exploring further in this connection.

Klingensmith emphasises the discrepancy between synoptic visions and fragmented implementations, not only in these two but also in most large dam projects, arguing that technocratic projects on such a scale may be impossible. While letting the projects materialise through national and regional adaptations, conflicting interests within and between bureaucrats, business groups and politicians tend to tear the visions apart.

Ecological and social realities of the Tennessee and Damodar valleys turned out to be different in important ways, and the TVA model turned out very different when applied to the Indian situation. Indian technocrats and scientists further preferred not to import the entire package of the TVA ideology into India but were quite selective with regard to Lilienthal's ideas. Klingensmith observes that the many potential dam sites along the Tennessee valley were not to be found along the flat plains of most of the Damodar valley below the Chhotanagpur hills, and concludes that the Indian site could never be utilised in the same way as its American model site.

Not only were the natural conditions different, institutional frame of the model was also based on an extremely selective reading. In India, the idea that large dams were a purely technocratic matter to be run at a central level, removed from political realities, was soon confronted by 'humanitarian aspects', not least those of people displaced by the flooded river sites. 'Rebellion [is] brewing among the Santhals' was reported by a Bihar member of the Lok Sabha. The environmental and social ramifications- whereby ecosystems were altered threatening human and animal habitats in a domino effect of erosion and silting, flooding and obstruction of fish and plant seasonal lives when free flowing water was blocked by reservoirs-soon went far beyond the capacity of technocratic management.

By way of a detailed scrutiny of the writings of individual bureaucrats, scientists and politicians, the study targets the trajectory of debates that guided the TVA and the DVC projects. Thereby the work speaks to a broader audience interested in critical assessments of twentieth century dominant development discourses. Simultaneously interrogating how large dams became part of political visions of the modern nation, i.e. this was the way to modernise and manifest the potency of the nation, and how the urban middle class and professional elite stood out as the avant garde of progress as opposed to the backward 'masses', Klingensmith draws attention to larger processes of industrialisation and modernity.

Beyond the scope of the study are the effects of policy implementation on people in the affected areas-the collateral damage of development. The author is careful not to lump people together into state versus people simplifications. Elite groups, absentee landlords, state and business bureaucrats are found also among rural low castes, dalits and adivasis. While Klingensmith thus only indicates the social, economic and political cleavages cutting through the agrarian environments, his book is therefore usefully read together with the many studies of conflicts caused by the establishment of dams, industrial plants, mines and other large scale production units which have dramatically changed ecological conditions and human livelihoods.

   References Top

1.World Commission on Dams. 2000. Report published by the United Nations Development Programme.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Lilienthal, D. 1944. TVA: Democracy on the March. Harper and Brothers, New York, USA.  Back to cited text no. 2      


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