Talking about water

Human costs and environmental impact of the proposed multipurpose project on the Mahakali river dominated proceedings at a recent Indo-Nepal workshop in Nainital

Published: Thursday 15 July 1999

the voice of dissent against large dams has reached a crescendo in recent years. Booker-prize winner Arundathi Roy and several other eminent personalities have joined anti-dam activists like Medha Patkar and Sundarlal Bahuguna to denounce them as 'big woes'. However, two developmental institutes from across the Indo-Nepalese border see the construction of dams as much more than just harnessing the energy potential of water.

The latest in the series of Track 2 seminars conducted by the Indo-Nepal joint venture on the integrated development of the Mahakali river gave reason to believe that environmental and human aspects of the project were of greater concern to the negotiating parties than just power prospects. Organised by the Kathmandu-based Institute of Integrated Development Studies ( iids ) and Centre for Policy Research ( cpr ), New Delhi, under the aegis of the B P Koirala Foundation, Kathmandu, the workshop was held at Nainital in Uttar Pradesh from June 7-9.

However, more than the talk of generating energy, which could meet much of Nepal's electricity demands and avert India's power crisis to a certain extent, the environmental impact, relief and rehabilitation for the people living in one of the most backward areas of both the countries dominated the proceedings.

The two governments signed the Mahakali Treaty on February 12, 1996, for the integrated development of the river. This included the proposed 6,480-megawatt Pancheswar multipurpose project along with the existing Sarada barrage and Tanakpur barrage located downstream from the proposed Pancheswar dam site. It laid down in principle that the Mahakali would be developed in an integrated way to maximise the total net benefit from development, that both sides would be entitled to equal benefits and would share the costs in proportion to the benefits they actually utilised.

However, three years later, political instability in both the countries and differences on contentious issues have relegated the water-sharing venture to the backburner. The Detailed Project Report, which was supposed to be prepared within six months of signing the treaty, is yet to see the light of the day.

Emphasis was laid on the importance of carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment ( eia ) of the project area and working out a relief and rehabilitation ( r&r ) package for the people, which B George Verghese of cpr called "software aspects of the project". All the delegates unanimously agreed that these issues should be studied concurrently with the Detailed Project Report, rather than sequentially so as to trigger the socio-economic development of the area and also avoid delay in the progress of the project.

As with the workshop held at Mahendranagar, Nepal, in January this year, emphasis was also laid on the participation of local stakeholders and non-governmental organisations at the Nainital meet. "This is necessary because it is they who have to understand the pros and cons of the project," says Man Mohan Sainju, chairperson, iids . Various leaders from both the countries took part in the discussions and provided insight into several regional issues.

The seminars were attended by the Indian ambassador to Nepal, K V Rajan, and his counterpart, Beekh Bahadur Thapa. The other participants from included politicians, former bureaucrats, environmentalists, academicians, non-governmental organisations, economists, social scientists, local stakeholders and officials from the World Bank.

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