Tehri on, regardless

DAM officials, contractors and technical experts supporting the dam have been quick to brush aside the tunnel collapse as a mere lapse. But nothing related to the Rs 6,000 crore-plus project has simple answers. In its 26th year of construction, the project has been most controversial. Since 1980, at least four different committees have rejected it from the safety point-of-view and for environmental reasons. International experts' calculations were used to prove the dam was seismically safe; all of them have said their figures were fudged. The project bashes on, regardless (see: 'A dark tunnel').

Much debate has raged about the benefit of the dam, in money terms. When it was conceived, more than three decades back, the dam was to cost Rs 200 crore. The cost has increased thirty-fold since. Such a protracted construction period also meant that rehabilitation could never be done satisfactorily.

The popular movement against the dam was at its peak between 1985-2000. But the dam continued to rise. Several experts tried to reason that such a mammoth project, in the geologically fragile Himalaya, was a big mistake. Nowhere else in the world could such a project be allowed to come up. Especially when there lived a huge population downstream. The government paid sporadic heed and responded by forming more expert groups. More reports, more dissent, but always Tehri was given a go-ahead. The justification was always the same: look how much money has already been spent. Supporters of the dam have always said it was for national development. To date, many rockfaces around the old and New Tehri towns wear the painted message: "Nation before self'. Only look at the cost of such posturing: 125 villages to be affected, fully or partially and more than 70,000 people to be displaced. And, to date, we do not know whether the dam structure is really safe or not!

An expert, who has fought long and hard to convince people that the dam design was flawed, once said, "In an atmosphere of so much scientific illiteracy, what eventually wins the day is how many people repeat the same statement, rather than how scientifically examined that statement is. And unfortunately, the number of people on the other side is much larger.' Hopefully, the recent incident will reduce those numbers. As one expert said, "If a little rainfall can do this, what when a major earthquake strikes?' We may not know till the time it really does. And then it may be too late.