Dams and the Politics of Development

Original Text by: Prof. Stephen Bocking, Assistant Professor, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada Dams are about much more than just providing electricity or water. In societies as diverse as India, Brazil and the United States, dams have been viewed as "engines" of development: the means by which economic growth and "progress" may be instilled among people, and by which a region, perhaps considered to be "backward" can be modernized.

They also fulfill important symbolic roles. For example, the Bakun Dam in Malaysia, like national highways, new airports, and tall office buildings, is intended to demonstrate that Malaysia is becoming an advanced industrial economy, and is one of the leading nations of southeast Asia. They are often considered emblematic of national progress: secular temples, or symbols of the aspirations of a nation. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, in 1954 described his feelings on viewing the Nangal Canal and the construction site of the Bhakra Dam in the Punjab:

"What a stupendous, magnificent work - a work which only that nation can take up which has faith and boldness! … it has become the symbol of a nation's will to march forward with strength, determination and courage… As I walked around the [dam] site I thought that these days the biggest temple and mosque and gurdwara is the place where man works for the good of mankind. Which place can be greater than this, this Bhakra-Nangal, where thousands and lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of men have worked, hve shed their blood and sweat and laid down their lives as well? Where can be a greater and holier place than this, which we can regard as higher?" (Quoted in Silenced Rivers, p.2.)

With such an attitude being widely shared, it is not surprising that the development of dams has paced the development process itself over the last fifty years. And as our experience with dams also suggests, development is never a politically or ideologically neutral process. In fact, they provide an entry into a variety of issues concerning the politics of development, such as divergent concepts and ideologies of development, the importance of international aid, the role of civil society, and the significance of human rights. These and other aspects of the politics of dams can be considered in terms of a series of themes. The first of these themes is that of "Dams and Development": understanding dams as part of the process of economic and social development. Within this theme, several issues can also be considered, including the relationship between dams and national pride, the relationship between dams and international aid, the role of technical expertise in dam development, and the lessons concerning different forms of development that can be provided by dams. More information about dams and development Dams also represent one of the most overt manifestations of the urge to dominate nature, regulate it, and turn it towards satisfying the needs and wants of humanity. This theme of "Dams and domination" raises questions concerning relationships between humanity and nature, as well as those amongst humans. More information about dams and domination Dams have also increasingly become the focus of opposition, by groups directly affected by dam projects, or who are opposed to these projects for a variety of other reasons. The opposition and controversy elicited by dams is therefore an additional significant theme in the politics of dam development.

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