Multipurpose river valley projects: Retrospection is needed


By: Vipin Khokad


Multipurpose river valley projects in India were started with the basic aim of meeting the critical requirements of irrigation for agriculture, electricity for industries and flood control. The importance of the dams at that time can be inferred from the fact that dams were regarded as “the temples of modern India” by J.L Nehru. Accordingly, dam construction was given such a high priority in India’s economic plans. Till now “Irrigation and hydro-power have been the major objectives of the water resources development in India.”


An appraisal of multipurpose river valley projects in India-

(A)Impressive achievements -

  • Increase in the irrigation potential – Irrigation is the single most important factor in achieving a successive breakthrough in agriculture and a measure of self-sufficiency in food in food production. The heavy investment on major and medium irrigation projects have shown good results. The irrigation potential created by large and medium works has increased by about four times(from 1950-51 to 2005-06).
  • Augmentation of hydro-electric energy – There is increase in the hydro-electric energy capacity by about 38 times(from 1950-51 to 2005-06).

(B) Hidden side of the coin-The reality

While on the one side the economic planners were making boasts about the success of the multipurpose river valley projects, in retrospect, a careful study of the so-called ‘Impressive achievements‘ reveals that how these projects have fallen on the stony ground. The success of these projects was not up to scratch and it was exaggerated. The startling revelations of the multipurpose river valley projects can be put under the following heads-

  • Irrigation benefits exaggerated – A careful study of the above ‘impressive achievements” will reveal that they were not really that much impressive. By and large, there was a gap between irrigation potential created and actual area irrigated.
  • Hydro-power is not cheap – Hydro-power is considered as a renewable and non-polluting source of energy. Moreover, it is regarded as a cheaper source of energy as compared to thermal and nuclear power. But, in practice, it is not cheap. It is even more expensive than the thermal power and the nuclear power. The major reason which can be held responsible for such paradox is that there are persistent delays in the commissioning of the hydro-power projects in India, which, in turn, lead to prolonged gestation period. As a result, the cost of generating thermal power is Rs.4,000 per KW while it is as high as Rs.7,000 per KW in case of hydro-power.
  • No benefit of flood control – By impounding a river’s water so as to release it at a controlled rate, a dam acts as a buffer against floods.The multipurpose river valley projects have been constructed to prevent floods in their respective regions. Startlingly, in practice, flood control measures have failed miserably and over the years, the area affected by floods and the damage to crops, cattle and to human beings has increased sharply – despite the multipurpose river valley projects. The major factor here is heavy siltation of major dams; the rate of siltation is much higher than originally estimated. Heavy siltation, in turn, leads to reduction in storage capacity as well as life span of the reservoirs. The reservoirs, therefore, are incapable of absorbing heavy floods. Often, panic discharges from these reservoirs leads to devastating flesh floods, especially in the valley’s down stream.
  • Adverse environmental effects – Adverse environmental effects in the form of water-logging, salinity which ultimately results in the degradation of soil, by and large, stem from major and medium irrigation projects. It has been observed that ‘in the world as a whole, as much land goes out of production owing to water – logging and sanitation every year as is brought under production through new projects.
  • Adverse impact on tribal families – The tribal families which fall victim to such projects are in force. Millions of tribal families have been displaced so far. It has resulted in loss of their lands, their traditional occupations and the benefits they derive from minor forest produce. The pity is that they were never properly compensated or rehabilated.
  • Agricultural needs to play second fiddle to urban users – A serious problem is that the benefits of hydro-power are mostly available to industry and to urban areas, as a result, the agricultural needs are ignored.
  • Loss of precious agricultural land – Quite a large area of precious agricultural land is wasted to construct distribution system.

Major factors responsible for the Frankenstein image of the multipurpose river valley projects in India-

  • Unjustified delays in the completion of major and medium irrigation projects, which generally have prolonged gestation period of about 15-20 years; resulting in high cost escalation.
  • The Indian bureaucracy associated with these projects is corrupt and inefficient and colludes with contractors; and as a result, the cost over-runs are much greater.
  • Poor management of such projects after completion is also responsible for such stature.


As rightly concluded by Dr. B.B.Vohra ”The future of major and medium irrigation is dim and the country has neither the resources nor the time for creating additional gross potential of some 26 million hectares irrigation through this route. Hence, minor irrigation, particularly through the ground water, must be the mainstay for all future programmes”.

From the above it’s quite clear that despite the so-called “Impressive achievements” the support in the favor of the multipurpose river valley projects, bodes ill for the future of the country. Not to put too fine a point on it, the above points lend colors to the Frankenstein image of these projects. So it behooves us to shift our emphasis from major and medium irrigation projects to minor irrigation projects, which have many advantages over the former ones such as no wastage of land in the distributaries, no soil degradation(no water-logging and salinity). Besides, the minor irrigation is more economical and efficient. The key to better management, therefore, lies not in big dams at exorbitant financial and ecological costs, but in minor irrigation which ensures maximum use of ground water and better control over irrigation sources.

In recent years many fundamental questions have been raised about the conventional emphasis on multipurpose river valley projects. It behoves us to have the retrospection of our irrigation policy and formulate new constructive policies.


Post By Vipin Khokad (2 Posts)