NEW DELHI — Construction of giant dams, for years a tenet of India's development creed, are being challenged as never before. In recent months, two proposed dams, one high in the Himalayas at Tehri and another on the Narmada River in central India, have become environmental battlegrounds between determined government officials and increasingly militant opponents.
Environmentalists, activists, and critics say the projects, among the largest in the third world, will submerge vast tracks of forests, displace tens of thousands of people and, in the case of Tehri, threaten disaster in the event of an earthquake.
Defenders of the dams say India - parched for rain most of the year - can ill afford scuttling them. The opponents offer no viable alternatives even as the subcontinent's struggle to provide water for irrigation, power generation, drinking, and other daily needs intensifies.
``These dams are becoming international symbols like the Amazon,'' says a Western water expert. ``But in the coming years, India is going to be thirsting for more water, which is becoming a scarce resource. People realize that some terrible tradeoffs are coming.''
Soon after independence from Britain in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, launched India on a path of large-scale development. In the vanguard were scientists, technicians, and engineers who favored big, flashy projects as the best answer for this semiarid country.
India gets most of its rainfall in the four summer monsoon months. That requires big reservoirs to meet the needs of the burgeoning population and to prevent shortages of drinking water, irrigation, and power, many water experts say.
However, few of India's 1,500 big dams have met expectations. Indian critics and Western observers say they are oftentimes poorly built and poorly managed, and have inadequate power and water distribution networks.
Dam opponents also say they benefit city dwellers and well-to-do farmers while displacing millions of impoverished rural Indians. The projects have cost India valuable forest cover. And overuse of irrigation threatens fertile farmlands with waterlogging and soil salinity.
``The human anger has built up, the environmental movement has started, and forest protection is under way,'' says Ramaswamy Iyer, a former government water resources official. ``The engineers, who in the past directed policy, are now on the defensive.''
Today, with the easily accessible dam sites already in use, anti-dam sentiment is slowing new, more difficult projects. Narmada and Tehri, years behind schedule, have resulted in open confrontations between the planners and the people.
Narmada is a vast development scheme that will harness the river and its tributaries with 30 large, 135 medium, and more than 3,000 small dams. Officials say it will transform deserts in Gujarat and Rajasthan states into fertile farmlands and better the lives of millions in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states.
The major flashpoint is the $4 billion Sardar Sarovar dam, which will create the world's largest man-made lake but at a high price, critics say. About 70,000 people will be displaced and tens of thousands of acres flooded, eliminating forests and submerging many religious shrines.
Protests have erupted over the government's failure to ensure resettlement of the displaced, although a growing number of activists want the dam canceled. Environmentalists have drawn international attention by pressuring the World Bank to end its funding for the project.
The Tehri dam has faced more long-standing and bitter opposition. First approved almost 20 years ago, the $1.8 billion dam, funded partly by the Soviet Union, will irrigate over 500,000 acres and provide thousands of megawatts to New Delhi and other cities.
However, opponents and local residents say Tehri is a disaster in the making. Located in a highly seismic area, the dam is not designed to withstand a severe earthquake.
Further fueling much of the opposition is the government's callousness toward rural people displaced by big projects, observers say. ``For years, there was an unenlightened attitude: Give them 3,000 rupees and they will leave,'' says Mr. Iyer. ``The people would go off, spend the money and become beggars. There was no awareness of the need to rehabilitate people.''
But people also fault environmentalists and activists who attack big dams without offering alternatives. Observers say that attitudes of officials are hardening, triggering charges that the anti-dam lobby is against development.