India, one of the foremost large dam builders in the world, following a brief lull in dam construction, seems to have once again fallen in love with large dams from 2010 onwards. The Himalayan region alone will see 292 dams built by 2030. The argument to reinstate the large dam, especially as a technology that produces clean and renewable energy, so vital in the age of climate change, is not solely advanced by governments in Asia and Africa, where the majority of these large dams are planned to be built. A progressive strand of politics, particularly emanating from the United States, strongly advocates for a return to centralised hydropower driven energy systems, arguing that it represents cheap, clean, and crucially unionised forms of accessing electricity. However, will scale, in this case big and centralised, determine the political fate of future energy systems?
Climate politics researchers, Matt Huber and Fred Stafford argue for the revival of large scale projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned electric utility corporation in the United States that was built during the decade of the Great Depression (1929-39). In addition to helping achieve the much-needed clean energy transition, the TVA model for Huber and Stafford also affirms the belief that large and centralised electricity grids provide the appropriate scale with which a unionised workforce can set about ensuring the public control of natural resources. In sum, scale-in-itself can translate directly into political outcomes.
Furthermore, for Huber and Stafford, the ‘left liberal’ discourse, by turning against these centralised systems and choosing instead to embrace community owned and small-scale renewable energy infrastructures might be walking into a neoliberal trap. ‘The small-is-beautiful approach of decentralized energy,’ they argue, ‘provides ideological cover for a ruthless form of renewable energy capitalism,’ which includes ‘deregulated markets, tax shelters for corporations, a rentier development model, and an anti-union industry dependent upon a transient and insecure workforce.’ Such decentralised power projects, moreover, would also put at risk access to cheap electricity. Thus, small is not beautiful.
The Indian experience with large dams, especially from the post 1950s onwards, however, gives us a much more complicated and ambiguous picture between the triad of scale, democracy, and environmental politics. The framing of the dam problematic, especially from progressive forces, ties the large dam story in the Indian subcontinent to a rather sordid account of the displacement of marginal communities. This includes their impoverishment through the loss of historical access to resources, environmental devastation and, above all else, the transfer of their local endowments to more powerful and often distant elites.
Calculations suggest that 50 million people were displaced from 1947-1997 on account of large dams. And yet, despite growing popular resistance against large dams, the demand for their construction nonetheless found intellectual support on the ground. The late Gail Omvedt, social activist and writer who spent most of her life from the 1970s until her passing in 2021 in the drought ridden regions of central India, in a significant qualifier to the anti-dam position observed: ‘Our arguments are not against big irrigation projects as such, but against badly conceived ones; big projects can be sustainable and work in a decentralised manner.’ There was something working about large dams, especially in ensuring water supply to ensure that crops could be grown. BR Ambedkar, a lawyer, economist and one of India’s foremost anti-caste thinker, in his role as the Labour Member (1942-1946) strongly advocated for dams and multipurpose reservoirs. However, unlike most government officials and politicians who held that large dams symbolised a prosperous nation, Ambedkar’s advocacy was not necessarily in the abstract service of nation building. Rather, he positioned dams as central vehicles of socio-economic justice.
Even as early as the 1930s, as the large canal systems the British had built in the late 19th century were failing in regions such as Punjab, the government and agrarian communities started pressing for centralised and cheap electricity. In the 1930s, in the Ganges basin, William Stampe, an irrigation engineer in the United Provinces in North-western India, laid the groundwork for a scheme that would connect a central hydroelectric grid to ground-water pump-sets. The link between cheap electricity and underground water resources led the agrarian boom in many parts of India. Access to water resources, whether through damming and canals or hydropower driven tube-wells, led to forms of (albeit uneven) social and caste mobility across north, west, and southern India.
The energy-mix in India, or the specific combination of different energy sources needed to meet consumption needs, was deeply dependent on geography and the regional availability of natural resources, such as coal, oil, and rivers. Until the 1950s, central grids were established in Mysore and the Madras State (later Tamil Nadu). While these states led others in the production of hydroelectricity even though mega dams had not been built, the Bombay presidency, financed by the Tata Corporation, was the outright leader in hydropower production. Madras for example produced close to 70% of its power through hydroelectricity by relying on a series of mid-sized hydropower reservoirs.
As a recent book has attested, state-driven and cheap electricity in the early decades of the postcolonial era was central to enabling forms of social mobility, for instance in the Madras State. Several caste groups who were small-scale agriculturalists and share-croppers mobilised around the promise of cheap electricity, which helped further consolidate their emerging economic strengths in agriculture allied, small agro-industries, and textile industries. The flow of capital between sectors, again enabled by cheap energy, was crucial for hitherto marginalised caste groups to gain political power. On the other hand, the social consequences and ecological impacts of pursuing hydroelectricity and the promise of the large dam are now too apparent to ignore. Changing monsoonal and rainfall patterns imply that full reservoirs and flowing rivers are no longer a given. Indeed, it was monsoonal failures in the 1960s that set several federal governments in India on the path towards fossil fuels as a more reliable and controllable source of energy.
The history of dams in India shows that scale-in-itself does not determine the outcomes of energy projects: big is not necessarily better, nor does small indicate progressive outcomes. Of course, it is quite possible that small scale decentralised energy systems can be captured by neo-liberal logics as much as some could argue that centralised energy systems can be held hostage to elite interests. Likewise, a ‘good large dam’ might be able to address various adverse environmental and social outcomes, such as displacement, soil erosion, and flood production, and instead drive forward social and economic gains. At the same time, one could argue that decentralised electrical grids can be turned into the means for empowering communities, who will also meaningfully take up the project of achieving environmental justice. In short, scale-in-itself is not a given but an ingredient in the making of political possibility. In the inevitable race to produce cleaner energy systems, scale must be understood as a terrain of contestation, struggle, and the forging of alliances, dependent on the needs of states and communities.