In the past, there was a time when planners used to estimate how many bricks or concrete blocks would make a dam. Then there used to be those who tabulated costs and benefits emanating from a dam, attempting to strike a favourable ratio by calculating submergence land in hectares and the land that can be brought under irrigation in hectares. Recently, we witness that planners have started counting how many bullets it may take to raise a dam. They might not have embraced a new sensitivity to undertake geological/ecological risk analysis, but they are proposing security costs backed by strategic risks analysis. However, there are no agreements on who shall bear these costs: project proponents or state/central government.

Take for example, the case of the Loktak Downstream hydro project, proposed to be built over the Barak tributary of the Irang river, near Thanga Karang in Bishenpur district, Manipur. For past one year the project has experienced stalemate with the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation and the state government asking each other to bear the costs for providing security cover. NHPC is a government of India enterprise which reported sales turnover of Rs 1668.27 crores for the financial year 2004-'05. While, there might be a point in arguing why the security costs must be paid and accounted for by the project authorities, gleaning through audit reports of dams built and under construction in Manipur brings up a question: How much does the state/project authority spend to compensate the people whose lands are sunk under the reservoir water, as compared to how much does it spend to amass bullets for raising a dam? (1 crore = 10 million.)

Delivering judgement on a petition by affected persons from Loktak hydroelectric project, the Guwahati High Court had recently asked authorities to compensate the farmers for the lands that they had lost 21 years ago.

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On December 14, people being displaced by the construction of Khuga dam, at Lamka near Churchandpur district in Manipur, staged a sit in at the dam site demanding compensation. When a group of protestors marched to dam site under a moonlit sky that reverberated their slogans demanding compensation, para-military forces guarding the construction work responded by opening fire. Going by information local sources, the Sub-Divisional Officer (Police) of Churchandpur was present when firing took place and could be held responsible for what happened. The site is guarded by the Border Security Force and the Indian Reserve Battalion. Police forces from Churchandpur rushed to the dam site when those protecting the construction work relayed the message to them.

On 16 November 2005, delivering judgement on the petition by affected persons from the Loktak hydroelectric project, the Guwahati High Court had asked authorities to compensate the farmers for the lands that they had lost 21 years ago. While the court directive on compensation came about 21 years late, oustees had to spend an entire decade arguing before the court of law that they were indeed the landholders having legal entitlements for the land in question. At the close of the year 2005, writing this article in the backdrop of the death of three oustees provides me a chance to thumb though an Advance Report of CAG of India for the year ending March 31, 1977; that had devoted 32 pages to discuss Loktak Hydroelectric project.

It has all the details on why did the costs rise, how the construction got started in October 1970 without adequate detailed geological investigations, how the firm 'P' to which the work on tunnel was awarded couldn’t cope with the problems on tunneling. It is an audit scrutiny that meticulously examines the statement of accounts, but nowhere in those 32 pages do you get any information whatsoever on how much was allocated (let alone, spent) for compensating the oustees. (Firm 'P': the CAG had during 1977 adopted the convention to refer to a contracted firm this way, and not by its full name.)

However, the costs did skyrocket by almost six-fold within a matter of 10 years: from the initial assumption of Rs 10.90 crore in 1967 to Rs 60.11 crores in 1976. At the time of the publication of the said audit report, costs were proposed to be revised to Rs 76.31 crores. The reasons for the rise in costs were attributed to an increase of Rs 12.12 crore due to alteration in methods of tunneling and an increase of Rs 10.26 crores due to substitution of a part of power channel by cut and cover conduit. A number of geological problems were encountered during execution of various works, and firm 'P' could not cope with the problems in tunneling. The scope of it work was therefore, reduced to about 45 percent of the work, with balance – more difficult portion – being assigned to the department. Even then, the value of the modified contract was Rs 6.4 crores compared to the tendered value of Rs 5.71 crores for the entire work.

So this was in seventies, when Manipur neglected geological risks while embarking on dam construction. But, did the state learn from past blunders?

No, not at all; an audit report for the year ending March 31, 1999 which undertook a performance review of Khuga multi purpose project in Manipur pointed out, "Since 1984, the Irrigation and Flood Control Department of Manipur had carried out construction work on 25.37 km of canal over an area of 40.27 hectares of forestland in the Dampi Reserve Forest without obtaining the required clearance for diversion of forestland."

Yet another audit report for the year ending March 31, 2004 that undertook a performance review of Thoubal multi purpose project (near Phayeng in Senapati district) stated that although the project would submerge 595 hectares of forest land, the state government started construction without obtaining forest and environmental clearance from the Ministry. So if it was a tale of undermining geological risks in seventies, in eighties it was a tale of undermining ecological risks.

The audit scrutiny on the Khuga multi purpose project also raised serious question on the abilities of the Irrigation and Flood Control Department of Manipur to deliver the stated benefits. It had put widespread corruption under the scanner and severely indicted the project on several counts. (Ref: CAG report.)

The report said: "The water supply component could not be commissioned due to defects in the delivery pipelines. Even after improvement and rectification costing Rs 17.37 lakh, the system could not be made operational and the department abandoned the defective pipes after incurring a wasteful expenditure of Rs 1.18 crore." Since, the IFCD constructed the pump house without taking into account the highest flood level of the Khuga river, the pump house costing Rs 19.89 lakh and pump sets costing Rs 1.03 crore was submerged twice in September and October 1997, putting a huge question mark on the work of a department which boasts of flood control all the time. The audit review showed that the physical existence of construction work carried out at a cost of Rs 7.38 lakh was doubtful.

Coming back to the central issue of compensation, CAG's audit reports on Manipur from recent times also tell us how the state government has routinely backtracked from promises it made to oustees under the land sale agreement for acquisition of land. The audit report that undertook a performance review of the Thoubal multi purpose project stated, "State government did not adhere to the terms of sale agreement for acquisition of land to be submerged on completion to the dam and delayed payment of Rs 12.23 crores to the land owners by more than five years thereby incurring an inevitable interest liability of Rs 6.10 crores on these payments."

The question of how much the state spends on compensation and how much on security cover remains a rhetorical one as long as the state government does not put information on the latter in the public domain. Even the recently enacted Right to Information law fails to bring such information under public gaze, as agencies providing security cover like Border Security Force, Central Industrial Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force, etc., remain exempted.

To repeat what we asked at the beginning, how do we look at development planners who so meticulously analyse strategic risks, but ignore paying attention to geological and ecological risks. Again what is it that the project authorities and overall state administration are good at, if they routinely fail to deliver stated benefits of these dams due to their blunders? It appears that for the Manipur government, development means making aggressive statements and getting para military forces to fire gunshots at protesting affected persons. It is in this sense that the meaning of dam centric development itself comes into question: how many bullets maketh a dam?