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.