Imaginaries of Development – A Case Study of the Polavaram Dam Project
Large dams and their social consequences have been subject to extensive debate in recent decades. In India, the National River Linking Project (NRLP), which is the world's largest water project in the making and involves the construction of several dams, has been at the centre of this debate. The 168-billion-dollar project is designed to connect the majority of Indian rivers to a gigantic water grid. Historically, large scale water infrastructure in the subcontinent has been discursively linked to imaginaries of development and national progress, as underlined by Nehru's famous quote proclaiming large dams as ‘the temples of modern India’. However, these imaginaries clash with the experiences of those affected by the construction of dams: not only are the displaced communities among the most marginalized in Indian society, but they also benefit the least and suffer the most from such projects. This article begins by exploring the degree to which such imaginaries continue to be prominent in contemporary political discourse, by undertaking an analysis of the media coverage received by the Polavaram Project, i.e. the first project implemented under the NRLP scheme. Secondly, it contrasts the findings with the experiences of those being subject to displacement due to the implementation of the project. This second part relies on data gathered during ethnographic fieldwork, notably the qualitative interviews conducted by the author across the neighbouring Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Chhattisgarh in areas affected by the Polavaram project. The paper argues that imaginaries of development continue to be integral to the contemporary discourse on large dam projects– with painful consequences for displaced communities.
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