Speaking to the Central Board of Irrigation and Power in November 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru deplored a ‘dangerous outlook developing in India’, which he termed the ‘disease of giganticism’. The ‘idea of doing big undertakings or doing big tasks for the sake of showing that we can do big things’, remarked Nehru, ‘is not a good outlook at all’. For it was ‘the small irrigation projects, the small industries and the small plants for electric power which will change the face of the country, far more than a dozen big projects in half a dozen places’. The Prime Minister drew his audience’s attention to ‘the national upsets, upsets of the people moving out and their rehabilitation and many other things, associated with a big project’. These upheavals would be on a lesser scale in a smaller scheme, enabling the state to ‘get a good deal of what is called public co-operation’.

The speech was entitled ‘Social Aspects of Small and Big Projects’; it is reprinted in a volume of Nehru’s speeches on science and society published by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in 1988. The volume is obscure; the speech more obscure still. But it deserves to be known, and broadcast. For this was the same Nehru who was an enthusiast for large projects, who once celebrated big dams as the ‘temples’ of modern India.

What made Nehru change his mind? There were no anti-dam movements then, no satyagrahas or dharnas by peasants threatened with displacement. As he grew older, Nehru tended to think more of Mahatma Gandhi; perhaps it was his mentor’s insistence on the rights of the ‘last man’ that prompted his rethink. More likely, it was the evidence of the suffering accumulated over a decade of commissioning and building big dams. Too many people had made too large a sacrifice for what was, in the end, not too great a benefit. Besides, these massive schemes were already generating huge amounts of corruption. As a democrat, Nehru was attentive to the rights of the lowly and vulnerable. As a scientist, he was open to changing his mind in the face of new evidence. Thus it was that, in the evening of his life, this once-great proponent of large dams started contemplating more democratic and more scientific alternatives.

However, Nehru’s change of mind came too late to reverse a course already well set. Large dams continued to be planned, and built. From the late seventies, however, scientific reservations about their economic viability were joined to popular movements protesting their destruction of the environment and their violations of human rights. In July 1983, the veteran social worker Muralidhar ‘Baba’ Amte wrote to the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, urging her to intervene in stopping two dams in central India that would submerge 200, 000 acres of dense forest. These dams would also displace 40, 000 adivasis; although they would be paid monetary compensation, ‘nothing can compensate for the wrench they would suffer in leaving their traditional cultural environment…’. In terms strikingly reminiscent of Nehru’s 1958 address, Amte argued that ‘it might not be necessary to incur the multiple costs and risks in building more dams of gigantic size’. ‘A series of small dams’, he continued, could ‘adequately meet the water and energy needs of the people, including electricity for industry, without degrading the environment’. Thus Amte ‘earnestly request[ed]’ the Prime Minister ‘to intercede on behalf of Man and Nature, and reaffirm the national policy of protecting forest wealth and tribal culture’.

This was the first of a series of letters on the subject written by Baba Amte to Indira Gandhi and, after her death, to her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi. Mrs Gandhi replied, twice. On 30 August 1983 she said that while ‘my own views are well known’, it was nonetheless ‘a very difficult battle’. On July 18th 1984 she wrote that although she was ‘most unhappy that development projects displace tribal people from their habitat,… sometimes there is no alternative and we have to go ahead in the larger interest’.

Rajiv Gandhi also replied, twice. A letter of 4 October contained this single sentence: ‘I have received your letter of 20 September and have noted the various points contained in it’. The next week he wrote a longer letter, perhaps because an advisor had advised it, and told him about Baba Amte’s stature (which, as the brusque tone of the first letter suggests, the Prime Minister was unaware of). This finessed the question in lofty generalities: ‘I share your view that the common people of our country are a vast reservoir of strength. Their energy, enthusiasm and innate good sense have to be combined with modern skills… We will go very thoroughly into the environmental and human aspects. We have to be careful about the problems of tribal communities which lose their traditional homelands when such projects are constructed’.

I have quoted statements on large dams by three Prime Ministers. I think it fair to say that each one is characteristic. Rajiv Gandhi appears to have signed his name to a vague and non-committal letter drafted by someone else. Indira Gandhi professed her sympathy with tribals and the environment, but hinted that she was helpless against deeper and darker forces. Nehru’s remarks were the most frank and direct. They were also unprompted, the self-correcting thoughts of a man who was a thinker before he was a Prime Minister.