Deep Waters

- The Untold Story of Tourism and Dams
Dam sites have always been popular destinations among many tourists in India. The impacts of dams on fragile ecosystems are two-fold – first with the construction of the dams and secondly with the development of tourism. What were once thriving villages is now an endless lake. The pleasure seeking tourist is often oblivious to the tragedy that rests beneath and the realities of what may have transpired before a dam was built; before a community was displaced. This article explores the issues around tourism and dams, illustrating two examples – Sardar Sarovar (Gujarat) and Tehri (Uttarakhand). This article was featured in Contours - Incredible India - Tourism for ‘Development’ – Vol 20 No 4 [a publication of Ecumenical Coalition for Tourism (ECOT)].

Deep Waters – the Untold Story of Tourism and Dams in India

By Equitable Tourism Options (EQUATIONS)

Large dams are no longer ‘just’ electricity-generating projects; they have become holiday destinations. Tourists stay oblivious to the fact that entire villages were sacrificed and forced out in order to construct the idyllic and peaceful waterfront resorts.

Tourism relies on and is increasingly being located in natural areas that are ecologically fragile. Dam sites have always been popular destinations for tourists in India – providing an often idyllic natural setting.

Dams are a manifestation of a kind of development which denies some people access to justice (largely in rural and poor parts of cities) while favoring the growth of others (largely the urban middle class and elite). People in indigenous and rural areas have been repeatedly asked to sacrifice for the ‘greater common good’; a notion first used by the State soon after independence, calling upon people to contribute to the nation-building process. However, 63 years after independence, the State continues to make the same demands on its people.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that after people are displaced, tourism is developed on the watery graves of people’s homes and lands. What were once thriving villages and hamlets, where people had lived for centuries and contributed to the regeneration of forests and its biodiversity are now reduced to endless lakes. The pleasure-seeking tourist is often oblivious to the tragedy that rests beneath and to what may have transpired before a dam as built; before a community was displaced.

Is tourism as harmless as it seems? What are he ethics and values being communicated by the institutions of the State when they promote tourism at dam sites?

The impacts on these fragile ecosystems are two-fold –first with the construction of the dams and secondly with the development of tourism. With the construction of the dam, both in the catchment and the command area the impacts are numerous - loss of forest cover, loss of common property resources, loss of cultivation on the floodplains and the problems of displacement and resettlement. For the community, it is not just about moving homes to another place. For them it is about being uprooted from a way of life which includes their social and cultural traditions, from their lands, waters and forests.

Tourism gains backdoor entry into these pristine environments. However tourism development is known to have negative environmental impacts of pollution, waste generation, discharge of untreated waste into water bodies, large energy and water onsumption requirements which tend to deplete ground water. This in turn puts at risk livelihoods of local communities who depend on the natural resources for sustenance. As tourism grows, competition for access to natural resources between the tourism industry and the local community increases. As the industry is bigger and more powerful it is usually vulnerable local communities that bear the ‘costs’ of such ‘development’.

Corporate Tourism Becomes Public Interest

Injustice continues to haunt the Narmada River Valley. With each passing year, as the Sardar Sarovar Dam inches towards its proposed height, pristine forests, villages, people and their croplands are submerged. While the displaced people still await rehabilitation and compensation, ecotourism projects are triggering displacements in Kevadia at the Sardar Sarovar Dam site. For the people of Kevadia, who have fought the dam for so many decades there is a new foe to contend with – tourism.

In 1961, the Government of Gujarat acquired 650ha of land from 950 families of the six villages of Kevadia, Waghodia, Kothi, Limdi, Navagam and Gora, under ‘public purpose’. Of this 570ha remain unused. Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL) and the newly constituted Kevadia Area development Authority (KADA), is now proposing a tourism project on the adivasi land in an attempt to ‘present the dam site in its pristine and natural glory which will captivate the tourist and hold them in awe of the benefits provided by the project’.

Towards this SSNNL has proposed to undertake massive tourism development – the plans included food-court, low cost accommodation, camping, souvenir and vendor stalls,cottages, a water-park, golf course, convention centre and adventure sports activities.

Tourism slowly and surely seems to be moving into Kevadia and surrounding areas. While tourism is being privileged, the voice of struggles of local community is being suppressed. Protests by local communities in these villages are directed not only against the State government auctioning and leasing out the land on which they depend for their livelihood to activities like tourism. They also protest against the negation of their decision-making rights through the constitutionally approved process of local self governance that has been handed over to Kevadia Area development Authority (KADA) by the Gujarat Government. Soon there will be no Kevadia, Limdi or Gora. Only view points 1, 2 or 3, ponds 2, 3 or 4, a golf course, a water park and the dam.

Submerging Future

Uttarakhand – a state famous for its natural beauty,snowcapped mountains, valleys, pristine rivers, is also where innumerable dams are being constructed. With the damming of a river – a river no longer remains a river. The once-free flowing waters now pass through tunnels. The construction of the dams have also resulted in building roads, barrages and colonies across the state – all at the cost of the environment and the lives and livelihoods of local communities dependent on them.

The Uttarakhand Vision Document positions the state as the most competitive supplier to the Northern Grid by harnessing at least 50% of the state’s hydroelectric potential by 2012. The push for hydroelectricity has resulted in the construction of dams on almost all rivers including the Bhagirathi. On the Bhagirathi, four projects have been commissioned, four more are under construction and nine more are proposed.

The once bustling town of Tehri in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand is today under water. The construction of Tehri Dam resulted in the complete submergence of the entire Tehri town along with 40 villages and partially submerged 72 villages; displacing nearly 100,000 people. The main reservoir, formed as a result of the dam, comprises an area of nearly 42km.

For the State, the construction of dams is not only about producing more electricity; it is also about drawing more tourists to the dam sites. On the one hand, the number of tourists visiting the state has reduced because in the process of constructing the dams the natural beauty and wealth of the state has also been destroyed. This has hugely impacted the local economy in many places, especially in the large number of locals whose livelihood is dependent on tourism.

However, the State tourism board has plans for the development of Tehri dam as a water-front resort for water sports. A master plan for development of the region was commissioned. The plan suggests that investments to the tune of US$23.8 million could be brought in.

The latest and the most ironic situation is that the government is planning to start underwater tourism at the dam site - to show tourists the submerged town, the lost homes of the people and the desolate streets.

In both cases of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the Tehri dam, there have been vibrant struggles by the local communities resisting the construction of these dams in the context of the development paradigm that is being promoted. The construction of the dam and the resulting tourism development is testimony to the State’s insensitivity to its people who once lived in these regions, the majority of whom are now living in poverty in what for them are ‘alien lands’.

Kevadia, Terhi and many more such places dotted across the map of India, each have their own story to tell. They are all promoted as desirable ‘must see’ places, but they are all also proof of tourism’s ability to create or exacerbate serious conflict. So is there no hope? Tourism can contribute but for this to be possible one must engage with the reality, the history, and the aspirations of those in the places visited.

Equitable Tourism Options (EQUATIONS) is a research, campaign and advocacy organisation studying the social, cultural, economic and environmental impact of tourism on local communities (

 First published in IN FOCUS 15 Vol.20, No.4, December 2010 CONTOURS