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Media Watch: Damn the dams

There is something alluring about dams that is quite firmly affixed on our national imagination. I learnt at school that Tarbela was the largest earth-filled dam in the world much, much before I learnt what general elections were.

And it’s not just here, this obsession with dams; it spreads across the Radcliffe as well. Dams, said Nehru, will be the temples of modern India. Legendary actress Nargis famously chastised (far more) legendary film director Satyajit Ray for making films with poverty, showing a negative picture of India. What should films feature, a journalist asked subsequently, in order to show the positive side of India, which was, after all, a really poor country.

Dams, she replied.

In the eyes of the urban middle-class and elite of the Punjab, dams are the silver bullet, the elixir that will solve all problems. THey will lead to record productivity in agriculture and, at the same time, will make enough electricity to export.

“WhatsApp Uncles” have been forwarding-as-received so many “feasibility” studies of the dam, which say that would be, in the words of US energy bureaucrat Lewis Strauss (speaking not in this context, but for the early days of nuclear energy) “too cheap to meter.” Strauss was wrong, of course, about the costs of nuclear energy, which were much higher (and more dangerous) than what he had predicted. But the “WhatsApp Uncles” are also completely off in their analysis of the mega dams.

There are many arguments against mega dams. There are the environmental aspects which are, it is extremely unfortunate, categorised as something that only the NGO-elite care about. Degradations in the environment hurt the poor more than anybody. But it isn’t just the environment; dams don’t even make economic sense; they are just too expensive. Whereas the debate over energy has evolved drastically since the Kalabagh Dam started being discussed because of great advances in renewable energies, the economics were always against their irrigation uses. Water conservation is the way to go. Using the same dams and reservoirs that we already have, we can irrigate Pakistan several times over, if we forego flood irrigation and other wastages and start using water sensibly.

In any case, whether or not to build mega dams is debatable and the pro-dam lobby obviously would also have some solid case to make. But where does the Supreme Court find it has the jurisdiction to order their construction or even set up an account to collect funds for them? Access to water for drinking and irrigation might be a fundamental human right, yes, giving the apex court an “in” on the issue, but where does the specific decision to set up mega dams and not conservation come into this? This is a slippery slope before the courts also start dictating our trade policy with the Czech Republic.

Matters have been made much worse with Pemra instructing the television channels to air promos for the dams fund every stipulated period of time.

Dunya News has gone one step further and has cut one day’s salary from the junior staff and two days’ salary from the senior staff for the fund. Without the staffers’ consent, of course. Insiders say that the staffers simply received an e-mail on the 30th, intimating them.

Perhaps the worst on this front has been the Punjab Police. The IG announced a similar step recently. If the Inspector General wants to contribute to the fund, he should shell out his own dime. Why take liberties with the income of the poor constables who are seen trying to hail rides when their shift ends, unable to afford rickshaw fares?

The Tube

Media Watch column is meant to offer commentary on the affairs of the media.

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