Exportable engineering expertise for ‘Development’: a story of large dams in post independence India

Abstract

Unlike any other technological artifact, large dams are unique stamps of human technological superiority over nature. Large dams however, have been analysed and critiqued in detail from various angles. Despite their seemingly apolitical nature, large dams are wired politically. Investigating the process of their assembly reveals a whole gamut of ideas—modern water, expert control and national space—that are stitched together to yield a hydraulic bureaucracy. In my paper, I draw upon engineering narratives to understand the rationale for technology-transfer in an overtly apolitical fashion. Ideas about ‘modern water’ and technology formed a template through which the hydrocracy—which in India took the form of the Central Water Commission—thought through, discussed and justified technological interventions. This seemingly stable template became a kind of bedrock for post independence engineering narratives for greater, scaled up technological interventions on riverine landscapes. By fixing the nation state as the object of development, the contours of the nation state were established whilst simultaneously casting it as an independent, self-sufficient unit. By portraying the nation state as one distinct freestanding unit, India could be represented as an empirical object. Its socio-political and economic processes could be represented as internal functions that were far removed from other socio-political forces outside the system. Listening closely to engineers, this paper will seek to bring to the fore the ways and means through institutional power is made and realised.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Jamie Linton contends that the ‘modern idea of water as an objective, homogenous, ahistorical entity is complimented by its physical containment and isolation from people and reinforced by modern techniques of management that have enabled many of us to survive without having to think much about it’. He states that the twin processes of the formulation of water as a chemical formula, i.e. H2O and the development and dissemination of the concept of the hydrologic cycle represent an important contribution to the idea of abstract, modern water. In a philosophical investigation elaborating the fundamental incompatibility of modern water with people, Linton argues that despite being produced in relation to social practice, modern water is nevertheless taken to be entirely independent of social relations. Borrowing from Bruno Latour and Actor Network Theory, he claims that the ‘fictional’ independence of water from society is at the core of the ‘constitution of modern water’. This constitution of modern water holds together ‘only so long as the appearance can be sustained in hydrological and popular discourse’. See Jamie Linton, What is Water? A History of a Modern Abstraction (Kingston and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press 2010, p. 21 and 175).

  2. 2.

    Etymologically, the term Pork barrel (used as national pork barrel) was first used in 1801; meaning “state’s financial resources (available for distribution)”; it was noted as an expression of U.S. President William Howard Taft: "Now there is a proposition that we issue $500,000,000 or $1,000,000,000 of bonds for a waterway, and then that we just apportion part to the Mississippi and part to the Atlantic, a part to the Missouri and a part to the Ohio. I am opposed to it. I am opposed to it because it not only smells of the pork barrel, but it will be the pork barrel itself. Let every project stand on its bottom." ["The Outlook," Nov 6, 1909, quoting Taft].

    Today, the term refers to the practice amongst members of the US Congress jostling for federal funds for big-money schemes in their home districts.

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Correspondence to Ramya Swayamprakash.

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Swayamprakash, R. Exportable engineering expertise for ‘Development’: a story of large dams in post independence India. Water Hist 6, 153–165 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12685-013-0086-y

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Keywords

  • Radical geography
  • Environmental history
  • Hydraulic modernity