India: Anti-Narmada Dam Campaigner on Hunger Strike

Publisher Name: 
Inter Presss Service

NEW DELHI -- A week after India's Supreme Court
rejected their
case against the Narmada dam, activists opposing the scheme have
begun what
may well be the final battle by the country's best known people's
movement.

Famed anti-Narmada dam campaigner, Medha Patkar, Friday entered
the
third day of her hunger protest, in the city of Bhopal, the
capital of
central Madhya Pradesh state. The state is the home of most of the
quarter
million, mainly indigenous people to be displaced by the four
billion-U.S.
dollar Sardar Sarovar dam.

For well over a decade, Patkar, who has won the Swedish 'Right
to
Livelihood Award', also described as the alternative Nobel Prize,
has led
hundreds of anti-dam rallies, being beaten up and arrested several
times by
the police. She almost died of dehydration, during a similar 22-
day hunger
protest nine years ago.

Patkar's protest has been accompanied by a series of public
demonstrations against the court ruling, held across the country
as well as
in North America, West Europe and South Africa.

The Sardar Sarovar, being built in the western coastal state of
Gujarat,
adjoining Madhya Pradesh, is to be the first of 30 big and
hundreds of
medium and small dams planned on the Narmada, which flows westward
across
central India into the Arabian Sea.

The country's apex court has ordered resumption of work on the
partially
built dam wall. Project authorities have been allowed to build up
to a
height of 90 metres immediately and to the dam's full height of
about 140
metres in stages, after complying with environmental and
resettlement
conditions. The construction is set to resume Oct. 31.

Work on the dam was stopped five years ago by the Supreme
Court, which
took six years to rule on the petition by the anti-dam Narmada
Bachao
Andolan (NBA) -- a coalition of people's groups, which began
campaigning
against the project in the mid-1980s.

However, the movement has since widened its protest to target
what it
calls India's 'destructive development' schemes like the Sardar
Sarovar.
These have social and economic costs that outweigh the claimed
benefits,
says the NBA.

More than 3,000 peasants joined mass protests Tuesday in the
Narmada
Valley, declaring they would not move to make way for the project.
Anti-dam
rallies were also taken out in the past days in the southern
metropolises
of Bangalore and Chennai.

Protest marches were organised in western Maharashtra state,
home to
thousands of villagers to be displaced by the Sardar Sarovar. More
than 150
people representing some 20 groups held a one-day hunger protest
Thursday
in the Indian capital, outside the Supreme Court building.

However, the protests were muted in Gujarat. Support for the
Sardar
Sarovar cuts across political divides in the largely arid state,
where
authorities and politicians promise that the scheme will help
solve an
acute scarcity of drinking and farm irrigation water.

A severe drought in Gujarat last year, said to be the worst in
100
years, was used by dam supporters to attack the NBA. State
politicians
blamed Patkar and her movement for the water scarcity that forced
tens of
thousands of peasants to flee their homes.

According to Gujarat's Minister for Narmada Development,
Jaynarayan
Vyas, the Sardar Sarovar is the only way to take drinking water to
the
drought-prone, Saurashtra, Kutch and the northern parts of the
state.

''The NBA should let us finish the dam and demonstrate what can
be done
quickly,'' said Vyas.

Emboldened by the court ruling in its favour, the Gujarat
government has
now asked the federal sleuthing agency, the Central Bureau of
Investigation
(CBI), to probe the NBA's finances and check on foreign
contributions to
the movement.

The state government, which declared a public holiday in
Gujarat to
celebrate the verdict, said it was determined to carry out the
Supreme
Court order at all costs -- an ominous warning that further
agitation would
not be tolerated.

While the NBA's campaign is backed by a number of well-known
personalities like famous Indian author Arundhati Roy, the pro-dam
lobby
does not lack for big names. These include former top journalist
B.G.
Verghese and prominent development economist Yogendra Alagh, a
former
federal government minister.

The NBA's argument is backed by the finding of a survey of
large dams in
India, which was ordered by the World Commission on Dams (WCD).
The study
found that the hundreds of big dams built in India in the past
half century
have boosted national food and industrial production but at a cost
paid by
the poorest.

According to the report, nearly two-thirds of the people
displaced by
multi-purpose river valley projects in India are either tribals or
members
of the socially oppressed 'scheduled castes'. The WCD report is to
be
launced Nov. 16 by Nelson Mandela in the British capital.

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