India: Dam Being Built on Backs of Poor, Critics Say

Huge Project is Uprooting Tribal People

DOMKHEDI, INDIA -- Each day, Bhola Mundya Vasave and his sons till the soil that has been in their family for 12 generations.

But like other Adevasi tribal people, Vasave is outraged by the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam 30 miles upstream, which has taken two acres from his corn fields along the Narmada River. The dam, which is surrounded by pristine forests and a vast networks of canals, is the world's second-largest dam project; only the Three Gorges undertaking in China is bigger.

"The Indian government and the big officials get their profit," said Vasave.

"They are killing us by building these dams."

For the past decade, protesters have gathered in a designated village to take part in a 3-month-long satyagraha, or nonviolent protest, against the dam, which is being built in stages by more than 7,000 workers protected by armed guards. This day, the protesters are in Domkhedi, 84 miles from Baroda, the closest city in the northwestern state of Gujarat.

Government officials say the megaproject on India's largest westward- flowing river has the potential to irrigate 4.3 million acres while supplying water and electricity to more than 24 million people in three states.

Officials contend that India needs dams to become self-sufficient in food for a growing population that now exceeds 1 billion. Also, many of India's 25 states face water crises and most major urban areas lack 24-hour water service.

Nevertheless, the dam has many critics.

Novelist Arundhati Roy is one of its most vocal. Roy, who won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997 for her debut novel, "The God of Small Things," argued in her 1999 essay "The Greater Common Good" that big dams are "a brazen way of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich.

Big dams are a brazen way of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich.

-- Arundhati Roy, novelist, The God of Small Things

"For over half a century, we've believed that big dams would deliver the people of India from hunger and poverty. The opposite has happened."

Last year, a study by the World Commission on Dams, which was created by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union, showed that large dams have displaced more than 80 million people worldwide, with India and China being the world's top dam-builders.

Since independence in 1947, India has built more than 3,500 large dams. The country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called the structures "temples of modern India."

In India, dams have displaced more than 33 million people, with the burden falling heaviest on tribal people. They account for 40 percent to 50 percent of the displaced, although they are only 8 percent of the population.

State officials pledge to help the Adevasi resettle and have alloted them five acres per family.

"I am sure tribal villagers would not want to perpetuate their backwardness, " said V.B. Butch, vice chairman of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam, a Gujarat state agency overseeing the project. "We are offering much better opportunities for them and their children."

An Earlier Experience

But critics point to the plight of 7,000 families uprooted to build the Bargi Dam along the Narmada River, which was completed in 1990. Many now live in the slums of the city of Jabalpur, pulling rickshaws, working as day laborers or begging in the streets.

Opponents say government compensation is often spotty. While some receive land, others don't. Some have been given adequate homes, but others are forced to live in makeshift huts with corrugated tin roofs on rocky land unsuitable for farming.

The government of Madhya Pradesh state, where an estimated 80 percent of the displaced live, has said that it has no more land left for resettlement.

The Sardar Sarovar is the largest dam of the Narmada Valley Development Project, a program dating from 1965 to build more than 30 large dams, 135 medium dams and 3,000 small dams. The Narmada, which flows for 815 miles and has 41 tributaries, is seen as the last hope for water-starved Gujarat and Rajasthan states.

"If we have any dependable source of water, it's the Narmada," said Butch. "Other rivers depend heavily on rainfall, while this one is perennial, has a large catchment area and is spread widely over the country."

Population Soaring

Butch says dam critics overlook India's serious demographic situation. "By 2020, the population is likely to go up by 20 million, with additional mouths to feed," he said. "We have to find sources of water and energy."

A group known as Narmada Bachao Andolan, or Save the Narmada, says the project is not worth the displacement of 500,000 people, a number that far exceeds the government's estimate of 130,000. The group says the state does not include villagers who live downstream.

In past years, members and other environmental groups -- including the International Rivers Network, based in Berkeley -- have won several victories over the government.

In 1993, the World Bank, which had previously committed $450 million to the dam, withdrew financing after being criticized for violating its own internal regulations on resettlement and environmental standards.

In 1995, a Save the Narmada petition convinced the Supreme Court that further environmental study was needed, forcing the government to halt the dam construction at 263 feet. Five years later, however, the court ruled that the project could continue to the initially proposed height of 452 feet.

Activists' Vigorous Protests

After the ruling, novelist Roy and Medha Patkar, a well-known anti-dam activist who has testified in the U.S. Congress, were accused of attacking five lawyers, chanting slogans against the judges and inciting farmers outside the court building.

Both women denied the charges, saying that the judges were trying to muzzle dissent. They are expected to go on trial this month.

In the meantime, Vasave is angry that he has not received compensation for his lost corn.

"When our crops drowned in the water, (the government) didn't give us any grain," he said.

Patkar says that once villagers like Vasave are pushed off their land, they are likely to join the legions of urban poor.

"The rural population winds up in shantytowns and slums, where these once- owners of land become nameless."

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