India: Dam Protesters Confront World Bank Chief

NEW DELHI, India -- Over a thousand environmental protesters today stormed police barricades in New Delhi, and marched up to the offices of the World Bank, demanding they be allowed to meet with visiting Bank president James Wolfensohn.

They are led by India's most prominent environmental campaigner, the silver haired Medha Patkar. Patkar is a commissioner on the World Commission on Dams.

She leads the anti-dam group Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement), which has been protesting the Indian Supreme Court decision allowing the Sardar Sarovar dam across the Narmada River to be raised. The organization campaigns for the rights of the approximately 400,000 people likely to be displaced by the dam project.

The Supreme Court handed down a ruling on October 18 rejecting a six year old court appeal against the Rs 370 billion Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat, western India. Proponents of the dam say it will produce much needed electricity and flood control. Patkar and other critics point to the hundreds of thousands of people who will be displaced by the rising water and have nowhere to go.

Walking nearly nine kilometers (5.6 miles) in New Delhi to the World Bank's offices, protestors shouted slogans against the global project lender and demanded that it "quit India."

The World Bank has come under fire during the visit of president Wolfensohn to India, after the multinational lending agency seemed to change its stance on the dam project it had earlier declined to support.

Today's march to the World Bank office met with stiff resistance from the New Delhi police, who set up double barricades in the area. Leading the protesters, Narmada Bachao Andolan women battled with policewomen at the barricades, almost breaking these down.

Patkar told a World Bank staffer, who asked her to accompany him for a meeting with senior officers, "If the World Bank president can come here and meet the government and the Gujarat chief minister [in the region where the dam is being built], surely he can meet us here."

World Bank staffers said Wolfensohn was extremely busy with meetings, but protestors said they would wait for him, if necessary for days, blocking traffic in the national capital.

Wolfensohn arrived in India November 6 and will stay until Wednesday. He is touring development projects and meeting with "government leaders, representatives of civil society, business people,
and community leaders" in New Delhi, and a number of states, including Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, his office said.

The Sardar Sarovar dam is the first of 30 large dams and hundreds of medium and small dams planned for the Narmada River which runs through central India. Launched in 1979, the Sardar Sarovar Project, as it is formally called, envisages 135 medium and over 3,000 small dams on the Narmada River.

This river originates in Madhya Pradesh in central India and empties into the Arabian Sea after flowing through the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat in the western regions of the country.

In its ruling in mid-October, India's Supreme Court allowed the height of the dam to be raised to 90 metres (292.5 feet). Every five meter increase thereafter would be subject to environmental clearance till the dam reached its planned height of 138 metres (449 feet). The height of the dam currently stands at 88 metres (286 feet).

Patkar has criticized the Supreme Court order as one of "life imprisonment" for the 44,000 families of the Narmada Valley, who would be displaced by the multi-billion rupee dam project.

This coming Wednesday, the campaigners have an appointment with Indian federal President K.R. Narayanan. "We are prepared to answer all his questions and queries," said Patkar, "but it will be up to him to take a decision."

Under the Indian Constitution, a Presidential intervention is possible, but this is not seen as likely.

This week, the Narmada Bachao Andolan is scheduled to hold a "public hearing" near the historic Red Fort, which carries emotional freight for generations of Indians because of the its link with the country's anti-colonial struggle.

But even Narmada Bachao Andolan admits that President Narayanan is unlikely to entertain Patkar's plea to scrap the dam, a plea that the court accepted for hearing in 1994 but threw out six years later saying dams are all right for development.

Of the three Supreme Court judges hearing that case, one, Judge S.P. Barucha, has written a dissenting judgment saying all is not well with the dam project.

For the moment, the protesting village farmers and tribal folks are stationed at Rajghat - the place where the father of India's fight against colonial rule, Mahatma Gandhi was interred.

NBA has blasted the World Bank for Wolfensohn's recent remarks favoring the dam. Wolfensohn's view now is that the Bank may not have done the correct thing when it pulled out of the project 1993.

Patkar told journalists she fears government repression in the western Indian province of Gujarat, which she said might be aimed at forcing the local and tribal communities to vacate their areas that will be submerged now that the dam's construction has been resumed.

She warned that the conflict might turn violent. "People in the valley are not for violence, both as a strategy and a value. But when it comes to self defense, I would say it is not very unlikely."

Patkar blamed the media in western India for rousing sentiment in favour of the dam, the benefits of which have been exaggerated, she said.

In another development, India's federal government, led by the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has declared that it will closely scrutinize the sources of foreign funds received by non-governmental organizations in the country.

Some observers have linked this to the recent victory of the Indian government against the anti-Narmada dam campaign, which is seen as prompting the government to act tough with campaign groups it sees as acting on behalf of "foreign" interests.

Indian laws are very strictly against non-government organizations getting access to foreign funding.

Newspaper advertisements last week charged the Narmada Bachao Andolan with playing a negative role, and claimed the group is acting at the behest of vested interests.

The mainstream newspaper "Indian Express" carried a large, prominent ad last Friday from a group called the National Council for Civil Liberties, accusing Patkar of sustaining her campaign with the help of foreign money received through unlawful channels.

The ad also alleged that Patkar has been passing on "confidential documents related to national importance" to foreigners, with the aim of halting India's "progress."

Indian federal Home Minister L.K. Advani has also hit out against the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Speaking at the dam site to mark the re-launching of the work, he charged that it is "more than a coincidence" that the "same people" who were opposed to the dam had also questioned the need for India's nuclear blasts.

The results of a wide ranging two year study by the World Commission on Dams on the costs and benefits of the dams of the world is scheduled for release on Thursday.

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