WASHINGTON -- Human rights and environmental groups are condemning state police in India for preventing about 500 people from attending a public hearing on a controversial dam planned for the Narmada river.
About 40 arrests were also made this week of people trying to attend the same meeting, held on Thursday, according to protestors in India involved in the public hearing.
The arrests are the latest in a series of state actions used to suppress dissent over the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam project (SSP), according to letters sent by Amnesty International, International Rivers Network (IRN) and Friends of the Narmada.
''This latest repressive measure is of course in line with the Gujarat Government's history of draconian measures to squelch public opinion and the unalienable rights of citizens to protest against the Sardar Sarovar Project,'' says the letter to the Gujarat state government signed by IRN and Friends of the Narmada, two US-based pressure groups.
Amnesty International -- which did not state an opinion on the dam -- says the police are violating Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights which provide that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
The international human rights watchdog points out that these rights are also protected in Article 19 of India's constitution.
After the 500 people travelling to the public hearing were stopped near the border between the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, they held a rally where they were detained. Protestors said police preventing them from travelling further said they could not pass because the road was slippery, according to Susanne Wong, an activist with IRN.
With the Indian Supreme Court expected to issue its final ruling on the dam in the next few months, protests, rallies and international solidarity actions against the project are heating up.
Activists against the Sardar Sarovar Dam say the project and its associated infrastructure threaten to displace nearly 500,000 people, mostly poor farmers and indigenous people. Tens of thousands of hectares of fertile arable land, forests, ancient temples and sacred burial grounds are also to be completely
submerged by water.
The government argues that the multi-purpose dam would irrigate more than 1.8 million hectares (mostly in the states of Gujarat, some in Rajasthan) and quench the thirst of the drought prone areas of Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat.
But determined to save their homes and livelihoods from inundation, for more than a decade, the Indian-based Narmada Bachao Andolan (also known as NBA or Save the Narmada Movement) has organised demonstrations, marches and fasts to stop the project.
''In the interests of preserving the rights of the people of the Narmada Valley we demand that further construction on the SSP be halted and that proposals for alternatives be considered with the seriousness they deserve,'' says the letter by IRN and Friends of the Narmada.
Among the 30 large dams planned for the Narmada, the Sardar Sarovar dam is the largest. With a proposed height of 136.5 metres it has become the focal point of both the dam-builders plans and the NBA opposition.
In the early 1990s, under intense pressure from activists, the World Bank -- which was funding the dam to the tune of 450 million dollars -- decided to convene an independent review committee, known as the Morse Commission.
The first independent review of any of the Bank funded project, the Morse report indicted the Bank on many counts and tacitly endorsed all the main concerns raised by the NBA. This forced the Bank to finally withdraw from the project.
Seven years after the Morse report, several international organisations, including IRN, conducted an investigation into the expected social impacts of the dam. The team visited resettlement sites as well as villages which are to be submerged, and ones which are already partly submerged, in the states
of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
''The people we met at resettlement sites had suffered extreme economic hardship and psychological trauma,'' said a 1999 letter sent by the organisations to the World Bank. Many people had been displaced under conditions of intimidation and physical violence by government authorities, according to their findings.
Tribal families who previously were able to meet most of their basic needs and sustain their cultural identity from a diverse natural environment are now exposed to dependency and exploitation by money lenders, land owners and traders, or face destitution in urban slums, they said.
''Land of totally inadequate quality and quantity has been made available to the oustees,'' said the letter. ''We heard numerous accounts of broken promises, threats and neglect from the government authorities.''
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