Once again, the government has been compelled to suspend work on the Maheshwar dam over the Narmada River in central India.
Under pressure from civil society groups, that organised a sit-down strike for close to three weeks here in May, the central Ministry of Forests and Environment ordered the state government of Madhya Pradesh, where the project is located, to halt work until project authorities have complied with conditions laid down for the rehabilitation of all people who stand to lose their lands, livelihoods or homes.
Work on the dam project, India's first private hydel project, has mostly been on hold since it started in 1997. Only 14 percent of the construction was completed, according to a 2002 monitoring report by the forest ministry. A further suspension thereafter, that lasted up to early this year, has meant that roughly 80 percent of the work still needs to be done, while project costs have risen to nearly five times the original estimate of about one billion US dollars in 1994.
Charges of financial irregularities and loan defaults have dogged the main promoter, Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corp. In addition, there have been no sign of rehabilitation for nearly 8,000 families spread over 61 villages. A total of about 5,000 hectares of land will be submerged by the project. This includes about 1,000 hectares of agricultural land.
The Maheshwar dam in Khargone district is one of 30 big dams proposed on the river which flows from Madhya Pradesh to empty into the Arabian sea on the west coast. With the project now in cold storage, activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (save the Narmada movement) say that it is still possible to save nearly 100,000 people from displacement.
On May 11, hundreds of dam-affected people had protested outside the forest ministry's office in the Indian capital against the construction in view of the dam authorities' non-compliance with conditions for environmental clearance.
Madhya Pradesh's Nimad region is highly fertile. Most of the farmland is rich cotton-growing area. Himanshu Thakkar, researcher and editor of 'Dams, Rivers and People' explains: "this is generally considered to be one of the most fertile patches of land in this vast state Ã " Most farms have the benefit of direct irrigation from the river.
Also, the dam will affect almost 5,000 other families of fishermen, boatmen, melon cultivators, etc. working in and around the river who will lose their livelihoods. The region supports a rich river economy based on scores of sand quarries, fishing, ferrying and cultivation of melons and vegetables.
Sushila Bai, the articulate sarpanch (village head) of Mardana village, some 12 km from Mandaleshwar town, who was at the picket in Delhi, says, "Our land is very fertile, and three to four crops can be grown annually. One hectare of land can yields up to Rs 300,000 (about 6,500 dollars) in a good year. Pipelines from the river provide abundant amounts of water."
Bharvi Bai of Bhatyan village boasted that her village is self-sufficient in food crops and even cotton. "How can anyone allow such bountiful land to be submerged?" she asks. Barvi had sat on hunger strike for 18 days with NBA leader Medha Patkar and others in Delhi demanding justice.
Another protestor from Nimad, Parvati Behan, asserts that there is no greater joy than "the happiness I get from bathing in the Narmada". "Our land grows not just grain but a wide variety of spices (like chillies, garlic, coriander, cumin) and fruits (like mango, banana, grapes and citrus fruits like oranges and lemon). We produce everything except salt.''
Opposition to the dam has only snowballed over the last nine years. As a result, several foreign investors have backed out of the project. These include Bechtel in 1997, the German companies Bayernwerk and VEW Energie in 1999, and Ogden (US) in 2000. Also, the NBA says the hydel project which has an installed capacity of 400 MW, will produce only 49 MW.
This year, the project was restarted and efforts were being made to raise finds on the basis of a guarantee proposed by the Power Finance Corporation (PFC). But NBA's Alok Aggarwal has challenged the public sector company's position. "It is beyond reason how the PFC which was censured by the Comptroller and Auditor General for providing funds for this project in violation of necessary conditions is preparing to put more money in the project and provide a guarantee," he says.
Attempts by IPS to get information from PFC's public relations officer yielded only a cryptic comment that the corporation has nothing to say on the subject.
Aggarwal argues that most of the power will be produced in the monsoon months when Madhya Pradesh (the state where this project is based) is likely to have surplus power. "All available indications suggest that the electricity generated by this project will be extremely costly," he adds, citing dam location, other technical specifications, steep cost escalation and instances of fraud.
Neither can dam authorities find the land to rehabilitate those affected. Chittarupa Palit, another prominent member of the NBA, points out that what is "most disturbing from the point of view of people in the submergence zone is that the land identified by the government for rehabilitation simply doesn't exist. This includes land located between the submergence villages and the river which will be submerged even earlier. Then there is other private land which has not been acquired or purchased yet."
The NBA's misgivings were confirmed recently when an application under the right to information law revealed that the forests ministry could not trace the main files in the Maheshwar dam case. These were found to be missing.
Early May, over 300 farmers and fisherfolk from affected villages came to Delhi to express solidarity with opponents of the Sardar Sarovar project, the biggest dam that is under construction over the Narmada river, and to protest against the environmental clearance to the Maheshwar dam. They demanded that the clearance be withdrawn.
"This is clearly a project which has too many problems and too few benefits. We are determined to stop it," Dinesh, a young man from Nimad, said with a sense of finality.
Now, the forests ministry has also aired its misgivings. In a letter dated Jun. 4 to the Madhya Pradesh government it ordered the work " suspended with immediate effect till a comprehensive R&R (resettlement and rehabilitation) plan is submitted by the project authorities and the same is found to be implementable by the Monitoring Committee".
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