|On the 18 October 2000 the Supreme Court in New Delhi ruled that
the construction of the Sadar Sarovar Project (SSP) dam could resume.
This ruling came as a bitter blow to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA),
an eclectic group of activists, who had fought dam construction along
the Narmada River for over 15 years. Thus, continue the saga of big
dam development in India and the world.
Ever since Nehru declared that "dams are the temples of modern
India", India has pursued large dams with some vigour. The
Indian government has major plans for the Narmada River which starts
in the Amarkantah plateau in Madhya Pradesh and runs out into the
Arabian sea in Gujarat. These include 3,200 dams of various sizes
(30 of them large) along Narmada and her tributaries. This project
will not only incur major environmental damage but also displace
many thousands of people causing economic and social hardship. Many
of those who bear the brunt of this development are Dalit (the untouchable
cast) and tribal peoples (who call themselves Adivasi) are already
under represented and disenfranchised from "main stream"
India. Those who will benefit are largely rich and powerful people
who carry great influence.
The SSP dam benefited from World Bank funding, however, an independent
report (the Morse Report) was so critical of the project and its
treatment of Tribal people that the World Bank withdrew funding
in 1993. The Morse Report pointed out that the Narmada Adivasi fulfil
all of the World Bank criteria for indigenous populations and therefore
are entitled to the protection granted by the World Bank to indigenous
peoples. The view of developers at the SSP dam quoted in the Morse
report that those in factory-made shirts are "detribalised"
was found to be untenable. The World Bank had never before, or has
ever since, allowed an independent report into any of the projects
Much of the Morse Report's criticism was focused on the inadequate
resettlement and rehabilitation of those who will be displaced by
the dam. The Supreme Court halted Dam construction in January 1995
when the dam developers were challenged on the lack of progress
with this resettlement and rehabilitation. Official figures estimate
that 41,000 families (usually allowing 8 people per family) will
be displaced by the SSP dam, building the irrigation canals will
add about 23,000 families to this total. How this figure will relate
to the final total is anyone's guess since the Bargi Dam, the first
to the big dams to be completed in 1990, submerged three times more
land than predicted and displaced 114,000 people instead of the
70,000 officials estimated.
The NBA is made up from a wide variety of cultural and social groups
including Adivasi and the full gamut of Hindu castes from Brahmin
to Dalit. One of the major achievements of the NBA is that they
have striven to create a movement where people who would normally
be strictly segregated work together and treat each other as equals.
This egalitarian approach and the creed of non-violence come from
67.7 million of the worlds 220 million indigenous people live in
India making up roughly 8% of the population (Dalits make up a further
15%). Despite this minority status most of India's "development"
projects seem to occur on tribal lands, resulting in their displacement.
The tribal people of India collectively call themselves Adivasi
and largely lack political representation. The Indian government
has claimed that all Hindus in India are indigenous and the Adivasi
are lapsed or "backward" Hindus existing outside of the
caste system. Some right wing Hindus insist that the Adivasi should
be brought back into the Hindu fold.
Adivasi activists claim that development projects happen on their
land because they are outside of the political system and can be
manipulated. In the main, they are subsistence farmers and displacement
by development removes their independence and forces them to enter
"main stream" society, usually selling their labour for
pitiful wages. In some Adivasi areas, where government has failed
to do anything positive, the NBA are in effect an alternative state
providing transport and running schools. They fight against the
building of planned dams and where dams have been completed they
fight for the social and economic welfare of the displaced and dispossessed.
The NBA takes issue with the dam developers not only on points
of law and human rights but also just about every fact and figure
that they can muster. The NBA have carried out censuses in the Adivasi
areas to challenge official estimates of how many people will be
displaced, they have questioned the river's flow rate and silt volume,
the cost of building, the cost of producing electricity and the
feasibility of irrigation. The reasons for doing this are clear
when the Bargi dam is considered; it flooded more land and displaced
more people than expected, however, money ran out before the irrigation
canals were built so that it irrigates only 5% of area developers
said it would. This is about the same amount of land it submerged.
Also, the Tawa Dam (on one of the Narmad's tributaries) has water
logged and salinated much of the land it was meant to irrigate.
The driving force behind the NBA is Medha Patkar who has been fighting
the dams for over fifteen years. Medha Patka is the veteran of several
hunger strikes and in 1999 she stood in the SSP reservoir ready
to commit jal samarpan (sacrifice to the water) as it was swelling
with monsoon waters. After being removed from the waters by the
police she went straight back to the reservoir only to be removed
a second time and then held without charge until the monsoon had
finished and the waters began to recede. When the Supreme Court
made their ruling she declared "I stand by my statement of
last year, that if the dam is raised by an inch from 88 meters [its
final height is planned to be 139 meters] I will sacrifice my life".
Medha Patkar is a well-known figure to anti-IMF and anti-dam protesters
around the world and took a delegation to the Seattle and Prague
demonstrations. International awareness is critical, the World Bank
may have withdrawn from the SSP but Siemens and a Japanese company
have shown interest in investing in the Maheshwar dam. Also, Bill
Clinton helped US firms invest in this same dam during his recent
trip to India.
Interest in the western press has been aroused by the involvement
of Arundhati Roy, the Indian author who's first novel, God of Small
Things, won the 1997 Booker Prize. Her second book, The Greater
Common Good, was not a novel but an extended essay on the folly
and human cost of the Narmada Project. Arundhati Roy has been vilified
by much of the conservative Indian press and indeed by much of conservative
India. A Supreme Court Judge referred to The Greater Common Good
and related magazine articles as "objectionable writings"
and accused her of "vicious stultification and vulgar debunking
the stream of justice".