Arundhati Roy furious at dam decision

As India's government presses on with its water scheme, the Booker-winning novelist dismisses Supreme Court ruling
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The Independent Online

When work resumes on the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the state of Gujarat in nine days, two visions of India will be pitted against each other.

When work resumes on the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the state of Gujarat in nine days, two visions of India will be pitted against each other.

Work on India's biggest dam has been stalled for six years while opponents and supporters slugged it out in the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, by a majority verdict, judges gave the dam a green light.

The concrete mixers will start churning again on 31 October. But tomorrow, Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize winner and prominent anti-dam campaigner, and thousands of the small farmers and landless peasants threatened by the Sardar Sarovar, will meet at the town of Badwani, on the edge of the area the dam will ultimately submerge, to protest and plan their next move.

"I don't want any longer to say the movement should be violent or non-violent," Roy told the Independent on Sunday. "The people affected by the project should make that decision. We live in our little islands of privilege amid terrible dispossession - we always live with the fear of what is just outside our door. We know all resources are scarce, so we have an almost religious respect for institutions like the Supreme Court to protect our interests.

"I don't respect the court as an institution: I know it is as much a part of the system as anything else. It offers shelter to the privileged. The other India stands outside the pale."

The opponents of the dam are adamant. This weekend Medha Patkar, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA or Narmada People's Movement) said: "I stand by my statement of last year, that if the height of the dam is raised by an inch from [its present height of] 88 metres. I will sacrifice my life."

News of the judgment was greeted by the Indian media with euphoria. In Gujarat, firecrackers were let off; government employees were granted a half-day holiday.

In Bombay, Ms Patkar burst into tears at a press conference in Bombay, and Arundhati Roy called the decision "heartbreaking". Ms Patkar and her followers threatened to drown themselves in the dam.

Three days on, official joy was wilting. The bald assertions of the two judges who threw out the NBA's case were beginning to look rather odd.

India's experience of big dams, they stated, "did not show the construction of a large dam is not cost-effective or leads to ecological or environmental degradation. On the contrary, there has been ecological upgradation with the construction of large dams."

But the NBA's lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, said: "Every person in the country, including judges, is entitled to have a view on these matters. What is disturbing is when such personal views are delivered as the judgment of acourt. Equally distressing is the fact that such pronouncements have been made without any evidence of the facts [being presented] before the judges."

The findings fly in the face of research into the social damage big dams have inflicted on India, and the modest benefits obtained from them.

A report by the World Commission on Dams, set up by the World Bank, says that India's behemoths have forced involuntary displacement of 56 million people since independence. They have soaked up 1,560bn rupees - more than £23.6bn - in the process, but contributed only 10 per cent to the nation's grain production.

The Narmada River originates in the plateau of Amarkantah in Madhya Pradesh, close to the geographical centre of India, and winds for 600 miles through broad-leaved forest and disgorges into the Arabian Sea in the state of Gujarat. The Narmada Valley Development Project, given government clearance in 1987 without an environmental review, is India's biggest dam scheme.

It involves building 3,200 small, medium and large dams along the river for electricity and water, and will involve the forcible displacement of more people than any other dam project in the world except China's Three Gorges Dam.

The first Narmada dam to be completed, in 1990, was the Bargi, which cost 10 times more than projected and submerged three times more land than engineers claimed it would. Some 114,000 people were displaced - 44,000 more than the government predicted. They were given no land in compensation. There was no rehabilitation policy.

Madhya Pradesh has finally admitted there is no land available to resettle those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Usually, they are bribed off their land with a pittance, then condemned to scrabble and scrape to survive in the squalid fringes of the big cities.