Clinton's visit seals future for controversial Indian dam

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The Independent Online

President Bill Clinton's legacy to the people of India is that the country's most controversial dam project is now set to be completed.

Funding for the project has been secured after a US energy company agreed to meet nearly half the construction costs in an effort to end bitter protests, led by the Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy. Executives from the Ogden Energy Group, part of Ogden Corporation of New York, flew in as part of the business party with President Clinton on his five-day state visit last week, which left the Indian media and probably a fair proportion of the population, swooning in the President's wake. For a couple of weeks, Mr Clinton and America can do no wrong in India. But the news from the Narmada River may break that spell.

The Maheshwar Dam in Madhya Pradesh, central India, is half-built. When completed, it will make homeless nearly 40,000 farmers and fishermen in 61 villages.

In January Ms Roy and thousands of other protesters, the overwhelming majority local people, occupied the dam site in protest. They have two main objections.

First, although the state authorities have a legal obligation to relocate and rehabilitate all made homeless, they have taken no meaningful steps to do so. The small patch of land made available is infertile - and already squatted on by impoverished graziers.

And because the flow of the Narmada, outside the monsoon season, is sluggish for eight months of the year it will generate power for at most 90 minutes a day, say protestors.

That power will be prohibitively expensive. Ogden Energy Group is the fifth multinational to dip a toe in the turbid waters since the project was privatised in 1994.

Three companies previously involved, Pacgen of the US and Bayernwerk and VEW Energie, both of Germany, quit in the past three years because of opposition as well as misgivings about commercial prospects.

When news of the proposed tie-up between Ogden and the Indian company involved, S Kumars, emerged last year, people in the valley wrote to the company pointing out the problems. When they received no answer, 300 local representatives sent a resolution to Ogden declaring their opposition. Still no answer, nor have any officers of the company visited any of the villages affected.

A protest leader, Ms Chittaroopa Palit, said yesterday: "In the coming months, we will intensify our struggle. We will succeed in stopping the destruction of this rich area." Ogden Energy Group declined to comment.