Dam activists confront World Bank president

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The Independent Online

The President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, came face to face with 3,000 environmental protesters in central Delhi yesterday, many of them due to lose their homes when construction of India's controversial mega-dam, the Sardar Sarovar, is completed.

The President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, came face to face with 3,000 environmental protesters in central Delhi yesterday, many of them due to lose their homes when construction of India's controversial mega-dam, the Sardar Sarovar, is completed.

Five hours earlier, they had tramped through the city centre chanting and singing: massed representatives of the central Indian heartland; tribal people in turbans; farmers' wives in saris; fishermen and boatmen; all menaced by the big dams planned for the Narmada river. They finished up outside the sleek new headquarters of the World Bank on Max Mueller Marg, where they sat down, blocking the broad dual carriageway to traffic.

Last month Delhi's Supreme Court, after hearings lasting six years, by a majority decision instructed the government to complete the Sardar Sarovar dam with full speed. The long- running campaign of the Narmada People's Movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan, NBA) quickly moved into top gear and the protesters have been camped in the capital for nearly a week.

Despite the court's decision, the governments of the two states involved - Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat - have said there is no land available for the resettlement of the tens of thousands of families who will be displaced by the dam.

Mr Wolfensohn has been touring Bank projects in India for the past week. At 6.10pm the founder and leader of the NBA, Ms Medha Patkar prevailed on him to come outside in his chalk-stripe suit to face the music. "We are talking to you for a special reason," Ms Patkar told him.

The reason is that it was the Bank that provided the original loans to finance the building of the Sardar Sarovar dam. In 1993, it withdrew from the project after a study commissioned by the Bank revealed that provision for those who would be made homeless was non-existent. Lately, rumours in Delhi suggest that following the decision to build the dam, the bank might make a U-turn and come back on board.

Ms Patkar said: "We call on the World Bank not to enter the Narmada valley, neither at the Sardar Sarovar nor any other big dam." But Mr Wolfensohn denied that the bank intended to do so. "The issue of relief and rehabilitation is something we believe in," he told the crowd.

"We have no intention of financing the Narmada project and, as far as I know, we have not been asked to finance it ... I will personally look at all the issues you have raised today," he added.

Among the inhabitants of the Narmada valley and NBA supporters was the novelist Arundhati Roy, who will join Ms Patkar and others in London later this week, where Nelson Mandela will release the Report of the Commission on World Dams - commissioned by the World Bank - which reveals that dams built in India since its independence have caused the involuntary displacement of 56 million people.

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