One-woman protest helps halt huge Indian dam project

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From a hospital bed, a starving woman has brought the biggest infrastructure project in a booming India to its knees. The Supreme Court has ruled that work on a massive dam on the Narmada river cannot be completed unless thousands of people whose homes will be flooded are relocated and rehabilitated.

It was a victory for protesters who included the Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy and the Bollywood movie star Aamir Khan. But mostly it was a victory for a woman who went on hunger strike for 20 days to draw attention to the plight of those living in the shadow of the dam.

Medha Patkar is the most famous human rights activist in India. But when she and fellow activists began a hunger strike in Delhi in March, it was dismissed as just a publicity stunt.

But the weeks passed and the hunger strike went on. After almost three weeks, Ms Patkar's health was deteriorating fast, but she had forced the dam on to the front pages of all India's national newspapers day after day, and made herself a political force the Indian government could not ignore.

She was taken to hospital against her will by police, but hospital staff did not force her to eat - hunger strikes are deeply respected in India, where they were enshrined in the national consciousness by Mahatma Gandhi.

The stand-off pitched her against Narendra Modi, thechief minister of Gujarat state, who called off a visit to Britain last year after human rights activists said they would try to have him arrested for crimes against humanity during the Gujarat massacres of 2002.

At stake was a multibillion-dollar scheme to build 30 dams on the Narmada river to relieve water shortages across four states and provide hydroelectric power.

Parched Gujarat stands to gain from the project, and Mr Modi is a staunch supporter. He even began his own hunger strike - but he gave up after 30 hours.

One of the biggest challenges facing India is the drastic shortage of water in many areas. Hundreds of farmers have committed suicide after their crops failed during droughts, and in many areas there are warnings the water table could run out completely.

But Ms Patkar and her Save the Narmada Movement, which has campaigned against the dams for 20 years, say the homes of hundreds of thousands of people will be flooded in Madhya Pradesh state. She says they are being ignored because they are poor.

Ms Patkar began her hunger strike when work started on raising the biggest dam, the Sardar Sarovar, from 110 metres to 121 metres. Under pressure, the federal government sent a team to investigate the rehabilitation efforts.

The team found that the activists' accusations were largely correct. At the largest site where families were being relocated, the ministers said they were "amazed that no sanitation, no drinking water, no system of sewage, no roads, much less the facilities like hospital, water reservoir, school, post office have been provided there." Displaced families were being encouraged to accept cash handouts instead of proper rehabilitation - and the government was charging them income tax on the handouts.

The Save the Narmada Movement says if the dam is raised, 35,000 families will lose their homes in monsoon rains in three months.

The Supreme Court has ordered that work on the dam should continue for now, but warned that if rehabilitation was not carried out swiftly it would order a complete stop to the work.

Ms Patkar ended her hunger strike on Monday. She staggered from her hospital bed to give a statement, but refused to see it as a victory, saying she was disappointed the Supreme Court had allowed work to continue. She vowed to fight on.