Rain Gods give Arundhati Roy final chance to save villagers

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A rally tomorrow in a village scheduled for inundation by the Sardar Sarovar dam will take to a new level the increasingly successful campaign to halt construction of this and 29 other big dams along the Narmada river in central India.

A rally tomorrow in a village scheduled for inundation by the Sardar Sarovar dam will take to a new level the increasingly successful campaign to halt construction of this and 29 other big dams along the Narmada river in central India.

The rally is the last action of the year in a protracted struggle slowly yielding impressive results. Already the World Bank has pulled out of the scheme because of its social and environmental failings. In the past six months, a report commissioned by the German government has bluntly condemned provision for resettlement and rehabilitation as "token". In Delhi, the Supreme Court, after considering a demand from activists for a comprehensive review of the Sardar Sarovar dam for four years, recently acknowledged it was never given environmental clearance. A final judgment is awaited.

India's biggest protest campaign, rigorously non-violent and Gandhian, has been under way for 15 years. The dams have been rising despite the protests.

Already thousands of people living in the affected regions have lost their homes. Success is a distant prospect. Yet slowly the tide seems to be turning the campaigners' way.

The rally tomorrow will be held in two villages due to be submerged when the Sardar Sarovar dam reaches its full height.

The fact that this dam remains stuck at 88 metres, more than 50 metres short of its planned height, is thanks to the Supreme Court, which put a stay on further construction four years ago. The fact that no more villages were submerged this summer is thanks to the rain gods, whoproduced a drought.

Had the monsoon rains fallen, the campaigning organisation, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA; Narmada Peoples' Movement) would have seen yet more of the people for whose lands and livelihoods it is fighting move to the shanty towns of the big cities, which is all the state has to offer in the way of resettlement.

Instead, the NBA and its legendary leader, Medha Patkar, lived to fight another day, with much of the argument and the victories flowing in their direction. An inspection panel that toured the Narmada valley in the spring for the German government published a report condemning the resettlement and rehabilitation programmes of the Maheshwar dam, another of the big projects which is half-constructed. The programme, the report declared, "has failed to be transparent, participatory or democratic ... The provisions for monitoring and evaluation are token efforts."

Subsequently the German company Siemens, which had applied to the government for export credit guarantees to supply turbines for the dam, withdrew its application. Finance for the Maheshwar dam, which after privatisation is dependent on finding a foreign partner, remains in limbo six months after the Indian contractor, S Kumar's, signed a memorandum of understanding with an American company, Ogden.

Over in Delhi, meanwhile, a judge on the Supreme Court bench agreed with the NBA, to widespread consternation, that "environmental clearance for the dam does not exist". How that finding will be reflected in the judges' ruling, expected soon, remains to be seen. It may mean the hearings will have to start all over again.

Arundhati Roy, whose novel The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997 and went on to become the most successful book written by an Indian, remains committed heart and soul to the movement and participated in a big rally near the Sardar Sarovar dam last month. She was briefly arrested in January during a mass occupation of the Maheshwar dam site. But last month when she set off to join the rally at Domkhedi, she says, "I decided that I just couldn't stomach the idea of getting arrested again".

The police in Baroda, the closest city to the Sardar Sarovar dam, picked up her NBA colleagues and several eminent protesters in an attempt to emasculate the rally, but she slipped through their fingers and arrived at the village by boat many hours later.

Since declaring her support for the movement early last year, Ms Roy has given generously of time, money and energy (the boat that took her to the rally "was paid for with Booker Prize money"). She rejoices in the way the campaign brings together a vast array of people - dalit ("untouchable") fishermen and boatmen, tribal people, writers and artists, farmers and retired admirals.

"It's a utopian thing," she says, back in her south Delhi flat, "a vision of the way things should be. On the one hand you're fighting for a specific goal, but you're also fighting for a way of seeing."

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