Threatened villagers lose fight to halt dam

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The Independent Online

A huge dam regarded as a symbol of environmental, political and cultural calamity was yesterday given the go-ahead by a majority decision in India's Supreme Court.

A huge dam regarded as a symbol of environmental, political and cultural calamity was yesterday given the go-ahead by a majority decision in India's Supreme Court.

The giant Sardar Sarovar dam, on the Narmada River in Gujarat, has been stuck 40 metres short of its intended height of 138 metres since environmental activists representing the tens of thousands whom the dam will displace lodged a case against the authorities in 1994. Yesterday in Delhi, Justices Kirpal and Anand swept aside objections and directed that the dam should be completed as quickly as possible.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA, the Narmada People's Movement), which sprang up to oppose this and dozens of other big dams being built along the Narmada River, which meanders through four central Indian states, has become the largest and most formidable non-violent people's movement since Gandhi spearheaded India's struggle for independence.

Yesterday the woman most closely identified with the NBA, Medha Patkar, said she was "very much disappointed" but that she would "fight to the finish". "I will not leave it here. I have to take this fight, this issue, this agitation... to its logical end, and this judgment is not the logical end. The people have no option. What will they do when they are evicted and they are not offered alternative land?"

Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning novelist and NBA supporter, said: "Two of the three Supreme Court judges came out with an outrageous judgment, and all of us are in shock."

The gigantic scheme to turn the 1,300 km-long Narmada into a series of reservoirs to bring water and electricity to drought-prone regions of the country was conceived in 1948, one year after independence, and has all the hallmarks of the massive projects of that era. The Sardar Sarovar dam has been dogged by controversy since the outset, and in 1993 the World Bank withdrew funding after a fierce campaign by the dam's opponents. The key weakness of the project, as of the other big dams on the river, is a failure to provide acceptable rehabilitation and resettlement ("r and r") programmes for the tens of thousands of people whose land is inundated.

In Madhya Pradesh, the Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, has admitted there is no land available for the people affected. The published "r and r" plans have been exposed as bland fictions, most recently in a report commissioned by the German government after the German giant Siemens sought a government guarantee for a contract to provide turbines.

More than 60 per cent of people displaced by the dams are either tribal or members of the "scheduled castes", formerly known as "untouchables".

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