Dam-builders vs river goddess: Tim McGirk in India's Narmada valley sees 'developers' clash with tribal people

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IMAGINE the uproar if London unveiled plans to flood Coventry, and its inhabitants were scattered across England with only the scantest provision made for their survival.

Such an exodus is happening in India. With nearly dollars 850m ( pounds 433m) foreign aid, India is building a 45,000-mile network of canals and 27 dams that will forcibly displace more than 300,000 people. But protest is muted, because most of the villagers and farmers who are to be flooded out are primitive tribesmen.

Many cannot read or write. They hunt with bow and arrows and forage for fruit, herbs and roots. For many, their only contact with civilisation is a rare trip to market, where they barter corn or herbs for salt and cotton. They live in houses without nails, made of teak and bamboo lashed together with vines.

And they believe that the Narmada, on whose riverbanks they live, is a great goddess who created this planet. 'Our gods are here, in the forest, the river, the land. We can't move them from one place to another like a transistor radio,' said a Vasava tribesman, who looked like a thin branch of charcoal. 'If you take us out of the forest we'll die.'

The Indian government does not view the Narmada as a goddess but as a vital resource whose waters can be channelled, at enormous expense and Herculean effort, over to the drought-stricken flatlands of the west Indian state of Gujarat. The tale of the Narmada river project is a classic case of grandiose development versus tribal people, of international aid agencies pumping millions into a dubious project, and of how a Gandhi-like woman, Mehda Patkar, has nearly succeeded in stopping one of the world's largest engineering feats.

Ms Patkar, a chemist and academic, left a coveted job at a Bombay research institute in 1985 to do a thesis on resettlement of the tribesmen affected by the Narmada dam project. 'The tribals were never given a choice. They were just told that the water was rising and they had to get out. That's all.' Of the three states involved in the Narmada project, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, only Gujarat has set aside land to resettle people affected by the dams and canals.

Not all the Narmada refugees will be able to squeeze into Gujarat's resettlement areas and the state government will give farmland only to families with title deeds to their old homes. Few tribesmen have deeds to the areas where they have foraged for centuries.

Ms Patkar left her Bombay flat to live in a mud hut in Manibeli, a hamlet within sight of the gigantic cranes of the Sardar Sarovar dam site. She learnt the Vasava dialect. On foot she visited most of the 240 villages that will be submerged. She and her growing band of followers organised protest marches, were arrested, went on hunger strikes and gathered support from international environmental groups against the dam project.

After walking for three miles through monsoon rains and crossing the Narmada (which I was told had crocodiles) in a leaky rowing boat, I had to sleep in a hut on a floor of hardened mud and cow dung in the company of eight German feminists. Shortly after midnight, our hut was invaded by an army of frogs.

The protests led by Ms Patkar prompted Germany and Japan to reassess their participation in the project. In September 1991 the World Bank took the unprecedented move of hiring an independent team of experts to review the projects. The review concluded in July that neither the World Bank nor the Indian government had made adequate appraisals of the project's environmental impact or its resettlement programme.

This month the World Bank will decide whether to provide an extra dollars 90m for the project or abandon it. Without the World Bank's seal of approval, India will be unable to drum up funds from other donors. In New Delhi, aid experts are convinced that with the Sardar Sarovar dam nearly built and 84 miles of canals dug, the government will continue regardless. 'If the World Bank stays in,' said one foreign agriculture expert, 'it can put pressure on the state governments to find new land for the displaced tribals.'

Advocates of the project claim that it will irrigate enough land to feed 20 million people. But state officials admit that in Gujarat's two main drought-prone areas, Kutch and Saurashtra, less than 10 per cent of cultivable land will be watered by the canals. Instead, the dam's opponents claim, the Narmada will be diverted first to land owned by wealthy sugar-cane growers.

As the dam rises, so do the waters of the Narmada. A week ago the monsoon- swollen river came within a few feet of the lowest hut in Manibeli. The tribesman and his family refuse to move, and they are not alone. Crammed inside their bamboo hut were villagers from all along the Narmada riverbank. The tribesmen decided that the day the goddess Narmada comes, they will face her wrath and die together. They would rather drown than leave their tribal land.