People of the flood vow to drown rather than move

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The Independent Online
IN THE Narmada Valley, the river water is lapping at the first rows of corn. Lower down, only the tops of the trees are still visible. Last month a little girl drowned when she went to fetch water from the river.

When the Narmada River rises a few more feet in the coming days as a result of monsoon rains, the first houses in Domkhedi will be submerged. Sixty other villages in the valley - situated at the confluence of three Indian states: Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh - are also living under the threat of rising water.

"When it floods, we will carry on sitting here, even if we have to die," declared Ulya, a white-turbanned farmer whose six hectares of land will be engulfed in the coming days.

Ulya is sitting cross-legged in the middle of more than 100 villagers who have come from all around the valley to make their protest.

The threat comes from the massive Sardar Sarovar Dam, which has recently been raised to 88 metres.

The Sardar Sarovar is one of a chain of 30 huge dams built as part of the controversial Narmada River Valley Project, which was conceived during a craze for grandiose development projects in India's post- independence era. The project comprises thousands of dams in total.

Sardar Sarovar - the biggest dam, even though it is now only half complete - is the focus of a 15-year protest movement that has been swelled in recent days by the arrival of 200 sympathisers from Delhi, including Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things.

Ms Roy, who supports the protest group NBA - Narmada Bachao Andolan, or Save Narmada Movement - has written a vitriolic and passionate essay on the harm the dam is causing to the villagers' lives.

As in all the tribal villages of the Narmada Valley, the river is the source of life. There is no other source of drinking water, no electricity or telephone system. The Advasis, the tribes who live in the Narmada villages, were almost totally self-sufficient before the dam. They went to town to buy salt, but otherwise their lives were defined by nature, livestock, working in the fields and the river.

For the past 15 years, the Advasis have been fighting the dams. In Domkhedi and in neighbouring villages, the focus of opposition has been the Sardar Sarovar, once planned as the world's second-biggest dam in the world.

Work on the dam accelerated after a $450m loan from the World Bank in 1985, although it withdrew from the scheme in 1993 following pressure from the NBA.

The entire river valley project was supposed to irrigate 1.8 million hectares of land, generate 1,450 megawatts of electricity and bring drinking water to 40 million people.

According to the few official figures available, by 1991 the project had brought drinking water to only 8,215 villages.

In 1979, the government anticipated that 6,000 families would be displaced. Today it talks of 41,000. According to the NBA, 85,000 families, or half a million people, will be affected.

The costs of the project have far exceeded projections, with the Sardar Sarovar Dam alone so far costing pounds 1bn. The NBA claims that the dam will provide only 3 per cent of the 50 megawatts of electricity originally predicted.

India is the world's third-biggest builder of dams. However, irrigation remains a major problem and 226 million Indians, a quarter of the population, are still without potable drinking water.

For the past month, the NBA has been organising "sit-ins until we are swallowed up" in two villages. Around the clock, villagers and sympathisers from all around India take turns to spend an hour or a few days on a roof of banana leaves by the river, a few metres from the house of Medha Patkar, the NBA leader. "Didi" (sister), as the Advasis of the region call her, looks like an ordinary woman. She says: "We are not against progress, but for alternative solutions, on a human scale, which benefit the communities affected and those in greatest need.

"The electricity from the dams is going to people who already have it. The Sardar Sarovar Dam will affect 2,500 new villages, nearly 12,000 families, this year. Close to half a million people will be affected by the time that it is finished."