Reprieve for sacred river: The World Bank cut funds to a dam project in India, writes Tim McGirk

TRIBESMEN living in the teak forests along the Narmada river, who have only the scantest idea of where New Delhi is, let alone Washington, were last night rejoicing over a decision made at the World Bank headquarters that may save their sacred river from being dammed up and their villages submerged.

Such abstractions as banks are alien to the Vasava tribesmen, who hunt and forage in the jungle canyons of central India. But they do understand a great stone wall is being built across their river which, when the monsoon rains fall this summer, will cause the flooding of many villages. The tribesmen also know that money to build the wall comes from Washington and that on Tuesday, the flow of funds dried up.

Indian officials told the World Bank in Washington on Tuesday they did not need a promised dollars 170m ( pounds 114m) loan for the Narmada project, probably the biggest dam and irrigation scheme in the world. The reason was that the bank was trampling on India's 'self-respect' by imposing too many conditions.

Bank experts had expressed concern over New Delhi's failure to resettle more than 300,000 people, mainly tribesmen, who are to be dislodged by this grandiose scheme of 4,500 miles of canals and 27 dams. India's refusal was seen as a face-saver; the World Bank was intending to cut off funds to the controversial dollars 3.5bn scheme anyway. It was conceived at a time when banks were only too happy to burden developing countries with colossal engineering projects that later proved to be expensive and of dubious value.

The World Bank's exit was made after opposition to the project by environmental groups, in India and abroad, and from several donor countries. The tribesmen were galvanised into protest by a crippled holy man, Baba Amteh, who meditates in a grass hut beside the Narmada, and Mehda Patkar, a former chemist and academic from Bombay who wanders among the river tribes.

Ms Patkar sent a message from a remote Narmada village saying the loss of World Bank funds was 'a victory for thousands of struggling tribals and farmers in the Narmada valley'. One leading environmentalist, Ashish Gotari, called for a halt in construction work and an independent review of the project, one that will consult inhabitants of the 240 villages to be submerged.

Opponents of the Narmada project predict that it will be an ecological nightmare. Bewildered tribesmen will be herded into rocky and barren compounds far from their native jungles, ecologists claim. Forests will be eroded, and the expensive canal network will provide only a trickle to the drought- stricken farmers of Gujarat state who need water the most. New Delhi, however, insists that the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat will draw power and water from the project.

So far, engineers have built only part of the main Sardar Sarovar dam and dug 84 miles of canals. The executive project director, Bimal Jalan, said that work will proceed even without the World Bank infusion. But India must unearth another dollars 2.65bn to finish the network of dams and canals, and without World Bank backing it will be difficult to find donors. Japan and Germany are thinking twice about helping the project.

Some Indian ecologists are worried that the cash-poor builders may now channel money alloted for the rehabilitation and resettlement of the tribes to the engineering work. Mr Gotari said: 'The government said it's planning on going ahead, but nobody knows where the resources will come from. They'll have to divert it from somewhere.'

But the monsoon rains are only three months away, and some low-lying villages may be washed away. Ms Patkar has renewed her vow that unless the dam is opened up, she and a band of tribesmen will wait at the river's edge for the Narmada goddess to rise from the waters and take them as sacrifice.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Robin van Persie scores the third for Manchester United with a perfectly-guided header
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all