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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future