Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-INDIA: Dam Activists Suffer Another Setback

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Jun 6 2002 (IPS) - Environmental activists have failed to secure a court order to halt a further increase in the height of a controversial dam across the Narmada river in central India and prevent the submergence of pristine forests and land which supports some 10,000 tribal and peasant families.

A two-man bench of the Supreme Court, after failing to arrive at a consensus on a petition filed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) or Save the Narmada Movement, on Wednesday tossed the matter to another bench which may now sit on the matter on Jun 17.

The petition was filed by NBA leader Medha Patkar on behalf of those affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam in response to an announcement on May 17 by an inter-state authority that the height of the dam would be raised from the present 90 metres to 95 metres.

It pleaded that thousands of affected families have yet to be rehabilitated and that the construction violated earlier court directions on rehabilitation.

The 4.0 billion U.S. dollar dam, located in Gujarat, is the first of 30 big and some 3,000 smaller dams planned to be built under the massive Narmada Valley project, which flows westward across central India into the Arabian Sea.

Patkar’s 17-year-old campaign, the longest and best known in India on environment issues, claims that social, environmental and economic costs of the project are greater than their benefits. This and further studies helped convince the World Bank to withdraw from the project in 1993.

The campaign also managed to halt construction on the dam for six years through a Supreme Court stay. But the court unexpectedly lifted the stay in Oct. 2000.

On Wednesday, representatives of the inter-state Narmada Control Authority (NCA) as well as western Gujarat state, the main beneficiary of the dam, stated in court that all the displaced families had been rehabilitated.

Arguments by NCA counsel Mukul Rohtagi that the dam had already reached a height of 92 metres and any stay would result in huge losses to the government was accepted by the bench over a plea for interim stay by NBA’s advocate Prashant Bhushan.

There were no immediate comments from activist groups to the court’s “inaction”. This could be partly due to the fact that the court is very strict about comments made to the press. Award-winning author Arundhati Roy was in jail for contempt charges stemming from such remarks.

Although the NBA campaign has found support from several prominent Indians, among them Roy, it has run up against the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rules Gujarat and leads the national ruling coalition of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

“The war for the Narmada valley is not just some exotic tribal war or a remote rural war or even an exclusively Indian war. It’s a war for the rivers and the mountains and the forests of the world,” Roy stated in a widely published essay she wrote three years ago. Recently, her criticism of the court earned her a day in jail.

Several ministers in the Gujarat government have said at public meetings that if it were not for the anti-dam campaign, the Sardar Sarovar would have been long complete and the water of the Narmada could have been diverted to the dry regions of the state.

They further promised the people that once the dam is complete, it will bring the waters of the Narmada to the arid areas Saurashtra, Kutch and the northern parts of the state for domestic use as well as for farm irrigation.

But Patkar says the water will never reach the arid areas and that in any case it will be diverted to urban centers for use by affluent people that mainly support the BJP.

According to NBA activist Sripad Dharmadhikari, the objectives of irrigation and electricity generation cannot be achieved until the dam is raised to 110 metres.

The NBA’s arguments have found support from the World Commission on Dams (WCD) whose well-known study has found that hundreds of big dams built in India in the past half century have boosted national food and industrial production but at a cost borne by the poorest and the marginalised.

In fact, other studies have shown that since India’s independence in 1947, dams and other development projects have displaced an estimated 50 million people, mostly tribals with the bulk of them yet to be resettled.

Most of the people affected by the Narmada Valley Project are tribals who live in central Madhya Pradesh. Since May 15 a group of them have been staging a ‘fast-and sit-in’ in Bhopal, the state’s capital to protest against the construction of the large Maan Dam across the Maan river, a tributary of the Narmada.

In 1994, the Central Environment Ministry granted environmental clearance for the project, on the condition that the tribals are settled on agricultural land but they were instead given meagre sums of compensation far short of legal entitlements.

Yet another dam across the Narmada against which the NBA has been campaigning is the Maheshwar Dam, also in Madhya Pradesh which forms the central piece of the report ‘Power Finance: Financial Institutions in India’s Hydropower Sector’ written by international campaigner Peter Bosshard and released in March.

Bosshard notes in the report that the Maheshwar Dam, which is India’s first privately run dam and on which construction has already begun, would if completed, displace and negatively impact 50,000 people in 61 villages.

So far, thanks to the NBA’s campaigns, a galaxy of internationally known names in the power business such as Bechtel, PacGen, Siemens, Bayerwerk and VEW and financial institutions like Hermes, COSEC and Hypovereinsbank have withdrawn from the Maheshwar project or refused to get involved with it.

But Maheshwar does not lack for funding because of state patronage and because the Asian Development Bank (AsDB) funds the state power utility which facilitates the project and also finances hydropower projects through its loans to other financial institutions, Bosshard notes.

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