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India: Anti-Narmada Dam Campaigner on Hunger Strike

by Ranjit DevrajInter Presss Service
October 27th, 2000

NEW DELHI -- A week after India's Supreme Court rejected their case against the Narmada dam, activists opposing the scheme have begun what may well be the final battle by the country's best known people's movement.

Famed anti-Narmada dam campaigner, Medha Patkar, Friday entered the third day of her hunger protest, in the city of Bhopal, the capital of central Madhya Pradesh state. The state is the home of most of the quarter million, mainly indigenous people to be displaced by the four billion-U.S. dollar Sardar Sarovar dam.

For well over a decade, Patkar, who has won the Swedish 'Right to Livelihood Award', also described as the alternative Nobel Prize, has led hundreds of anti-dam rallies, being beaten up and arrested several times by the police. She almost died of dehydration, during a similar 22- day hunger protest nine years ago.

Patkar's protest has been accompanied by a series of public demonstrations against the court ruling, held across the country as well as in North America, West Europe and South Africa.

The Sardar Sarovar, being built in the western coastal state of Gujarat, adjoining Madhya Pradesh, is to be the first of 30 big and hundreds of medium and small dams planned on the Narmada, which flows westward across central India into the Arabian Sea.

The country's apex court has ordered resumption of work on the partially built dam wall. Project authorities have been allowed to build up to a height of 90 metres immediately and to the dam's full height of about 140 metres in stages, after complying with environmental and resettlement conditions. The construction is set to resume Oct. 31.

Work on the dam was stopped five years ago by the Supreme Court, which took six years to rule on the petition by the anti-dam Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) -- a coalition of people's groups, which began campaigning against the project in the mid-1980s.

However, the movement has since widened its protest to target what it calls India's 'destructive development' schemes like the Sardar Sarovar. These have social and economic costs that outweigh the claimed benefits, says the NBA.

More than 3,000 peasants joined mass protests Tuesday in the Narmada Valley, declaring they would not move to make way for the project. Anti-dam rallies were also taken out in the past days in the southern metropolises of Bangalore and Chennai.

Protest marches were organised in western Maharashtra state, home to thousands of villagers to be displaced by the Sardar Sarovar. More than 150 people representing some 20 groups held a one-day hunger protest Thursday in the Indian capital, outside the Supreme Court building.

However, the protests were muted in Gujarat. Support for the Sardar Sarovar cuts across political divides in the largely arid state, where authorities and politicians promise that the scheme will help solve an acute scarcity of drinking and farm irrigation water.

A severe drought in Gujarat last year, said to be the worst in 100 years, was used by dam supporters to attack the NBA. State politicians blamed Patkar and her movement for the water scarcity that forced tens of thousands of peasants to flee their homes.

According to Gujarat's Minister for Narmada Development, Jaynarayan Vyas, the Sardar Sarovar is the only way to take drinking water to the drought-prone, Saurashtra, Kutch and the northern parts of the state.

''The NBA should let us finish the dam and demonstrate what can be done quickly,'' said Vyas.

Emboldened by the court ruling in its favour, the Gujarat government has now asked the federal sleuthing agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), to probe the NBA's finances and check on foreign contributions to the movement.

The state government, which declared a public holiday in Gujarat to celebrate the verdict, said it was determined to carry out the Supreme Court order at all costs -- an ominous warning that further agitation would not be tolerated.

While the NBA's campaign is backed by a number of well-known personalities like famous Indian author Arundhati Roy, the pro-dam lobby does not lack for big names. These include former top journalist B.G. Verghese and prominent development economist Yogendra Alagh, a former federal government minister.

The NBA's argument is backed by the finding of a survey of large dams in India, which was ordered by the World Commission on Dams (WCD). The study found that the hundreds of big dams built in India in the past half century have boosted national food and industrial production but at a cost paid by the poorest.

According to the report, nearly two-thirds of the people displaced by multi-purpose river valley projects in India are either tribals or members of the socially oppressed 'scheduled castes'. The WCD report is to be launced Nov. 16 by Nelson Mandela in the British capital.

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