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Dam campaigns

The Narmada dam in India has met with opposition from campaign groups. But as Kirk Leech reports from Gujarat, many of the locals welcome it.

Kirk Leech

Topics World

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As I dived in, I took the village youths’ advice – closing my mouth and keeping my eyes firmly shut. When I surfaced, about 30 yards from where I had hit the chocolate-coloured ferment, my stomach and arms felt like I had body-surfed down the escalator at London’s Kings Cross station.

Welcome to the Narmada river in Gujarat, India.

The 800-mile-long Narmada river flows through three Indian states – Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and the often drought-affected Gujarat, before flowing into the Indian Ocean. Plans to dam the Narmada river have made it the scene of a long-running battle.

Feasibility studies were commissioned to dam the Narmada river as early as 1946. The scheme was given the green light in 1961, when then prime minister Pandit Nehru laid the first foundation stone of a small dam – the predecessor of the projects fought over today. It was not until 1979, after interstate disputes were deemed settled, that completed plans were finally published.

These included plans for 3165 dams of varying sizes, which would control the Narmada and its 41 tributaries. Thirty of these are large projects, including two very big dams – the Narmada Sager and the heavily contested Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). Building work on the SSP formally commenced in April 1987.

But the SSP quickly became the focus of opposition from international and Indian environmental campaigners, who saw it as representing all that is bad about mega-projects in the developing world.

The Indian government has a poor track record in justly resettling those affected by the construction of dams. This brought local opposition from tribals expected to move as the Narmada valley flooded. Urban-based Indian intellectuals such as Vandana Shiva opposed the dam, fearing its impact on the traditional rural life that they want to conserve. One eminent writer added that the effect on those being moved was akin to the Jewish Holocaust, and that talking about the way this project could benefit millions was ‘fascist maths’. Western environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) joined the anti-dam crusade, arguing that important biodiversity would be lost if the Narmada valley was flooded.

These different mutually reinforcing areas of opposition became an effective barrier. The campaign led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Struggle to Save the Narmada River) held up the dam’s final construction until the end of 2000. An Indian Supreme Court judgement finally gave the project the go-ahead, allowing the height of the dam to be raised to a level that would finally allow water to flow down the irrigation canals.

To an outsider, the dam’s benefits to local people, and to India as a nation, seem obvious. It will provide drinking water for an area with a population of 18 million – and for a prospective population that has been put at over 40 million by 2021. The dam has a power generation capacity of 1250 megawatts. It will provide irrigation facilities to an area the size of the south-east of England. The project aims to make the area ‘drought-proof’: and 75 percent of Gujarat and 100 percent of Rajhastan are prone to droughts.

But how do the local people feel about the project?

When I visited the Simaliya and Tarsava villages, inhabited by those resettled as a result of the dam’s construction, village elders told me that despite some initial hardship and the villagers’ worries about leaving their traditional lands, the move had benefited them.

Wells provided the villagers with clean drinking water, rather than the chocolate-coloured muck I had been swimming in. As part of the deal with the Gujarat government, their eldest male children were given land. But villagers did not have to see their future only as farmers: industry is close by and so are good schools. Previously, falling ill could mean a 10-mile walk to hospital – now medical facilities are at hand.

The villagers’ only real complaint – and one which betrays a bitter irony – was that, more than anything else, they needed water for their crops. The water that would, by now, have flowed down the irrigation canals to their villages, had been held up by the campaign (supposedly conducted on the villagers’ behalf) to prevent the dam’s construction.

These villagers are not the only ones who have suffered from the delays in building the Narmada dam. Talking to people who have just returned from Ahmedabad, one of Gujarat’s cities hammered by the January 2001 earthquake that left over 30,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of people homeless, it is clear that there will be a need for more drinking water as the summer approaches. If the dam had been completed on time, one of the irrigation canals – which look like motorways – would have brought much-needed water from the Narmada river right to the city of Ahmedabad, some 200 kilometres away.

As campaigners highlight the problems of having this dam, how many more people will suffer from the dam being built too late?

Kirk Leech is a contributor to Ethical Tourism: Who Benefits?, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

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Topics World

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