August 8, 2006

Tribes stranded as India dam drowns valley

By Simon Denyer

KHARYA BHADAL, India (Reuters) - Kishore Solanki picks up a
rock on the banks of India's swollen Narmada River, gesturing
toward land, now submerged, where once he grew enough wheat and
vegetables to make a comfortable living.

"If someone offers you this stone in exchange for fertile
land, would you take it?" he asked.

Solanki is a tribal farmer, typical of hundreds of
thousands of people whose land or houses are threatened by the
Sardar Sarovar, the $7.7 billion centerpiece of a project to
tap India's fifth-largest river.

The government says the Sardar Sarovar, the largest of 30
major dams proposed or being built along the Narmada, is vital
to satisfy India's ever-growing thirst for power and
irrigation, and will also supply drinking water to 20 million

But on the banks of the Narmada, where steep green slopes
rise up to remote hill villages, it is not hard to find men
like Solanki, who say the government has taken their land and
offered them little or nothing in return.

Fewer than half the 77 families in his village have been
offered any alternative land, he says. Others have been shown
barren patches of land, often many days walk from their homes.

For years the state government has turned away repeated
requests to build a school and a medical center in Kharya
Bhadal, arguing the village would one day be submerged. It even
ripped out a handpump in order to encourage people to move, he

"I feel as though outsiders have come and changed our lives
forever," he said, a cloth around his head and a silver ring in
his ear like many of the tribesmen here. "Sometimes I feel like
just plunging in the river and dying."


The Narmada valley project has been bogged down for years
in a protracted legal battle with anti-dam activists from the
Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), or Save the Narmada Movement.

The debate reignited this year when work began to raise the
dam's height to 400 feet -- just 52 feet short of its full
height -- and NBA leader Medha Patkar staged a hunger strike in
central New Delhi on behalf of 35,000 families whose land or
houses, she said, were threatened.

Suddenly the controversy was back on the nation's front
pages, and back in the courts. Work on the dam has stopped
during the monsoon season, but a Supreme Court hearing is due
in September to decide whether to allow construction to

It is a squabble that polarizes India.

Has the government failed to live up to a legal obligation
to provide viable land in return for fields facing submergence,
and unfairly excluded tens of thousands of people from official
lists of "project-affected families?"

Or is the NBA simply standing in the way of the Sardar
Sarovar out of an irrational hatred for big dams and
development, depriving the farmers and industrialists of
western India the water and power they desperately need?

The main problem lies in the western state of Madhya
Pradesh, where most of the displaced now live and where good
replacement land is in short supply.

Out of at least 25,000 affected families there, just 750
have actually moved to official resettlement sites, most
preferring to stay put until the last minute.

An official survey of resettlement efforts carried out in
May reported that more than a quarter of the sites were "poor,"
with much of the land "rocky, (sloping) and barren."

The report dismissed the claims of thousands of people
excluded from official lists as "mostly without substance."

Yet at least a fifth of the 4,000 farming families surveyed
said they had either not been offered land or not been told
where their plots were, while 40 percent said the land offered
them was either too far away from their homes or not fit for

Patkar says people have been forced to take cash when they
should have been offered good land, and that corruption has
played a major role. "Half of the money has gone into the
pockets of officials," she said.


Thousands of families have been resettled in the
neighboring state of Gujarat and some told Reuters they were
happy with the land they had received. Others, like the
inhabitants of village of Thuvavi, were simply miserable.

"I could throw a stick in any direction to show you how
much land I had," said Phooliben, reminiscing about the village
she left in Maharashtra state 15 years ago.

"It was such a good plot, I grew all kinds of crops. Here
rainwater washes away everything I grow."

Phooliben and her friends walked through a morass of mud to
show Reuters their low-lying fields. Most of the land lay
fallow and will be completely submerged before the monsoon is

Villagers said they were more likely to harvest fish than
crops. To survive, the women of Thuvavi are lucky to earn 20
rupees (45 U.S. cents) a day working in "upper class houses."

"I have been writing to the governments of Gujarat and
Maharashtra but nobody pays any attention," said Kishore Morah.
"We feel like we have been cheated by both sides."

($1=46.5 Indian rupees)