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India dam project grows higher -- and hotter

Protesters of the Sardar Sarovar dam project gather along the banks of the Narmada River in India for a rally  

A fiercely debated dam project in Gujarat state of western India received another green light Wednesday from the country's supreme court.

By a 2-to-1 margin, the court voted to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam by two meters to a height of 90 meters.

India is the world's third largest builder of dams. Sardar Sarovar is the most massive of 30 large dams planned along India's Narmada River.

Construction of the dam - the biggest development scheme in India's history - has been the subject of intense controversy for more than a decade.

India's government says the US$5 billion-plus Sardar Sarovar project will supply much-needed water and electricity for development of the thirsty, drought-prone region. But opponents say the dam is not essential to the security of India's food supply and that it will directly displace more than 320,000 people.

Conservation groups expect millions more to be affected from displacements by the canal system and other projects.

Environmental Defense calls Sardar Sarovar "India's greatest planned environmental disaster."

According to Narmada Bachao Andolan (Friends of the River Narmada), a local group that has spearheaded protests of the project in India, the supreme court decision caters to dam builders and the country's dominant economic and political powers.

The Narmada River flows through the state of Gujarat in western India  

"The court has totally neglected the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable section of our society and also the serious issues raised regarding the propriety of the dam," the group said in a press release. "Instead it has provided a weapon in the hands of the power holders to indiscriminately displace the project affected people and displace their rights."

Friends of the River Narmada contends that the Indian government has no records estimating the number of people who will be displaced by the dam. The group also claims that the supreme court decision fails to consider several Indian laws and rules that the project violates.

While the organization agrees that the water crisis in Gujarat warrants attention, they say the Sardar Sarovar dam won't adequately address the problem.

"Electricity produced in the name of the poor is consumed by the rich with endless appetites," writes Arundhati Roy, the acclaimed author of "The God of Small Things" in an essay on the Narmada dams that appears in the Fall 2000 issue of the Amicus Journal. "Dams are built, people are uprooted, forests are submerged, and then the project is simply abandoned. Canals are never completed, the benefits never accrue (except to the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the contractors involved in the construction)."

The first dam built on the Narmada in 1990 is a case in point, Roy writes. "(The Bargi dam in Madhya Pradesh) cost 10 times more than was budgeted and submerged three times more land than engineers said it would. A hundred and fourteen thousand people from 162 villages were displaced. There was no rehabilitation ... Today, the Bargi dam irrigates only as much land as it submerged - 5 percent of the land its planners claimed it would irrigate. "

In February 1999, India's supreme court lifted a four-year stay on construction of Sardar Sarovar. Since then, the dam's wall has grown from 80.3 meters to 88 meters and now to 90 meters. Eventually, the Sardar Sarovar is expected to be 130 meters high.

"This is one of the most controversial dams in the world, and the level of controversy in India will go up," said Juliette Majot, director of the International Rivers Network, based in Berkley, Calif. "By raising he height of the dam, not only will more people in India be directly affected, but the entire country will also be affected by the invigorated intensity of the dam project."

Majot spent time in the communities surrounding the dam project during her travels to India a year ago.

"These people are determined to save their livelihood and their culture," she said. "Hundreds of thousands of people in India put their faith in the legal system and hoped that the supreme court would find that the height of the dam should not increase. In doing so, the court would have made a statement recognizing the legitimacy of the argument put forth by the project-affected people."

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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Narmada Bachao Andolan
International Rivers Network
World Commission on Dams
Friends of the River Narmada
ENN Hydropower Quiz
essay by Arundhati Roy

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