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A Writer damns a big dam


Sydney Morning Herald

4 September 1999

Story by CHRISTOPHER KREMMER, for Spectrum

SHE has gifted her Booker Prize winnings to the anti-dam movement, organised an 800-kilometre protest procession, and written a polemic that has India's highest court considering contempt proceedings against her. For Arundhati Roy, it's been the Year of Big Things.

The trouble started with a simple piece of arithmetic. Reclining on a sofa in her airy New Delhi residence one day earlier this year, the 39-year-old author of The God of Small Things came up with an astonishing figure.

India is the world's third- largest dam builder. Taking a conservative estimate of 10,000 people per dam, Roy calculated that 33 million people, most of them tribals and Untouchables, had been displaced since independence, more than the number killed in the holocaust of Partition.

A thousand kilometres away in the western State of Gujarat, work was proceeding on the latest monolith, the Sardar Sarovar dam, a concrete wall more than a kilometre across on the Narmada River. After a four-year stay on construction, India's Supreme Court had authorised an increase in the height of the dam wall to 88 metres and the concrete was flowing.

Another 2,500 families from about 50 villages would be driven off some of the richest agricultural land in the country, probably during the next monsoon, and forced into sweltering corrugated iron sheds in ghettos euphemistically called resettlement camps.

But the Indian establishment of politicians, bureaucrats, engineers and judges was about to confront what the author calls "a touch of magic".

"Last August, Arundhati called me in an excited state after seeing a film I had made about the Narmada," recalls documentary maker Jharana Jhaveri, whose film How Do I Survive, My Friend is a clarion call against big dams. "She was sort of incoherent. All I could make out was that she loved the film. I knew then that the river had found its writer."

Soon, the architecture student-turned-novelist was devouring everything she could get her hands on about the gigantic Narmada Valley development project, which envisages some 30 large dams on India's largest westward-flowing river to provide electric

power and water for irrigation. In late March she arrived on the banks of the Narmada to do field research, and in May donated her $60,000 Booker Prize to the main anti-dam group, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), and published The Greater Common Good, a blistering 62-page exposé of the failure of large-scale irrigation projects, and denunciation of the ethical vacuum that she believes lies at the heart of Indian democracy.

Copies of her book were burnt in the rabidly pro-dam cities of Gujarat. Critics chided that the author was living in an ivory tower - with air-conditioning, care of Big Dams - and idealising the harsh life in the villages.

"That is what Arundhati Roy ordains for 80 million tribal Indians - the joy of grubbing for roots, deprived, impoverished," wrote the policy analyst B. G. Verghese in Outlook magazine.

Roy reacted bitterly.

"He doesn't just want to destroy a civilisation. He wants to spit in its face while he's at it," she said. "It's not social engineering that Mr Verghese is after. It's garbage disposal."

In late July, the author led 500 supporters in a convoy into the valley, an experience she described later as "the most extraordinary, exhilarating, magical, exhausting, enraging, one week of my life". Back home in New Delhi, the woman in the eye of the storm reflects on what she expects will be a long battle.

"We'll beat them eventually," she says. "The Government won't be able to continue building dams like this. People have lost faith in the system. That's the biggest thing which has happened."

WIND waves pound the hull of a motorised dinghy heading upstream to Domkhedi, a clutch of thatched huts nestling in the cornfields on the riverbank, each hut flying the blue flag of the NBA. It's an unlikely battleground, this broad, sacred river rolling confidently towards the Arabian Sea between the Satpura and Vindhya mountains, but the thickly wooded peaks have for 15 years witnessed a Gandhian struggle to save the river valley and its mainly tribal society of some 25 million people.

Domkhedi would no longer exist had a poor monsoon not upset the schedule for submergence. It survives as a base camp for the non-violent resistance war, which this year claimed its first victim. A seven-year-old girl, Lata Vasave, died after becoming stuck in silt beds up to three metres deep, which have formed along the riverbank since construction on the dam began. Nobody heard her cries as she sank in the cloying mud. Life is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous for those who refuse to shift.

Hindus believe that to bathe in the Ganges washes away their sins. But merely to look at the Narmada has the same result. Among those greeting the volunteers at Domkhedi with cries of "Long live the Narmada!" is a slender 28-year-old woman dressed in orange robes. Komal is halfway through a 2,600-kilometre barefoot pilgrimage along both banks of the river.

"You never feel alone by the river," she says. "Its moods vary like a person's, and like a person, they are murdering it."

Endangered crocodile species and medieval temples are slated for submergence. The rights of the fishermen and ferrymen who work the river were recognised by the Mogul and British empires, but not by independent India.

"Villages have been drowned without the inhabitants even being informed, let alone being offered or provided with any alternatives," says Joe Athialy, a postgraduate from Kerala who has worked full-time for the NBA since 1994.

In June, villagers in Jalsindhi were surprised by the visit of the postman, who usually sits 20 kilometres away waiting to meet travellers to the village, rather than making the arduous journey along a forest path himself. The postman was carrying disturbing news in the form of a government notice addressed to Gulabia Shankar, 40, a farmer whose land fronts the Narmada.

"You are warned that your home might be submerged. If there are any homes below this level, we request you to inform them," the note read in Hindi. Gulabia, like 80 per cent of his neighbours, is illiterate, so a friend read the letter. The authorities are legally bound to give a year's notice of submergence. Gulabia was given a few weeks.

The flood tide has submerged half his land, cutting his ability to feed his wife and eight children. In his spacious home, flour is produced using a grinding stone set on a teak base, a device nowadays more often found as an antique in middle-class homes. Closer to the river, his sons play flutes fashioned from bamboo, and his body-jewelled daughters wash their hair in buttermilk.

A typically handsome Bhil tribesman sporting a tattooed forehead and wispy beard, Gulabia is lean and cheerful, except when the conversation turns to Narmada. He has no plans to leave, despite the fact that a landless future could be as close as the next heavy rains.

"There is no point thinking about leaving, because what the Government is offering is simply not practical," he says, reflecting the stubborn defiance of the whole village. THEY are the sunken face of India's fetid urban sprawl, straining at rickshaw pedals, or sleeping under flyovers, millions of dispensable people, like victims of some terrible war. In their Maruti cars, the middle classes turn away. Few ask where the losers come from. Even fewer would believe they are children of paradise, fallen from grace. Dislodged from self-sustaining rural communities with an abundance of land, they become landless day labour for hungry new industries.

"It is true that a lot of tribals are displaced in India in the process of development," says Dr Yogender Kumar Alagh, one of the fathers of the Narmada project, who was born in what is now Pakistan and uprooted by Partition. "Many tribals displaced by infrastructure projects end up spending their compensation money, or being tricked out of it by charlatans."

One sixth of India's industrial workforce are urbanised tribals, but the Government has not approved a national rehabilitation policy. In the Narmada Valley, 40,000 families are paying the price of that development. That's the official estimate of the number of families losing their home and land beneath a 400-square-kilometre reservoir. Another 200,000 people who've already lost land for the 450-kilometre main canal, which plunges across the countryside like an enormous concrete tongue, get no resettlement assistance from the Government. The canal is empty, built before the dam reached the height required to supply it. It serves as an occasional highway for bicycle riders, an arena for cricket matches played by barefoot children using rocks for wickets, and a monument to mismanagement.

Bhaji Bhai, an old man with few remaining teeth in his head and a sickle in his hand, can still see the farm in Undawa where he grew up, but only in his mind's eye. In the early 1980s, he was evicted from all but two hectares of his land. A farm that had supported a 25-member extended family was excavated and concreted over. Now his brothers work as day labourers on construction sites in teeming cities such as Surat, earning less than $2 a day and seeing their families once a fortnight.

"This project only benefits the people who are already rich," he says, vigorously waving his sickle.

Forced to buy land from the private market for resettlement camps, the Government acquired widely scattered fragments of often infertile land which farmers were glad to be rid of. Instead of being resettled as village groups, those who opted to accept relocation by the Gujarat Government have been scattered to 175 camps, shattering families and communities. At Maheshwarpuram camp in May, seven people died of malnutrition.

As dusk falls over Vasana resettlement camp, the tin sheds are bathed in the surreal light cast by fluorescent tubes, and a mordant whine drifts across from a playground swing towards the home of oustee Govindbhai Geeriya's family. Several hectares of land infested with deep-rooted "daab" grass provides bare subsistence for the family, but their cattle have nowhere to graze and humans and animals share water from a single hand pump.

Swings and roundabouts, as well as power and water, have come to dominate the Narmada debate. In The Greater Common Good, the Supreme Court's insistence that children's playgrounds be installed in every resettlement camp prompts the author to respond: "I stood on a hill and laughed out loud."

The Gujarat Government petitioned the court, asking why Roy should not be sued for contempt, a question the judges are pondering in their own time.

"Let them jail me if they want," says the author, unable entirely to cover her concern. "But get it over with and move on. I am not the issue. The river is."

When they are done with the playground remark, India's judges might consider the contempt of court perpetrated by three State governments, which in February lied to the court by declaring that everyone affected by the Sardar Sarovar project had successfully been resettled. Evidence to the contrary is not at all difficult to find. Officials in Nandurbar district of Madhya Pradesh State have already admitted there is no arable land available for resettlement.

Oustees have returned to Mokhdi, the very first village to be affected by the Sardar Sarovar in the early 1980s, simply because life in the camps was unlivable.

"Even grass wouldn't grow there," recalls Randbhai Ramabhai, who spent four months in the Ambawady camp in the early '90s.

He has abandoned the land allotted to him and gone home, even though most homes in Mokhdi are under water and the rest are threatened with submergence. Frustrated by the backwash, local authorities have poured concrete into village wells, closed schools and removed temples in a bid to force people to leave again.

But at Pansoli camp, 40 kilometres from Vadodara, Randbhai Ramabhai and his family are stuck. Their lands and home in Mokhdi are completely under water. Considered savages by the local Hindus, the relocated tribals are vulnerable to harassment by local goons and police, especially as they have yet to receive titles to their new land eight years after they were resettled. People tell of several different families being given the same land, and left to fight over it.

At Kevadia Colony, farmers displaced to make way for the homes of project officials now work as servants, cleaning toilets of their new overlords. And they call it development. UNDER threatening skies, the road to the partially completed Sardar Sarovar dam passed signs prohibiting photography, and jumpy security guards ready to enforce the ban. Then it comes into sight, a broad-shouldered concrete colossus wearing a dramatic copper-coloured cascade of Narmada water like a trophy. The sides of the structure rise far above the middle, which can quickly catch up when and as the court allows. Further upstream, the people talk of a new era of the vultures. At the tail end of the monsoon, they face a tragic dilemma. They will survive only if the rains fail. But if the rains fail, their crops die.

"If we stop it now," says Roy, "we would save 325,000 people from certain destitution."

The Narmada Valley and its people are being sacrificed for the benefit of other people elsewhere in India. Under an International Labour Organisation convention which India has signed, tribals displaced in the cause of national economic development "shall be provided with lands of quality at least equal to that of lands previously occupied". But that hasn't happened.

The terrible conclusion Roy and others like her have drawn is that the Government is guilty of nothing less than genocide.

"Shall we just put the Star of David on their doors and get it over with?" she asks. "The millions of displaced people in India are nothing but refugees of an unacknowledged war."

Cheaper and more humane ways of providing for the needs of industry and people in arid areas, such as local water- harvesting schemes, have barely been investigated. But in Indian classrooms, students chant the mantra of development uttered by the country's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: "Dams are temples of modern India." Nehru later recanted, but the school curriculum doesn't record his conversion.

Despite construction of more than 3,300 big dams, 200 million people in India still lack safe drinking water. There are more drought-prone and flood-prone areas than in 1947. Millions of people in the arid region of western Gujarat have been told by the Government that the Narmada dams will provide them with clean drinking water. Critics allege the water will go to the industries and sugar mills of central Gujarat, one of India's wealthiest regions dominated by the business-savvy Patel clan, who backed the dams to the hilt. The battle lines - urban versus tribal - are clearly drawn.

For Roy, India's democracy is "the benevolent mask behind which a pestilence flourishes unchallenged". Her warnings that the Narmada movement could turn violent if the people are ignored seem perilously close to reality.

At Domkhedi, volunteer Subashish Mukerjee, a teacher at Calcutta University, outlines a doomsday scenario if the courts allow the project to proceed. "We may just strap RDX [plastic explosives] to our bodies and blow up the dam," he says.

The anti-dam leader Medha Patkar has called for volunteers for "Samarpit Dal" ("Committed Squad") to commit "Jal Samarpan" ("Sacrifice in Water") by refusing to budge from villages as the reservoir waters rise. On the night of August 10, Patkar and her suicide squad spent 24 hours waist deep in water inside a hut at Domkhedi until being forc- ibly removed by police.

Visiting Gujarat last month, the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, pledged continuing help to the State for the Sardar Sarovar project. Tomorrow, polling begins in India's general elections. But Gulabia Shankar, facing submergence in Jalsindhi, won't be voting. "I used to vote," he says. "But it made no difference to my life."

The Big Dam will.


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