Protesters Assemble to Oppose Sardar Sarovar Dam

By Ena Lupine
Monday, January 1, 2007

On December 31, 2006, the wall of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India’s Narmada valley was raised to 122 meters. The Sardar Sarovar Dam is the largest in a series of dams, reservoirs and canals that control the flow of the Narmada River, the fifth largest river in India. With this height increase, the dam will flood more than 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land and raise the number of displaced people to 320,000. Many of the affected people are indigenous advasis and farmers, who are left with no viable option for resettlement. On the first of January, hundreds of affected people gathered to protest the injustices of this large dam project.


An estimated 25,000 families continue to live in the submergence area of the dam, which is a direct violation of the Indian Supreme Court decision of 2000, which asserted that the rehabilitation of all affected people must be satisfactorily completed before the dam height is increased above 118 meters. However, the Indian government has failed inexcusably to provide adequate resettlement for those already displaced and for those who will be driven from their homes in the coming months. Many people affected by the project have not been recognized by the government as "PAFs" (project affected families) and therefore receive no reparations at all.

Even for those who have been declared PAFs, rehabilitation is fraught with corruption and injustice. Nearly all of the land offered by the government is unsuitable for cultivation and has inadequate water storage, drainage and sanitation systems. Much of it is also unsuitable for building a home, as it is too steep or the soils are not a strong enough to support a foundation. The Sardar Sarovar Project Relief and Rehabilitation Oversight Group remarked in its June 2006 report that schools, hospitals and other public buildings in the resettlement areas were empty and run down and that "the absence of ponds and children parks is rather glaring." There have also been many claims that the few pieces of good land were given to wealthier families, leaving the poorer families with barren patches of land that were truly unlivable. It is no surprise that nearly all of the families that were offered land compensation opted instead for monetary payment, in spite of the fact that it will leave many of them homeless when the Narmada River Valley is flooded. Many of the displaced people are farmers, and this displacement will leave them without a source of income.

Faulty Canals

Even more troubling is the fact that thousands of these families are sacrificing their homes for a dam that will benefit them only minimally, if at all. Most of the water will be used in big cities for industry and large-scale agriculture of cash crops like wheat and sugarcane. Less than 15% of the canal waters are meant to be accessible to the people of these impoverished villages. However, the dam has not been able to deliver even this much water due to breakages, leakages and lack of water pressure in the canals, which keeps the water from reaching villages at the far ends of the pipelines.

Fighting Back

The affected people have refused to bear these injustices in silence. On the first day of the New Year, hundreds of demonstrators led by Medha Patkar, head of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), came together wearing black bands and carrying black flags to protest the completion of a project that would leave many of them homeless. This protest is one of many that have been organized by the NBA, a powerful organization of people affected by the Narmada Valley Development Plan, since 1985. These protests played a major role in convincing the World Bank to pull funding from the project in 1993, one of the most impressive accomplishments in the history of anti-dam movements. Throughout their 20-year struggle, Medha Patkar has been a strong advocate for the thousands of people affected by the project, encouraging them to file complaints against the Indian Government and organizing peaceful demonstrations and week-long hunger strikes to protest the project. There are currently over 7,000 legal cases being launched against the Indian Government, fighting for the rights of the affected peoples.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam has already incurred enormous economic, environmental and social costs, but the future may hold even more grief for the people of the Narmada River Valley. Plans are in the works for gates to be constructed above the dam wall, which will further increase the height of the dam to 138 meters, displacing even more families. One thing is certain: Medha Patkar will continue to fight for the people of the Narmada River Valley. In response to Gujarat Chief Minister Narenda Modi’s plans to raise the dam and to allow hotel and water park industries to be established on the banks of the river valley, Medha Patkar declared, "We would oppose such moves till our last breath."

This update was based on news releases from the NBA and other activists in India.