Imagine a huge wave of water gushing over your home, submerging it, and destroying everything that you have worked your entire life to achieve. Devastating, isn't it? For 225,000 people in western India, this horrifying image will soon be all too realistic. The Supreme Court of India recently passed a judgment permitting construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River, despite pleas from the people who live on the river's banks.
The dam, part of a project that predicts 3,200 dams being built at various junctions on the river, is a sociological disaster. Although the government projects that the project will solve the electricity and irrigation problems faced by most of western India, research of various independent organizations shows that the government's estimate is exceedingly optimistic. According to conservative government estimates, 38,000 hectares of land, an area larger than New York City, will be submerged. Included in that is the most fertile agricultural land and forest area in India. The potential harm to the environment is unimaginable. Thousands of animals living in the forests will be drowned. The vegetation in the forests, which has grown for hundreds of years, will be destroyed. The aquatic life of the river will virtually disappear. Add to this the loss of the ancient culture of the people living on the river's banks, and the devastation caused is immense.
It is true that the government has promised to relocate and compensate the affected people. They have also stressed the fact that they will afforest large regions of land on the "new" banks of the river. What they fail to mention is that most of these people will be relocated to industrial areas and compensated with land that is unfit for agriculture, which will mean the death of their livestock for lack of fodder. The government also fails to mention that the plans to afforest land will result in the displacement of an even greater number of people.
The insensitivity of the Indian government and the World Bank, which are jointly funding the project, is appalling. They are ignoring the plight of the people and the dangers of wiping out an ecosystem to promote a venture that is not guaranteed to profit anyone. I believe that the loss of forests, fertile land, and wildlife, which will eventually cause an imbalance in the ecology, cannot be equated with the projected gains. This is especially true considering that there are alternative methods to acquiring the needed power and water. For instance, Ashvin Shah of the American Society of Civil Engineers says that the large-scale implementation of small rainwater harvesting schemes will yield water to the tune of an additional 50 percent. In my view, harnessing renewable energy, such as solar energy, can solve the power problem.
The importance of respecting the environment has been impressed upon me from a very young age, and I believe that the projected destruction in the Narmada Valley is nothing short of a hideous crime. The displacement of the region's people represents the violation of basic human rights. While countries around the world are either demolishing or downsizing dams because of the environmental damage they cause, the Indian government is regressing by undertaking one of the biggest projects ever involving dams. The question over whether this should be allowed has been answered by the Indian Supreme Court. But the question of whether the court's decision is right or wrong will not be answered until the adverse effects of the dam start to be felt.
Ananya C. Balaram