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Sardar Sarovar: Not all is quiet in the Narmada Valley as dam threatens livelihood of residents Printer friendly pageEmail this story

Wednesday, November 22 (Bhopal):

Narmada has been the lifeline for people living in a vast stretch of land in Central India. The controversial Sardar Sarovar dam, one of the four big dams under construction on the Narmada, now threatens not only the regions fragile eco system but the livelihoods of lakhs of people who live in the Narmada Valley. This dam has spawned debate on the probable benefits and the human costs it will impose on the people.

On the banks of the Narmada as another morning breaks over, its difficult to believe that its beautiful valley is about to be destroyed. But it's not just some of the oldest and rare forests and wildlife that will submerge under millions of tons of reservoir water -- even the lives of thousands of people are about to change radically. The people who will bear the brunt of this invasion on their homes, land and way of living are worried and on the verge of desperation.

The Narmada is the life-blood for a variety of unique professions. The people who live in the village of Bakawa, have for hundreds of years collected stones and boulders from the riverbed and carved them into Shivlings, the emblem of Shiva. The Shivlings can be found in thousands of temples across the valley and around India.

Soon, the entire village of Bakawa will be under hundreds of feet of water. "Our livelihood is dependant on the Narmada. We take the sand and the stone from the riverbed. Shivlings are our business, if they drown we will drown with them," says a resident of Bakawa.

Downstream on the Narmada in another village, Chota Badada, the boatmen say Emperor Akbar gave their ancestors the right to fish here. "This is our traditional occupation from the time of my forefathers. We have no other skills. During the monsoon the river rises and for four months we have no work. If the dam is built the monsoon will last our whole lifetime," said a boatman.

Once Chota Badada is submerged, the fishermen and their families will be robbed of their livelihoods and will have no means of earning their living. "Today I can catch more than a kilogram of fish. When the dam is built where will I get big fishing nets from, where will I get big boats from which are so expensive. Even these small boats cost between Rs.10,000 and Rs. 20,000 for which the government does not give us loans," said a boatman in Chota Badada.

The villagers who have been displaced by the Sardar Sarovar are now working as cheap labour employed in road construction. They live in the slums of all big towns in the Narmada Valley from Jabalpur to Ankleshwar and Surat in Gujarat. They are uneducated and skilled only in their traditional occupations which are entirely dependant on the Narmada and its economy.

The village people have fears of what the future holds for them and the possible hostility they might encounter in other villages they might go to restart their lives. Potters, who make their products on the banks of the river, are worried that once they are displaced they will be stopped from selling in other markets. "Nobody even let's me sit and sell my pots at the Monday market at Anjad. It is their home and land so why should they. Wherever I go I will need land, water and soil, like here. Where will I find this," said one of the potters.

The land along the banks of the Narmada is amongst the most fertile in the country. Farmers are used to very high yields. They proudly show their crop, their herds of cows, their stacks of cotton and the network of pipelines, which irrigate fields up to 5 km away from the river. "I own 38 acres of land on which I have planted banana, cotton and arandi. I earn lakhs from my crop and now it is going to be submerged," said one of the people who will have to leave his home as work on the dam progresses.

They want land in return for their land. So far it has turned out into an impossible demand because the Madhya Pradesh government says it has no extra land to give them and Gujarat has land that is not as productive. "I don't know any other work. Even if the government gives money as compensation, I will not know how to use it. I will waste it," said a farmer wistfully.

The Supreme Court has given clearance to go ahead with the construction of the dam and dismissed the petition, which challenged the wisdom behind building big dams. While the viability and benefits of large dams is being questioned -- the people of Narmada will pay the biggest cost as they stand to lose more than just their livelihood.

Read an overview of World Dam Report

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