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NAPM Press Release                                                 16th March 2000

NATIONAL COMMISSION OF WOMEN ASKS GOVERNMENT TO ESTABLISH PUBLIC UTILITY OF PROJECTS BEFORE DISPLACING PEOPLE
Maheshwar Project-Affected Women Demand that the Project be Scrapped

Dr. Syeda Hameed of the National Commission of Women (NCW) today declared her support for the demand of the Maheshwar Project-affected people that public utility of projects should be established before any displacement takes place. Dr. Hameed was speaking yesterday at a public hearing held by the NCW in Pathrad village, which is one of the 61 villages affected by the Maheshwar Hydel Power Project, a project being privately promoted by S. Kumars.

At this hearing, attended by around 7,000 women and 3,000 men from Maheshwar affected villages, Dr. Hameed said that the NCW is the highest body in the country on women's issues and has always raised its voice in protest against the violent tactics used by the state to suppress the legitimate struggle of people in the Narmada Valley. In today's hearing, Dr. Hameed noted that the women of the Maheshwar area are unanimously against cash compensation. Instead, what the women of the area want is rehabilitation in the real sense of the word, and this means that the government has to provide land for land. However, only when the public utility of the Project is established beyond doubt can questions of rehabilitation be brought up, though it may be noted that so far the Madhya Pradesh government has not been able to show a single inch of cultivable land to the Project-affected people.

Before Dr, Hameed addressed the audience, several Project-affected women spoke about their strong opposition to the Project. and demanded that work on the dam be stopped immediately. Welcoming Dr. Hameed, Kala Bai of Sulgaon village presented her with a resolution signed by the MLA of Barwah, Shri Jagdish Morania, and by around 300 members of the panchayats, janpad panchayats, and district panchayats of the region demanding that the Maheshwar Project be scrapped.

Kamla Bai of Pathrad village talked about the spirited struggle fought by people in the Maheshwar area for the last 3 years. She questioned why a government elected by the people took the side of a private company, S. Kumars. She said that the violence perpetrated on the affected women on International Women's Day, the 8th of March, was completely reprehensible. She said that the government has to answer for the illegal and unconstitutional arrests from a place of peaceful dharna, the disrobing of a woman activist, and the violent lathi charge. She also demanded that the Collector Khargone, Shri Bhopal Singh must be immediately dismissed.

Ajodhya Bai of Behegaon said that the river Narmada was the sole source of livelihood for the Kevat-Kahar communities. By constructing a dam on the river, this entire community will lose drawdown agricultural lands, sand quarries, and access to fish which is an important source of nutrition for their families.

Ganu Bai, a member of the Harijan community of Sulgaon village, said that this dam will totally destroy our existence because we are dependent on the river Narmada for all our sources of income. She said that, if we accept cash compensation, then we will lose not only the river Narmada and its banks where we live, but also the support of our own and other neighboring communities. Puni Jiji of Sulgaon said that after facing so much police brutality, including lathi charges, beatings and arrests, we are ready today to face anything, including the rising waters of the dam.

Parvati Bai of Behgaon narrated the Maheshwar women's visit to the Bargi dam affected areas and said that the only way to stop similar destruction in the Maheshwar region would be for the women and men to unite and fight against this injustice. She said that cash compensation will never be accepted as it is very clear to all the women that this will not allow them to restore their communities. Dr. Hameed then intervened to ask the 8,000 strong gathering of women and also the men their views on cash compensation. The entire audience then strongly opposed any offer of any amount of cash compensation.

Basanti Behn, from the Bargi Bandh Visthapith Evam Prabhavith Sangathan, narrated the experiences of the people affected by the Bargi dam- the first large dam on the Narmada. She said that before the dam was built we were well-off farmers. But after the dam the lives and livelihoods of people in the 162 affected villages were totally ruined. She called on the women of Maheshwar to continue their struggle against the complete destruction that would be unleashed once the dam is constructed.

After this, Alok Agarwal, one of the main activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Maheshwar struggle, addressed the audience and said that the people had repeatedly raised questions about the utility of the Project, and the government had repeatedly proved its inability to answer these questions. The Khargone district administration had always resorted to either avoidance or repression whenever people tried to get answers to their questions. He demanded that the Collector of Khargone, Mr. Bhopal Singh, should be dismissed because of the unconstitutional act of arresting peaceful agitators and misusing Section 144.

Noted author Arundhati Roy said that she was very disturbed when she was taken to jail in an S. Kumars vehicle after her arrest during the 11th January capture of the dam site by the project-affected people. She said that this was a glaring example of the extent to which the state had sold itself to a private company. She also said that while the government constantly accused the Andolan of being supported mainly by outsiders, it itself did not hesitate to approve projects like Maheshwar which were dependent to a very large extent on foreign capital.

The representatives of various people's and women's organizations, including Kisan Adivasi Sangathan (Kesla, M. P.), Shramik Adivasi Sangathan (Betul, M. P.), Agragamee (Orissa), Abhivyakti, (Maharashtra), and Streevedi (Kerala) then addressed the gathering and expressed their support for the struggling women and men of the Maheshwar region. The entire hearing was conducted by Urmila Patidar of Pathrad village.

Chittaroopa Palit