Thousands Arrested Protesting Maheshwar Dam

By Frederick Noronha

BOMBAY, India, January 12, 2000 (ENS) - Anti-dam campaigners protesting against major dam projects in the northern part of India occupied the controversial Maheshwar dam site on Tuesday morning. Thousands were arrested.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada River Campaign) said that "in spite of police protection" its activists had walked through the night and "occupied the destructive Maheshwar dam site on January 11 morning at 6.45 am local time and stopped the work on the dam."

NBA spokesman Alok Agrawal said among the 4,000 affected people and activists who "captured the site" were senior Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activist Chittaroopa Palit, the internationally-famed Booker Prize winning Indian writer Arundhati Roy, prominent film makers Pradip Kishen and Jharna Jhaveri and a large number of supporters from major Indian cities like Delhi and Bombay, and distant points of the country.


Marchers protest the Maheshwar dam (All photos courtesy Friends of the River Narmada)
During the march, some 1,500 people were prevented by the police from moving towards the site.

The NBA said that the police arrested the people around 1 pm. The police allegedly "misbehaved" with people including Arundhati Roy, Jharna Jhaveri and Chittaroopa Palit.

NBA spokespeople charged that Padhri Verma and Annapurnabai of the village Pathrad and Chandrashekar and Chandu of the village Sulgaon were "terribly beaten up" by police inside the bus on the way to the police station.

Earlier, at 6:45 am, the people started a sit-in protest at the dam site with slogans and songs. Officials including the regional Khargone District Collector Bhopal Singh, came forward to pursuade the activists to withdraw their agitation. The talks went on till 10.45 am but without result.


Villager stands on the bank of the Narmada River that will be submerged if the dam is completed.
"At about 1 pm about 1,500 people including Arundhati and others were arrested forcefully and taken to Mandaleshwar Police Station," the NBA said.

The Maheshwar dam in the state of Madhya Pradesh will affect around 40,000 people in 61 villages in the region, submerging hundreds of acres of fertile, irrigated black cotton soils, scores of sand quarries and a rich riverine economy.

For the past three years, the Maheshwar Dam has been the target of campaigners who term it "destructive."

Exactly two years ago on January 11, 1998 the Maheshwar Dam was occupied for more than 20 days. That occupation has led the regional state-level government of Madhya Pradesh to set up a Task Force to address the grievances of the protesters.


Narmada River
After ten months study, this Task Force recommended a comprehensive review of the Maheshwar Project to reassess the cost-benefit ratio and the viability and disirability of the project.

"Instead of acting on this recommendation of its own Task Force, the Madhya Pradesh Government allowed the S. Kumars' private company to push ahead with the project and supported it by unleasing repression on the affected people," the NBA alleged in a statement.

This latest case of occupation of the dam site was to demand a complete stoppage of work on the project and a comprehensive review as recommended by the Task Force.

The Maheshwar Dam is part of the Narmada Valley Development Project that entails the construction of 30 large and 135 medium-sized dams in the Narmada Valley. Maheshwar is one of the planned large dams and is slated to provide 400 Megawatts in energy.

NBA maintains that that, although the project will have a proposed installed capacity of 400 MW, the average firm power will be only 82 MW, and power production in the eight non-monsoon months will not be more than one and a half hours per day.


Two unidentified of dam protesters
The protest organization says the cost of power from this project will be prohibitively high - an average of six to eight rupees per unit, with the cost of peaking power being eight to ten rupees per unit at the point of production.

This project was privatized in 1994 and handed over to the S. Kumars. Project costs have been spiralling from rupees (Rs) 4,560 million to Rs 20,000 million in the past five years. At the current rate of exchange one dollar roughly equals Rs 43.50.

The NBA vows to continue with its protest actions against the Maheshwar Dam. Agrawal warned that "truth and reality cannot be suppressed through repressive method of forceful arrest."