Kishore Solanki picks up a rock on the banks of India’s swollen Narmada River, gesturing toward land, now submerged, where once he grew enough wheat and vegetables to make a comfortable living.
“If someone offers you this stone in exchange for fertile land, would you take it?” he asked.
Solanki is a tribal farmer, typical of hundreds of thousands of people whose land or houses are threatened by the Sardar Sarovar, the $7.7 billion centerpiece of a project to tap India’s fifth-largest river.
The government says the Sardar Sarovar, the largest of 30 major dams proposed or being built along the Narmada, is vital to satisfy India’s ever-growing thirst for power and irrigation, and will also supply drinking water to 20 million people.
But on the banks of the Narmada, where steep green slopes rise up to remote hill villages, it is not hard to find men like Solanki, who say the government has taken their land and offered them little or nothing in return.
Fewer than half the 77 families in his village have been offered any alternative land, he says. Others have been shown barren patches of land, often many days walk from their homes.
For years the state government has turned away repeated requests to build a school and a medical center in Kharya Bhadal, arguing the village would one day be submerged. It even ripped out a handpump in order to encourage people to move, he claims.
“I feel as though outsiders have come and changed our lives forever,” he said, a cloth around his head and a silver ring in his ear like many of the tribesmen here. “Sometimes I feel like just plunging in the river and dying.”
The Narmada valley project has been bogged down for years in a protracted legal battle with anti-dam activists from the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), or Save the Narmada Movement.
The debate reignited this year when work began to raise the dam’s height to 400 feet — just 52 feet short of its full height — and NBA leader Medha Patkar staged a hunger strike in central New Delhi on behalf of 35,000 families whose land or houses, she said, were threatened.
Suddenly the controversy was back on the nation’s front pages, and back in the courts. Work on the dam has stopped during the monsoon season, but a Supreme Court hearing is due in September to decide whether to allow construction to continue.
It is a squabble that polarises India.
Has the government failed to live up to a legal obligation to provide viable land in return for fields facing submergence, and unfairly excluded tens of thousands of people from official lists of “project-affected families?”
Or is the NBA simply standing in the way of the Sardar Sarovar out of an irrational hatred for big dams and development, depriving the farmers and industrialists of western India the water and power they desperately need?
The main problem lies in the western state of Madhya Pradesh, where most of the displaced now live and where good replacement land is in short supply.
Out of at least 25,000 affected families there, just 750 have actually moved to official resettlement sites, most preferring to stay put until the last minute.
An official survey of resettlement efforts carried out in May reported that more than a quarter of the sites were “poor,” with much of the land “rocky, (sloping) and barren.”
The report dismissed the claims of thousands of people excluded from official lists as “mostly without substance.”
Yet at least a fifth of the 4,000 farming families surveyed said they had either not been offered land or not been told where their plots were, while 40 percent said the land offered them was either too far away from their homes or not fit for cultivation.
Patkar says people have been forced to take cash when they should have been offered good land, and that corruption has played a major role. “Half of the money has gone into the pockets of officials,” she said.
Thousands of families have been resettled in the neighboring state of Gujarat and some told reporters they were happy with the land they had received.
Others, like the inhabitants of village of Thuvavi, were simply miserable.
“I could throw a stick in any direction to show you how much land I had,” said Phooliben, reminiscing about the village she left in Maharashtra state 15 years ago.
“It was such a good plot, I grew all kinds of crops. Here rainwater washes away everything I grow.”
Phooliben and her friends walked through a morass of mud to show reporters their low-lying fields. Most of the land lay fallow and will be completely submerged before the monsoon is over.
Villagers said they were more likely to harvest fish than crops. To survive, the women of Thuvavi are lucky to earn Rs. 20 (45 U.S. cents) a day working in “upper class houses.”
“I have been writing to the governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra but nobody pays any attention,” said Kishore Morah. “We feel like we have been cheated by both sides.”