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Controversial Dam´s Water Reaches Drought-Hit Region, But All Not Happy


June 17 2003

The gush of water from a multi-billion dollar dam into part of western India has prompted delighted villagers to dance and sing.

They expressed their joy after a pipeline was turned on at Samkhiyali, entry point for Gujarat state´s Kutchch district, 1,160 kilometers southwest of New Delhi. At a ceremony there to mark the launch, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi described it as a "remarkable moment" in Gujarat´s history.

The pipeline is expected to bring water to the 45,652-square-kilometer district where three successive droughts have forced people to walk kilometers to obtain water. The state government promises to cover the whole district with pipelines by the end of 2004, thanks to a US$150-million project partly funded by the Asian Development Bank.

Despite such upbeat prospects, however, some people have dismissed the May 18 turning-on ritual in the project´s first phase as "political hype." The water flows from the controversial US$11.4 billion Sardar Sarovar dam that has displaced more than 12,000 tribal families. Named for India´s first home minister, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the whole project involves the building of 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams on the Narmada River and its 41 tributaries passing through Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra states.

Tribal people and peasants, along with some 150 Church and other voluntary organizations, have opposed the Sardar Sarovar Project since it began in 1961 because they fear it will affect tribal ancestral lands and ways of life.

Gujarat government officials say the dam will help irrigate millions of hectares of land, and generate electricity and drinking water in drought-prone western India. As Modi turned on the pipeline, the assembled gathering invoked the river´s name and shouted "Narmada for all!" in the local language. Modi admits that some people inevitably will suffer from the project, but he insists that "for one person´s suffering, there will be seven benefiting."

Carmelite of Mary Immaculate Father Varghese Chiraparampil, who works in Bachau town in central Kutchch, regrets that water is being used for political gain. He told UCA News that though bringing water to the region could be any government´s "biggest achievement," he is skeptical about the project´s feasibility and alleges that the government makes promises only to win votes.

Kutchch district is under Rajkot diocese, where many diocesan centers had to buy water for daily needs. Father C.C. Jose, director of Rajkot´s social works and Father Chiraprampil´s confrere, says the water that reached Samkhiyali village is a political stunt. "We will have to wait for the actual waters to come," he told UCA News.

Sanjai Sangvai of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada movement) describes the pipeline opening as "political hype" to cover up government failures. His movement has been leading opposition to the dam construction.

To bring water to the heart of Kutchch district, the government must lay more than 400 kilometers of pipeline. But Sangvai says the pipeline that Modi opened carries only drinking water whereas the dam project´s main benefit should be water to irrigate 37,000 hectares of cultivable land in Kutchch.

Sangvai also said he laments that the state´s "political masters" have fooled people for decades in the name of water. He alleges that the dam project takes up nearly 90 percent of Gujarat´s total annual budget and leaves little funding for other developmental projects.

Meanwhile, newspapers have reported that tankers sent by the government to the region have been emptying water into wells instead of allowing people to collect the water directly into water containers, so people must queue at the wells to draw the water and treat it before consumption. The tanker owners reportedly wanted to avoid clashes that might erupt during water distribution.