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Dam Project Ignites Controversy

World's largest man-made lake would displace thousands and submerge religious shrines. INDIA: FIGHTING POVERTY

BABULAL AGARWAL'S family came to this sleepy, dirt-street town in central India three generations ago. Today, Mr. Agarwal, who runs a shack stand on the town's main street, and his son, Surender Kumar, a cloth merchant, know their days in Harsud may be numbered. Under a massive development scheme for the Narmada River five miles away, Harsud would be completely submerged and its 15,000 residents forced to move.

At a huge, recent protest rally here, the two businessmen joined the growing chorus of outrage over the planned $4 billion Sardar Sarovar dam. It will displace 70,000 people in all.

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``No one wants to leave his home, but if we are forced to leave, the government must give us adequate compensation,'' Mr. Kumar said.

The Narmada controversy reflects a growing militancy against huge dam projects, which have long been a part of anti-poverty gospel.

After India's independence from Britain in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spearheaded dam construction, calling them ``temples of development.'' Today, the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru's grandson, still considers large dams as the best answer for drought-plagued and power-short areas.

Officials say harnessing the 800-mile-long Narmada could transform deserts in Gujarat and Rajasthan states into lush agricultural lands and improve the lives of needy Indians in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states.

The Sardar Sarovar project would be the largest in the Narmada Basin Plan. It calls for constructing 30 large, 135 medium, and more than 3,000 small dams on the river and its tributaries. It is India's largest development scheme ever and one of the biggest in the third world.

The World Bank, which is providing $450 million for the Sardar Sarovar dam, agrees that big dams creating large reservoirs are needed in this semi-arid country. Most rainfall comes in the four summer monsoon months.

``The problems are mind-boggling. To satisfy the water needs of this country, you need large surface storage. There's no alternative,'' says Jerry Fauss, the World Bank official in charge of the project in New Delhi.

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However, disillusionment with the project is spreading in the valley of the Narmada, a river considered by India's Hindu majority as most sacred - holier even than the Ganges.

The Sardar Sarovar dam would create the world's largest man-made lake, flooding tens of thousands of acres, eliminating forests, and submerging many religious shrines visited regularly by pilgrims.

The state of Gujarat, devastated by the century's worst drought in recent years, stands to gain the most from the project.

A lengthy and intricate canal network would carry water to more than half of the state's 19 districts. State officials tout the project as ``Gujarat's lifeline.''

However, in neighboring Madhya Pradesh, where most of those that would be relocated now live, and elsewhere in India, predictions are growing of a major ecological calamity.

An army of environmentalists, scientists, and activists united against the project say that Gujarat and central government officials rammed through the project by overplaying the benefits and ignoring environmental warnings.

Two years ago, after almost a 40-year debate on the project, Mr. Gandhi's government gave the go-ahead. It turned aside predictions that the Sardar Sarovar and another large dam would involve an environmental cost of some $24 billion, and that the project would put tremendous financial strains on the states.

``Here is a project that is an environmental, social, and cultural disaster in the making,'' says Smitu Kothari, a New Delhi social activist opposing the dam.

While ecologists admit that river development is key for this desperately poor region of India, the opposition has largely coalesced around government handling of the resettlement question.

Opponents say medium-sized dams and other irrigation techniques could ease the need for big dams. Most of those to be displaced, who now reside in Madhya Pradesh, have been given the choice of staying in their home state or moving to Gujarat.

However, environmentalists say it's unclear where the land will come from to replace the farms of many displaced.

For the many tribal people living along the river, there is no choice about leaving their homes.

``The tribal people here say they won't move to Gujarat because they would be considered inferior, their language is different, and their daughters couldn't be married,'' says Medha Patkar, a Bombay social worker who has been working with tribes living along the river for years.

Endless delays by state officials in informing those to be displaced of their options has created a deep bitterness among many. Supporters of the dam say the resettlement package could come to about $15,000 per family, the best compensation package ever seen in India.

Earlier this year, dismayed by the slow progress and the growing opposition, the World Bank put pressure on the central and state governments to speed up the resettlement process. Satisfied with the steps taken, the bank this summer extended its assistance for another year.

However, Mr. Fauss adds, ``our intent is to move ahead unless something else in the implementation stage breaks down. As for the resettlement issue, if gross injustices were perceived, we would take another look.''

Yet in Harsud, opposition seems to be deepening. The government proposes to shift the residents of Harsud to a site seven miles away and to replace their land. But land will be compensated at prices below the going market rate, farmers say.

And many residents say they just don't trust the government. They point to the state capital, Bhopal, about 100 miles north, where victims of the 1984 gas leak have yet to be compensated.

``The government has offered us land for land, and shops for shops, but we're skeptical,'' says Anil Bhandari, a farmer and brick worker. ``I don't trust the government. It makes promises and then goes back on them.''

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