issue 239 - January 1993
Women at work on the great concrete cliffs of the Sardar Sarovar dam
in India are building a giant that will swallow up the Narmada River Valley.
A construction site. Landscapes of concrete, cranes, cables. Heavy lifting, earth moving, hard labour by fragile forms in flowing robes, thin-limbed and upright, treading gently over the rubble. At first sight this is a place of paradox. But there's no strangeness in women labouring in India. The world's hard labour is done mostly by women: in the fields, breaking the soil, tending the crops, carrying the harvest, the water and firewood.
Here too in the Narmada Valley: a modem wonder, harnessing the power of nature for the benefit of people, for progress. The massive Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat, India has been planned since 1947. The foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Nehru in 1961. Thousands of villages and 131 urban centres will have their drinking water and electricity needs met. Noble work for noble people. Huge loans from the World Bank to pay for it. A collective effort.
But... 'For the last seven years a fight has been going on,' says Medha Patkar, one of the leaders of Narmada Bachao Andolan - an opposition campaign which in 1991 won the 'Alternative Nobel Prize', the Right Livelihood Award. 'It is now quite clear that the Narmada Valley is being led towards destruction - not just of its environment but also of its human communities.'
Thousands of local people, many of them tribal people living in traditional ways, are to be displaced. They were not consulted. And no-one can point to a place, anywhere in the world, where those who have been displaced by dams, who 'stand in the way of development', have been happily resettled.
'Development means meeting demand,' argues Medha Patkar. 'And demand comes from those who have the purchasing power and the political power to express it... The whole atmosphere is dominated by the Western-orientated development pattern and the interests of élites - bureaucrats, politicians, contractors and their like.'
For their pains, Medha Patkar and her friends have been detained and harassed. Standing in the way of development is a hazardous business. But the doubts grow stronger. The World Bank, under fire for its environmental record, wavers. What do these labouring women think about it? Has anyone thought to ask?