Magazine article New Internationalist

A Temple Too Far

Magazine article New Internationalist

A Temple Too Far

Article excerpt

A temple too far

S Kumars is trying to build `a temple of modern India' - a dam - at Maheshwar. But the people won't have it. The journey continues.

THE temple at Maheshwar is one of the grandest on the whole Narmada river. Ahilyabai, an 18th century Maharani of great wealth and even greater holiness, built a massive sandstone palace and temple complex here, through whose arches long flights of steps descend to ghats - bathing and worshiping places - on the river.

Until recently there has been no contestant to Ahilya in the construction business at Maheshwar. Now there is. Today's builder is S Kumars. They aren't using sandstone and marble but earth and concrete, and the temple is the kind that Prime Minister Nehru, in an unfortunate moment 50 years ago, saluted as a `temple of modern India': a dam. In 1993, S Kumars won the concession to build here the first privately constructed hydroelectric dam in India. But the award was a poisoned chalice. Little did S Kumars expect to be so embattled.

Maheshwar is in the heart of the Nimad plains, a long stretch of fertile land watered by Narmada. As the floodwater marks in the Maheshwar Temple show, the river can rise to tremendous heights in the monsoon season. This happens suddenly, often tempestuously.

When you see those high-water marks - skyscraper-height above the dry-season stream - you realize that the gathering of vast volumes of surging water behind a dam, especially when the river slams into it and sends a swirling mass of water back over itself, must create havoc in the valley behind. Many villages in the Nimad are large, like small towns. Sixty-one will be fully or partially drowned by the Maheshwar dam's retention of the river, or by the backwaters and the silt they carry.

This figure was wrung from the authorities only with great difficulty. But local people distrust it. The surveyors are seen as allies of S Kumars. Such a large project, especially in the hands of a private company as closed to local people and as unanswerable as a Maharajah in his palace, is a gravitational centre of power and influence. According to survey marks, some areas slated for submergence are higher than others which are not. The number of households to be displaced and their assets are also regularly under-estimated. Altogether, 40-50,000 people are supposed to be affected. But the reality may be more. Many fear another Bargi in the making.

Farming here on the black cotton soil is lucrative, and there are many well-heeled and prominent families in the Nimad. From the river, snaking pipes from electric pumpsets run up the bank and penetrate several kilometres inland. Irrigation means that, at any time of year, crops are growing: wheat, maize, soya, pulses, chillies, citrus fruits, bananas, papaya, cotton and vegetables.

In the richer villages, tractors and trailers are parked below the trees. Lower castes provide the patidars (landowners) with much of their labour. Many patidars, sitting out in their immaculate pale-mauve cotton, tell you that they are just farmers, no-one special. But their prosperity supports a host of carpenters, smiths, tailors and shopkeepers as well as labourers. Their produce feeds cities such as Indore and Bhopal - is even traded abroad.

All through the Nimad plains, communities threatened either here, or downstream by the Sardar Sarovar, have mounted determined resistance. The struggle to stop the Maheshwar dam began in earnest three years ago. At an evening meeting in Pathrad village, the women - who have dominated the Maheshwar campaign - describe what happened.

`We were never told anything,' says Radneshyam Patidar. `In early 1997 blasting work began. People demanded to know what was going on. When they admitted a dam would come up, prominent people went to meet the Narmada Andolan. This is the same valley as Sardar Sarovar, the same people, this should be a common struggle.' Alok Agarwal, a senior Narmada activist, came to mobilize with them. …

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