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Natural conflicts of interest

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Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary is an example of what happens when sustainability and conservation ignore local needs

Opposition to mammoth construction projects in the developing world has become something of a cause cÚlÞbre in the developed world.

Whether it concerns plans to improve the BR-364 highway that runs through Rondonia in Brazil, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China or the Ilisu Dam in eastern Turkey, big development projects are deemed to be too expensive, ecologically harmful and unlikely to benefit local people.

One of the biggest campaigns in recent years was that launched against the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada River in north-west India. The project was for 3,165 dams of varying sizes, which would control the Narmada and its 41 tributaries.

Of these, 30 are large projects, including two very big dams - the Narmada Sager and the heavily-contested SSP. Building work on the SSP commenced formally in April 1987, and quickly became the focus of opposition from international and Indian environmental campaigners concerned at its resettlement programme.

Urban-based Indian intellectuals such as Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy opposed the dam, fearing its impact on the traditional rural way of life that they want to conserve. Western environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) joined the antidam crusade, arguing that important biodiversity would be lost if the Narmada valley was flooded.

The campaign held up the dam until the end of 2000 when the Indian Supreme Court judgment finally gave the project the go-ahead, allowing the height of the dam to be raised to a level that would finally allow water to flow down the irrigation canals.

Obvious benefits To an outsider, the dam's benefits seem obvious. It will provide drinking water for an area with a population of 18 million - and for a prospective population that has been put at over 40 million by 2021. The dam has a power-generation capacity of 1250MW and aims to make the area 'drought-proof ' (75 per cent of Gujarat and 100 per cent of Rajasthan - areas affected by the dam - are prone to droughts).

One of the ironies of the delay is that if the dam had been completed on time it could have sent muchneeded drinking water to the quakeaffected parts of Northern Gujarat which were decimated in the earthquake earlier this year.

While the campaign against the dam became known worldwide, there is a side of the Sardar Sarovar story that has not been told. It concerns the 40,000 tribal people who have found themselves imprisoned in the Shoolpaneshwar wildlife sanctuary.

Compensating nature The sanctuary was created in 1989, in response to environmentalist demands to compensate for forest land that the Narmada dams reservoirs would submerge. But, whereas 11,000ha of forest would be under water, the sanctuary was allocated 61,000ha.

It could be argued that the 40,000 people who live in the designated sanctuary have become the victims of an environmental campaign to stop the dams being built. Now, India's Ministry of Environment and Forests has announced that it intends to close 13 villages in the sanctuary and resettle thousands of tribal people because of their 'negative impact' on the flora and fauna in the sanctuary.

The need for a protected area to compensate for bio-diversity loss was effectively challenged by two reports written after the sanctuary was established. In 1991, a report compiled by Professor Sabnis from the Department of Botany at Baroda University (Eco-Environmental and Wildlife Studies on the Sardar Sarovar Submergence Area in Gujarat) stated that 'no endangered species of plants or animals species have been found'. No species in the area was threatened with extinction. Facts, however, have not been allowed to prevent the sanctuary's construction.

The entrance to the sanctuary is closed off with Forest Department checkpoints, complete with barriers.

Pictures representing the rich diversity of Indian wildlife are proudly displayed - even though some of the animals pictured have never lived in the region, let alone the reserve. In 1992, in the interests of biodiversity, the authorities introduced a panther to the sanctuary - an animal not native to the region. Within a month it had killed a young village girl.

The Forest Department police are armed, and empowered by Wildlife Protection Acts to enforce restrictions in the sanctuary. Tribals must not hunt, enter the sanctuary with weapons, or light fires without permission. They must not hurt or frighten wildlife; not poach, damage trees, nor collect minor forest produce; no new land is allowed to be cleared for cultivation.

Farming is effectively outlawed in the sanctuary. Tribals found with tools or bullocks on the land face confiscation and the possible seizure of what little property they possess.

Cases have been filed against people wishing to repair or extend their houses. Developmental work, bridge repairing and road building in the sanctuary have been stopped. Without roads, villagers are cut off from schools and health services, and have to walk up to 20km to trade their produce. Without roads, water-pump rigs cannot get to the villages, denying villagers the benefits of irrigation and drinking water, which is the whole point of the project.

It seems that many environmental campaigners have stayed silent over the fate of tribals in the sanctuary because they are directly implicated in their 'imprisonment'. Their silence on the fate of these people makes one wonder whether campaigners' opposition to the SSP was ever really based on support for the plight of tribals in the Narmada valley in the first place.

Kirk Leech can be contacted by e-mail kirkleech@hotmail. com

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