Two years after the first agitation against the Maheshwar hydel power project at Jalud in Khar-gone, Madhya Pradesh, activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) have yet again mobilisedvillagers to embark on a non-violent, direct action to stall work at the site.
They were accompanied by Booker Award winner Arundhati Roy who was arrested along with 300-400 agitating villagers from the Narmada valley on January 11. Also detained by the police was NBA leader Chittaroopa Palit who asserted that the project would be so expensive that power would have to be sold at the rate of Rs 8 to Rs 10 per unit. This, she pointed out, would be beyond the means of the farmers, common people, artisans and small and middle-class industries.
On January 11, 1998, a similar protest had taken place and over 10,000 people, who faced displacement due to the construction of the Maheshwar project, had laid siege at the site by squatting there for 21 days. The agitation was called off only after the state government had agreed to constitute a task forceto review all the aspects of the project with special emphasis on rehabilitation facilities for displaced families.
The report presented by the task force in October 1998 recommended that work on the dam be stalled until the Madhya Pradesh government reviewed afresh its economic viability. The report also suggested that the government would have to identify agricultural land to rehabilitate the displaced people.
However, the recommendations were ignored and work on the dam resumed. What followed was more protests including 21 days of hunger strike by NBA activists in Bhopal in April 1999. Significantly, the estimated cost of the Maheshwar project has gone up in the last five years from an estimated Rs 465 crore to Rs 2,000 crore.
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