India's plan to raise dam heightens fear in flood-prone villages

Construction is to begin next month on India dam project that many fear will increase flood risk for thousands

Kartik Prajapati, a villager in western India, has a problem: He is certain that his house will be flooded, leaving him homeless.

Like many villagers on the banks of the Narmada River, which flows through Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra states, he already lives in fear of floods during India's annual monsoon season from June to September.

But his concern has reached a new level because of a plan to raise a 400-foot-high dam on the river by about 56 feet, a change some say is bound to increase the danger faced by thousands of families in more than 200 villages.

"I lose sleep thinking about the consequences," said Prajapati, who lives in Gajipura village in Madhya Pradesh.

Construction is to begin in October on the controversial $8-billion Sardar Sarovar dam project, which environmentalists have opposed for years on the grounds that the potential for greater flooding from the dam's reservoir would severely increase the danger faced by villagers. Indian authorities have long sought to raise the dam's height to promote electricity generation and increase irrigation for agricultural land.

In June, soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, the Indian government approved the construction. The move generated criticism because Modi is the former chief executive of Gujarat, the western state that has been the dam project's most ardent champion, but government officials called the timing a coincidence.

A government-appointed panel was assigned to allocate new housing away from the danger zone, but residents and activists say many of the replacement sites are inadequate and ill-suited to farming. They say panel members did not visit the endangered villages or speak to people most at risk of losing their homes.

"Floods have ruined my house twice in the last two years," Prajapati said. "I have been given an alternative land and some compensation, but the land contains black soil. It is impossible to build a house on it. It will collapse sooner rather than later."

Prajapati said he had to flee his house at night with his parents, wife and daughter when Gajipura flooded last year. When the family returned after a few days they saw that everything had been washed away. He had to rebuild from scratch, using bamboo and tin for a small shed.

The head of the Nonconventional Energy Sources Laboratory at the Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute in Mumbai said increasing the dam's height could result in the elimination of many villages as people would have to move on. At its current height, the dam "has caused severe destruction" when heavy rain raises the water level in the reservoir and villages experience seasonal flooding, said the official, Sanjay Mangala Gopal.

"If the height is increased further," he said, "most of these villages will cease to exist."

Social activist Medha Patkar, who has opposed increasing the dam's height for nearly three decades, held rallies in late August calling for the new construction to be delayed until authorities provided better housing options for residents of the Narmada River basin. Villagers young and old joined in, chanting slogans such as, "Save Narmada, save humanity."

In the flood-endangered village of Barda in Madhya Pradesh, few residents have moved out. Many say the new site lacks basic services and its rocky soil is unsuitable for farming.

"How can we move to a place which has no water and no electricity?" said Deepak Mandaloi, a 40-year-old farmer in Barda.

P.K Laheri, a former civil servant in Gujarat who worked on plans for the project before retiring, acknowledged that "some mistakes" may have occurred in reassigning villagers.

"There are grievance redressal authorities and the errors can be corrected," he said.

But Raj Kachroo, a hydrologist and social worker, said the government had fallen dangerously short in its handling of the project.

"In today's day and age, it is easily possible to do accurate analysis and foresee the consequences of the increased height of the dam," he said. "It has not been done."

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.

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