UN Commission on Human Rights: Arundhati Roy on Large Dams
23 March 2000
On 23 March, prominent writer Arundhati Roy and film director Jharana Jhaveri testified at a conference organized by the Swiss NGO, the Berne Declaration, and the US-based Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund at UN headquarters in Geneva. Addressing an audience of Human Rights Commission delegates, media and NGO representatives, the two Indian artists denounced the serious human rights violations caused by the construction of large dams in India's Narmada Valley.
Introducing the subject, Thierry Pellet of the Berne Declaration pointed out that the world's 40,000 large dams have so far displaced at least 30 to 60 million people. "Experience shows that the human and environmental costs of such projects are consistently underestimated", Pellet warned. Yves Lador of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund maintained that the human rights and environmental problems of large dams are reinforcing each other. "In order to avoid massive violations of human rights, the affected people must be granted access to information and the right to participate in decision-making", Lador stated.
Arundhati Roy, who had visited the project area several times, denounced the serious resettlement problems of the Sardar Sarovar and Maheshwar dams on the Narmada river. "There are simply no land and no resources available for the dam oustees, and the people dispaced so far live in miserable conditions", the writer explained. "It is no coincidence that the majority of the dam-affected people are part of India's Adivasi population, who are marginalized in economic and political decision-making anyway. The 'temples of modern India', as former prime minister Nehru had called them, are thus built at the expense of the poorest social groups and their human rights", Arundhati Roy concluded.
Jharana Jhaveri described the experience of a mass demonstration against the Maheshwar dam in mid-January of this year. Around 1000 peaceful protesters, including Jhaveri and Roy, were arrested and imprisoned near the dam site. Pointing to the determined resistance of the affected population, the film director warned that "the Maheshwar and Sardar Sarovar dams can only be built by using force and violating human rights. This is why we support the call of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) to halt further construction of these dams immediately."
The Narmada project entails the construction of 30 large, 135 medium-sized and 3000 small dams in India's Narmada Valley. More than 100,000 people have already been displaced due to the project, but have not been rehabilitated. If all dams were built, at least another 1 million people would need to be resettled. In 1995, India's Supreme Court ruled that construction of the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam be suspended. The Court allowed the construction of another 5 meters in 1999; a decision on further construction is still pending. Arundhati Roy, author of "The God of Small Things" and winner of the renowned Booker Prize in 1997, became involved in the struggle against the Narmada dams in spring 1999. After visiting the project area, she published a passionate essay on the Narmada experience under the title of "The Greater Common Good". Jharana Jhaveri in 1997 directed and produced the film "Kaise Jeebo Re!" ("How do I survive, my friend?") describing the struggle against the Narmada projects.Arundhati Roy and Jharana Jhaveri are presently visiting Switzerland, and are scheduled to appear at public events in Geneva and Basel. The Swedish-Swiss company ABB is involved in the Maheshwar dam. The Berne Declaration supports the struggle of the Save the Narmada Movement, and is campaigning against foreign funding for the Maheshwar and other Narmada dams.