04/07/2006, 00.00
INDIA
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The Church looks with admiration at the struggle against the Narmada Valley dams

by Nirmala Carvalho
The archbishop of Delhi and the president of the All India Catholic Union are concerned about the health of hunger striker Medha Paktar; they also urge the government to respect the poor, which is the single, most important moral test of a society.

Delhi (AsiaNews) – In the words of Mgr Vincent Concessao, archbishop of Delhi, his archdiocese and congregation "look with admiration at the spirit of solidarity" displayed by Medha Paktar and her movement "who are striving to give back to hundreds of thousands of Adivasi (or tribal peoples) in Madhya Pradesh their human dignity". The Archbishop has also blessed the protest actions carried out by Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA or Save the Narmada River Association), an environmental movement led by Ms Paktar that is trying to stop the construction of new dams along the river.

This comes after the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) last week gave the green light to a government plan, approved 20 years ago, that involves building a total of 3,165 dams of different sizes along the river and its tributaries for a total area that runs for 1,200 kilometres (750 miles).

According to the NCA, the dams will provide much-needed water and electricity to drought-prone areas in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. However, for the NBA, the dams will force thousands of people off their land. For example, the Sardar Sarovar Dam project will drive more than 40,000 Adivasi families off their land for peanuts in compensation and more than 1,100 hectares (2,800 acres) of arable land will be flooded. But since "they [the tribal peoples] are economically insignificant, they are ignored," the environmentalists say.

In order to stand up to a project that even the World Bank abandoned in the early 1990s, NBA's Medha Patkar has gone on a hunger strike. She was however forcefully taken to New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences on Wednesday night when her health conditions deteriorated after eight days without food. Whilst she is still detained in hospital her fellow protesters have been forcefully removed by the police.

"We are concerned about her health after the hunger strike," writes Archbishop Concessao in a statement released to this press this morning and co-signed by John Dayal, President of the All India Catholic Union, "and urgently call upon the government to address the basic human crisis that pushed her to take this extreme but peaceful and non-violent act of protest. We are happy a group of Union ministers is personally assessing the situation and hope the government will show the political will necessary to find a solution after so many years."

"Water can benefit one region," the statement read, "but rising waters in Madhya Pradesh will not just flood land, but a culture and way of life. From an economic point of view, displacement means not only losing land where people have lived since the dawn of humanity; it also means leaving in grave doubt the fate of future generations. With a break in the principle of Adivasi self-subsistence in farming, the harm to their dignity will reach historic proportions. It cannot but touch the heart of every common man and woman in India."

"The Church feels that the moral test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members and the poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor [who are losing] their traditional social structures, their homes, their place within society, and their forms of livelihood, and are thus in need of services and protection."

"The Church has often told world governments, as we now say to the government of India, that when people are without a chance to earn a living, and must go hungry and homeless, they are being denied basic rights. Society must ensure that these rights are protected. The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around."

Fr Cedric Prakash, who heads PRASHANT—the Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace—and who has been closely associated with Narmada Bachao Andolan, agrees.

He, too, has urged the Indian government to respond positively and immediately to each and every one of Medha Patkar's and the NBA's demands.

"Our first hand experience in the Narmada Valley has brought us in close contact with the Tribals of the area," he said. They "are totally disregarded in this mega project, designed to help the rich and powerful to have more on the backs of the poor and powerless."

"It is a glaring fact that those evicted have not been rehabilitated; some cosmetic efforts on the part of the state governments have only made life more difficult for them, not to mention the untold environmental havoc this dam is bound to create for future generations."

For Father Prakash, "the sheer magnitude of the misery which the Tribals are subjected to justifies a quick response on the government's part. Anything less is tantamount to a total violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

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