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Dam issue: Modi to fast for 51 hrs

The Gujarat CM is protesting against Govt's move to temporarily suspend further construction of Narmada Dam.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2006 01:33 IST

The Narmada Dam controversy has changed colour — from humanitarian to political — with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi announcing a 51-hour fast at Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram. The provocation: the Centre’s proposal to suspend construction on the project, over which sentiments in Gujarat differ from those of Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).

Modi’s decision to replicate Patkar’s protest is obviously aimed at gaining political mileage in his state (ahead of the 2007 Assembly polls) at the expense of the Congress that leads the coalition at the Centre. The battle transcends, in fact, to other states, including the Congress-NCP governed Maharashtra and the BJP-controlled MP and Rajasthan. These are the regions that stand to benefit from the project. And water, needless to say, can arouse emotions beyond imagination.

At the meeting with Gujarat MPs and leaders on Sunday to discuss further the question of raising the dam’s height — which could not be resolved in the Narmada Review Committee (NRC) discussions on Saturday — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have to walk a tightrope. Not only is the Congress in power in Maharashtra and Delhi, where the issue is sought to be thrashed out, it also remains the major opposition in Rajasthan and MP.

In the Catch-22 situation, the Centre would need all its guile and persuasion to evolve a seemingly difficult consensus in which Patkar’s concerns too would have to be taken into account. But the numbers clearly are against Patkar, who wants people displaced by the project rehabilitated properly. Her contention is that raising the dam’s height from 110.64 metres to 121.92 metres could displace 30,000 additional tribal families. Modi’s rejoinder: if the height is not raised, the country would lose 1,450 MW of power and as many as 4,000 villages of Gujarat and Rajasthan would be denied water.

Inevitably, the three-and-a-half hour meeting of the NRC turned out to be stormy. Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz’s proposal of temporarily suspending the construction was stiffly opposed by BJP CMs Modi, Shivraj Chouhan (MP) and Vasundhara Raje (Rajasthan) while Environment Minister A. Raja and Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh supported it.

Later, an angry Modi dubbed the Centre’s stand as “anti-development”.