Luharia Bhilala, a gaunt farmer in his thirties, squatted on his porch. His eyes were fixed on the small rice paddy that slants downward to the Narmada, one of central India's holy rivers. For generations, the Narmada has sustained Bhilala's community. But just two days earlier, it had risen up and surged over his fields, ruining rice plants as he watched helplessly. Bhilala cannot trust his river anymore.
Situated between two dams on the Narmada--one complete and the other under construction--the town of Jalsindhi will likely slip beneath the rising river within two months. In February, the Indian Supreme Court lifted a four-year-old ban on construction of the new Sardar Sarovar dam, threatening Jalsindhi and dozens of other towns, prompting activists from India and abroad to rise up in opposition.
When more rain comes, Bhilala knows the water will cover his land, his house and half of Jalsindhi. If the monsoon persists, an estimated 12,000 people in 61 villages between the dams will uprooted. When the 375-foot dam is finished, as many as 400,000 people might have been displaced.
"I will not run away and try to save my life," Bhilala said last week as hundreds of activists led by novelist Arundhati Roy gathered for a six-day Rally for the Valley here and in neighboring villages. "I will go under the water myself."
Hundreds of farmers in the valley have pledged not to leave when the waters rise. It is a last act of desperation by a community that has fought a 14-year war against the government's plans to build 3,300 dams--all but 30 of them relatively small--on the 780-mile-long river. Six have already been built, displacing more than 100,000 people, and eight are under construction.
The system of dams is intended to provide electrical power and irrigation for the region; the Sardar Sarovar alone is designed to generate 1,450 megawatts of electricity and bring drinking water to 8,000 villages. But environmentalists have charged that it would disturb the valley's fragile ecosystem. In 1993, the World Bank withdrew a loan to the project because of protests, and in 1995 the Supreme Court imposed the construction ban that it lifted in February.
Bhilala's village lacks electricity, a medical clinic or even a road. If he agrees to move out, the government has promised him a new plot of land, with access to education and health services, in the neighboring state of Gujarat. More than 8,000 families from his town have already received such benefits.
"I do not want a poor tribal farmer to be condemned forever to a life without the basic services. I would like to convert the trauma of displacement into an opportunity," said Cheruvettolil Koshi, managing director of the Sardar project.
Koshi argued that dams prevent widespread hunger. "How do we feed our millions?" he asked. "Availability of water for agriculture has enabled India to become self-sufficient in food production."
But for Bhilala and thousands like him, the idea of leaving their birthplace is unimaginable.
The farmers found an unlikely champion this summer when Roy--whose first novel, "The God of Small Things," won Britain's Booker Prize--published a second book criticizing the politics and predations of big dams. Called "The Greater Common Good," it described how millions of people would lose their land and homes--and thrust the novelist into the role of spokeswoman for the "Save the Narmada" movement.
In an interview in New Delhi before the rally, Roy said the sudden commercial success of her first book "made me feel as though every emotion in the book had been traded in for money. It catapulted me into a kind of panic. I could not be a silver statue with a silver heart forever. I felt I needed to seek out the world of 'The God of Small Things,' the world of the little girl who grew up on a river in a village."
Roy's new book, initially published as a magazine essay in May, has generated huge national interest in the dam issue. India has built more than 3,000 dams in the past 50 years, enabling large areas to get electricity and develop agriculture. But environmental groups say that 25 million to 30 million people have been displaced in the process, fishing areas have been ruined and thousands of acres of rich forest land destroyed.
Last week, hundreds of activists ranging from interior decorators to academics and dancers to garment makers joined Roy for the rally and a tour of the Narmada valley. Medha Patkar, a gray-haired Indian grass-roots leader, pledged to stand in the rising waters' path even if she drowned.
"The benefits of the dam never go to those who are uprooted," Patkar charged. She was later arrested as she stood in waist-deep water with farmers from a neighboring village.
The demonstrators were greeted by thousands of farmers, fishermen and sailboat operators.
"For generations we have built a life around the river. Where will we go?" said Madan Kewat as he anchored his boat. Kewat's village, Telibhattiyan, is expected to be submerged if another dam, the Maheshwar, is built on the Narmada. Villagers, refusing to accept a resettlement package, have repeatedly occupied the site to stop construction.
In a rejoinder to Roy's essay, B. G. Verghese, a water expert at the Center for Policy Research, wrote, "Costs have little meaning when weighed against corresponding benefits." He noted that 60 percent of the water that Roy uses in New Delhi came from a dam.
To Roy, however, the proliferation of dams is ominous for India and the world. "The story of the Narmada," she writes in her new book, "is a war for the rivers, the mountains and the forests of the world." With luck, she writes, the 21st century may bring "the dismantling of the big--big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big contradictions, big countries, big wars, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the century of the small."
CAPTION: Author Arundhati Roy, greeted during a march in central India, has emerged as dam opponents' champion.