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Environment : A River, a Dam--and an Old Man's Last Battle : The Baba Amte has decided to die in a ghost village doomed to be flooded by a super-dam. He makes no speeches, but his frail presence has rallied conservationists and shaken the halls of government.

May 01, 1990|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KASARAWAD, India — His bones decay a bit more each day, as he gazes from his bed at the river and the people of the little village doomed by progress.

He issues no directives, delivers no speeches and plans no protests. He cannot sit up and can barely walk, the legacy of an incurable, degenerative bone disease that already has claimed six of his vertebrae.

And yet, simply by lying still on the dusty banks of the threatened Narmada River, in the heart of a village that is to be drowned by one of the world's largest dam projects, the 76-year-old Baba Amte has quietly become a worldwide living symbol of protest for conservationists and environmentalists.

This deceptive stillness is just his way. As the sun set over the Narmada one recent afternoon, he compared himself to a child's top. "When it is spinning the fastest, it appears to be standing perfectly still," he said.

"Now, I hope the world will listen to the deafening sound of my silence."

And well it has.

In the two months since the Baba Amte moved into this ghost village near the western Indian town of Barwani as a symbolic protest against large dam projects in India and throughout the world, he has been hailed as a living saint of the environmentalist movement.

"You have lit a torch which will burn forever in the hearts of millions of young men and women," M. S. Swaminathan, president of the Paris-based World Conservation Union, declared in a March 15 letter praising the Baba's protest.

The Baba has promised to remain in Kasarawad until his death. Already, his mere presence here has caused the Indian government to rethink the massive $3-billion Narmada River Valley project, a World Bank-funded plan that envisions 32 large dams, two of them referred to as "super-dams," and more than 3,000 small-scale projects along the 400-mile course of the river.

His name alone has become a singular war cry for grass-roots environmental movements elsewhere in India, ranging from those attempting to save forests and clean up the horribly polluted Ganges River to those trying to stop chemical and fertilizer plants in villages unprepared for their hazardous waste.

And, increasingly, the Baba's arguments against huge dam projects, which were once viewed as the panacea for drought and power shortages the world over, are forcing some officials to rethink that approach to development in the Third World.

"You are making India and the rest of the world awake to the possibilities still open to us for developing a conservation society based on principles of ecology and equity," Swaminathan added in his letter to the Baba in March.

Privately, World Bank development experts conceded that they and the Indian government are now considering fundamental changes in the Narmada Valley project, in part because the Baba has thrown his weight behind the cause.

Although he is physically frail, he refers to his age as "the golden years of my youth." And even before he decided two years ago to dedicate his remaining years to the environment, Baba Amte's image carried substantial international weight.

Since he laid the first cornerstone of his leprosy ashram in the western Indian state of Maharashtra in 1949, the Baba has spearheaded the causes of the oppressed and powerless in the world's second-most-populous nation. As his influence grew, his followers began referring to him as Baba, which is Hindi for "father" and has come to mean "wise elder."

He focused specifically on lepers, having established five large centers to cure leprosy patients from throughout India, and his social work won him this year's Templeton Prize for progress in religion--a $290,000 cash award to be presented this month at a ceremony in London that the Baba has said he cannot attend.

And last year, the Baba became the first Asian to win the United Nations Human Rights award, taking a place in history alongside Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

"I took to leprosy because I knew that man all over the world was being punished for no fault of his own, and no one symbolized this as much as the lepers, those who walked alone in the world," the Baba said as he lay in his simple bamboo bed a few feet from the Narmada.

"Through leprosy, I tried to make the world see the greatness of all men, even the weakest. After all, these eyes that see beauty in broken monuments, palaces, fortresses and tombs like Taj Mahal, could not see the same beauty in the ruins of man.

"But after working with these people for four decades, I started looking outside, and it was then I realized the truth."

Outside the walls of his ashram, the Baba said, he saw a land increasingly threatened by its inhabitants. He saw a country that has become an environmental disaster area, home to the worst industrial accident in history. He saw a leprosy of the planet itself.

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