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An Interview With Medha Patkar

By Viren Mayani Email By Viren Mayani
July 2009
An Interview With Medha Patkar

In the Indian nation of a billion people, if there is a single individual who symbolizes the power of a mass movement against the establishment, it has to be—without contest—Medha Patkar of Narmada Bachao Andolan fame.

For over two decades, Patkar has fought tirelessly for the indigenous tribal masses of Gujarat who have been under constant threat of displacement from their native lands due to the massive dam project over the Narmada River. In doing so she has won worldwide fame (notoriety, some would say) as a doggedly committed individual who has turned out to be a major thorn in the sides of the government agencies charged with creating the dam, known as the Sardar Sarovar Project.

The saga of Medha Patkar versus Sardar Sarovar has turned out to be as epic as any. On the one side, there is the classic struggle of the poor and disenfranchised against the powerful establishment; but on the other, there is a massive project that has come to symbolize progress and modernization in Gujarat with the promise of effective water consumption in place of the droughts and floods.

Not surprisingly, Patkar evokes strong feelings for and against her. To some, she is the hero of the masses, of sustainable growth, and of an egalitarian and Gandhian social order. To others, she is an overzealous obstructionist to progress and modernization.

But love her or hate her, what cannot be denied is her selfless sacrifice for what she believes in, and her stature as a force to reckon with in the context of the Sardar Sarovar Project. Through her massive grassroots movement, known as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), she has impacted stipulations, specifications, policies, procedures and laws surrounding the project in the face of massive bureaucracies of the Indian states and the nation, as well as the venerable World Bank.

“Towards prosperity, not through propriety but through equity!”

These were the pithy words inscribed by Patkar on my copy of the Tata Institute’s Performance Analysis of the Sardar Sarovar Project. Her autograph, though, was in Marathi—perhaps a nod to our conversation in her mother tongue, prior to my interview with her for Khabar.

Patkar was in Atlanta recently to deliver a talk titled, “People’s Movements, the State, and Civil Society”— as part of the distinguished Sheth Lecture Series at Emory University.

Shuffling paperwork in Emory Conference Center’s guestroom, while a volunteer processed her dictation for a statement that was urgently requested from India, she appeared the spitting image of a rebel with a classic cause.

What motivated you towards environmental sustainability at a time when it was not such a hot topic as it is today?

I think environmentalism is not unknown to India. The concept of sustainability is evident in every planning document in India as well as the planning manuals of the World Bank and other global agencies.

The point, however is: Those preconditions that qualify a project to be a sustainable project, are they ever implemented? Also, have equity and justice, along with sustainability, been considered a criterion for deciding what should be defined as development? What technologies should be deployed? Shouldn’t the process of deciding the use of natural resources for all masses be kept democratic? These are the issues that keep arising.

So the issue as a whole is not just about environmental sustainability, but also about justice, when concerning the riverine population, as in the case of Narmada. All the resources are taken over by the State under the principle of public interest or principle of eminent domain. The complete disregard of constitutional law and human rights, the erosion of sustainability of the area, deprivation of the masses – all this emboldened me to take such a strong stand.

Can you take us back to the time when you launched this movement over 25 years ago? How did it become your mission in life?

I had begun working with UNICEF in Gujarat, and had visited a number of villages there. Whilst studying the incidences in Gujarat, I happened to know about Narmada (project) from the former officials of the Narmada Department as well as interested lawyers and activists who were part of the Gujarat Nav Nirman Movement. Everything together led me to Maharashtra where I visited a few villages on the banks of Narmada and realized that the people did not even know about the project which had already gone through a number of reiterations, reviews and appraisals with the World Bank and the various aid and central agencies. No one ever visited the villagers with the plan or any other information. So we decided to organize the villagers, 100% Adivasis, followed by the people from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. The story of all the affected remained the same. In Gujarat, although some NGOs were working, they were also not questioning the basic issues, which according to us, needed to be raised. So one after another, we went on traveling the whole of 214 kilometer area, each village and hamlet. Having the strong mark of an organization that came into being, a few young activists and me became a part of it. The local leadership mainly formed an organization and we became a part of that, instead of them becoming a part of an outside NGO. We charted out our demands and raised the question from the perspective of the affected population who, according to us, had to have the riverian rights to all the resources which they lived with, since generations.

What were the main complaints of the villagers?   

They raised questions such as, “You are telling us that a dam is going to be built, and our village and everything within; Gods to Goddesses, hills, hamlets, etc. is going to go underwater? And we wouldn’t even be left with the source of livelihood--our land, river and forest? Tell us how and who could decide this without asking us, without coming to us or without informing us?”

That was basic. It included right to information but was something beyond that; right to resources and right to plan one’s own development. These issues then led to the plethora of other questions. One, when the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal was sitting to resolve the conflict amongst the States, from 1969 to 1979, how is it that [they] never visited a single affected community or family? The only individuals heard were the representatives of the State, engineers and the lawyers.

The second question was whether the plans that were coming from Gandhi Nagar, Delhi, Mumbai or Bhopal, had taken care of the entire social and environmental impact? Because, without the baseline surveys, which were not done in most of the to-be-affected areas, how could they ever calculate the cost-benefits analysis?

The third question was that (if they had planned) to destroy and displace, had they gone through the assessment of various options that would result in a minimum of social and environmental impact?

(The people most affected were indigenous people who lived totally off the land and the river.) There were no schools, post offices, roads, temples, mosques, or dispensaries in any of these villages. In such an environment, which was a civilization within a civilization, how is it that people were expected to just face (such a disruptive rehabilitation)?

There were legal and constitutional questions as well, because there is a right to life and livelihood in the Indian Constitution. Even the UN convention said that the Adivasis should be given alternative sources of livelihood and resources equal or higher than what they previously owned.

So all these questions really formed the basis, and the State was not ready to answer those truthfully as they didn’t even have the information or the plans ready. Privately they accepted: “Look, you know, this is not ready as yet and we both know how the State functions. We wanted a clearance because the dam is a must.” We responded, “The dam is not a must, if you cannot take care of these aspects and cannot be fair and just in achieving them. Then the dam is not even a development.”

The NBA has been a defining movement in dam construction. Has it influenced other dam projects, so that issues of displacement, sustainability, justice and equity are considered more diligently?

Yes, there is some change, no doubt, because the people feel empowered. The government is still not very responsive, but at least, as a result of the movement, public hearings have become part of the process since 1994. Many times, even public hearings are farcical but at least they compel actions. Beyond that, wherever there is agitation and a strong base, the government has to respond in some way or the other.

There is also the influence of the corporations: their money, their interest, their vulgar strategies to divide and rule, to buy over or court people or the local leaders, especially the elected representatives. But wherever the agitation really takes it to its logical end through non-violence struggle, the state also has to respond. Some projects are canceled because of the agitation from the people. There are many dams which are at least stayed, even if only temporarily, giving some breathing space for people to get rehabilitation done. Yet it’s a long way to go, because once the World Bank’s money comes in, the corporate money comes in, and this investment becomes the most influential factor. Investment of land, water and forestation by the people over generations is not given any importance; they’re not treated as investors but treated as beggars for rehabilitation, which is the saddest part. But there is some progress.

In your talk (at Emory) you spoke about educating children in villages about land rights, besides traditional education. Can you shed some more light on that?

The Narmada Bachao Andolan has always believed in rehab / reconstruction, because the alternative development paradigm shifts that we talked about needs to be implemented. Unfortunately we cannot do everything by ourselves because of limitations of time and space. In education we found that the government schools shown on paper were not actually running on the ground. So we started (a school) in the Adivasi area of Maharashtra, where people felt, after getting organized and mobilized, empowered enough to have their own school. Soon, other such Jeevan Shalas (“life schools”) were started. Today, we have 14 residential schools with 1,700 children. We followed the curriculum in the tribal dialect and in the mother tongue of the state, one in Gujarat, three in Madhya Pradesh and the rest in Maharashtra.

With the Adivasi teacher coming from the same area, we cover the government curriculum as well as teach other aspects of the struggle they are introduced to, through approaches such as the struggle song. They perform, through skits, issues that we raised through the movement. The teachers are trained both in the pedagogic aspects but also in these aspects that affect them. The Jeevan Shalas can impart the real education, which should be rooted into the environment, social, economic, and political realities of these Adivasi communities. (Our students) are going for further education through high school, and are performing better there than many of the government school children. They are also becoming athletes. They should also be prepared to really fight for their rights. Many of these students have become teachers or full-time activist in the movement again.

Your strong opposition to the Narmada dam project has had its share of criticism. The critics claim destruction is necessary for construction. Moreover, the economic viability of sustainability is often questioned. How are you reacting to such responses?

Many have a vague or no concept of development symbolized by big industries and big projects, such as huge shopping malls, in relation to equity, justice and sustainability. Then there are those who are often direct beneficiaries of such projects. There was one corporate individual, for example, who spent a lot of capital campaigning against us. They made all kinds of allegations, including that we were operating with foreign funding. This, when we haven’t even taken one dollar from our foreign awards. Fortunately, after so much defamation, which I went to court against, the Supreme Court gave a very good judgment, saying that the Narmada Bachao Andolan is doing the job of the Supreme Court of India and really gave us a clean chit on the funding and on everything.

The common people nowadays are seeing what is happening in the name of development. This is no more only about a dam, but all such mining, infrastructure, killing and displacing of communities. The “destruction is necessary” rule is only when the poor are destroyed and no one else. It is only slums that are evicted. The infrastructure, the highways never go through a five-star hotel. One set of community exploits the other – that has to be understood.

The newer technologies are working; whether it is decentralized farming or rain water harnessing and more ? (they) are yielding great results. Development must include sustainable measures versus simple extraction all the time.

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