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Meet another hero from Narmada
Akshaya Mukul (Neemgaon, June 26)

On Wednesday, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activists decided to visit Domkhedi village to watch a rudali (folk theatre) performance, but were unable to cross the overflowing Khad river, a Narmada tributary. So they shifted the venue to a point uphill. And the first to complete the climb was 72-year-old Jasbhai Patel, academic-turned-social activist.

The Narmada movement is personified by the frail Medha Patkar and, of late, has been injected some glamour by way of writer Arundhati Roy. But Mr Patel symbolises the kind of ordinary person with skills to offer who has been drawn to the movement from afar. The people of Neemgaon, Domkhedi, Jalsindhi and other villages admire him for introducing newer and better varieties of crops and vegetables. And if you think Mr Patel is just another radical activist, hold on.

He is a well-known authority on Hindustani classical music and one of his two books, Sruti and Swar is well-acknowledged by music lovers. Mr Patel can easily pass off as an old man doing social work in the winter of life, but once you converse with him, you return convinced: he’s just the man who can ‘develop’ the Narmada valley without spending crores and dislocating thousands.

“My aim is to build small dams which would cost little and will be of greater use to people here,” he says. Nairobi-born Jasbhai, a bachelor, came to India in 1942 as a child. A veritable voyage of discovery began. Even as he continued his studies, he pursued his passion for nature. Academic excellence took him to the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in the US from where he did his Ph.D in chemical technology. He taught at different universities there, and returned to join the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and later, IIT, Kanpur. Mr Patel travelled widely through the Narmada Valley, Garhwal Himalayas, the US and Africa, covering nearly 100,000 km on foot.

His contact with the NBA began in the early ’90s, when he contributed Rs 100 which he had just received from the Economic and Political Weekly for an article on the Narmada. Says Mr Patel, “At my very first meeting with Medha, I decided I could work with her for a lifetime.”

He understands it’s a tough and long battle, but has decided to give another three years to the NBA. He visits the area almost every fortnight from Baroda, where he has a 95-year-old mother to look after, and works among the tribals — improving the soil of the area.


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