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November 27, 1999


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Patkar Thanks Foreign Supporters Of NBA

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Shanthi Shankarkumar in Chicago

Medha Patkar sounded hoarse and tired on a recent wintry day in Chicago. She had been giving interviews for three-and-a-half-hours and needed to give her voice a break.

"Can you call me after five minutes?" she asked a reporter. "I need a sip of tea."

Ten minutes later she was ready to talk with her characteristic passion about a cause that has taken 14 years of relentless struggle against the multimillion-dollar Narmada Valley projects. The projects involve the construction of 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams to harness the waters of the Narmada, India's largest westward-flowing river, and its tributaries.

Citing the ecological dangers and displacement of thousands of poor people, Patkar has undertaken fasts and has been arrested many times for her role as the Narmada Bachao Andolan's leader. Her 21-day fast in 1991 almost killed her.

Patkar, who was in America this week to attend the Maharashtra Foundation meeting in New Jersey, made time last week to visit several cities, including Chicago and Washington DC, to harness more support for her cause.

"We began working with a general group of NGOs some years ago... who really expressed solidarity through their campaigns. Especially the campaign in questioning the World Bank in its funding of the Sardar Sarovar Project," she said.

Two of the largest proposed dams, Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Sagar, will together displace 320,000 people, largely dalits and tribals.

A strong but select group of American, European and Asian NGOs played a critical role during the period 1986-1993 when the World Bank's funding was being questioned by opponents of the project, she said.

Many Indian students in America have also been very vocal in their support. Patkar is pleased that they can relate to a struggle taking millions of miles away but which nevertheless has global ramifications. The Indian community organizations, however, are mostly averse to her agitation and see her as being against development.

"She does not want India to go into the 21st century," says New York news vendor Jo Patel.

"We cannot live in the bullock age. To make something new and big, you some times hurt people. But over the years, everybody gains from this project, even those people who have to move elsewhere."

The apathy and opposition of many NRIs does not deter Patkar. She focuses on those who have rallied behind the NBA.

"There is an interest among Indians who are studying it both as an academic exercise and as an interest in national and international issues," she said.

"Students can relate a movement such as ours to wider global issues. This understanding is increasing over the years."

Many students here who sympathize with her movement visit the valley. Their commitment increases once they get a first-hand view of the whole project and many of them stay on to help, she said.

Their support ranges from writing letters, to dissemination of information, to active participation in protests.

They have joined others in protesting to the Indian missions every time they have felt the NBA was being treated unjustly and have been a pillar of support during many a crisis, either indirectly or directly, she said.

After eight years of protests, the World Bank, in an unprecedented move, had an independent review of the funding of the Sardar Sarovar project and withdrew its support of $ 450 million in 1993 for the last phase of the project.

Even now, when the NBA has announced the peak level action against the Sardar Sarovar Dam, Patkar emphasizes that NGOs in America and other countries back the NBA's view that the World Bank is still responsible for the issues and conflicts that have arisen because of its initial funding.

"The World Bank cannot just leave the responsibilities it started. They should not be in the valley again but they should take a position on the violation of their own policies in the case of the project they funded," said Patkar.

The NBA does not accept any kind of foreign funding. When Patkar received the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Peace Prize) in 1991 with Baba Amte, and the Goldman Environmental Award in 1992, the prize money was deposited with other organizations. The NBA would not use it.

Patkar thinks that foreign funding, by bringing in easy money, undermines the strength of a people's movement.

"Today volunteerism is the strength of the organization," she said.

"Full-time activists are coming out of tribal and dalit families in the valley. Many highly-educated youngsters are leaving big jobs to work with us. They get a minimum honorarium. This culture of volunteerism helps sustain our commitment, which is ideological and not job-oriented."

Patkar also recognizes the impact of Arundhati Roy's support and book (The Cost of Living, includes an essay, 'The Greater Common Good', a scathing attack on the Narmada Valley Project) on the younger generation.

Her book, recently released in America, has helped the movement to reach out to sections of society that had been untouched by the happenings in the valley.

Roy spoke about her book and social activism in half-a-dozen American cities.

"Her word power and powers of expression and analysis have been done in a most appealing and motivating manner and have touched the hearts of the thinking students and others not only in India but also abroad," Patkar said.

The movement gets its money through contributions from activist groups from all over India. It does not pay its lawyers, doctors and gets the houses used as offices for a minimal rent.

Meanwhile, the World Commission of Dams, an independent commission that studies large dams, was not allowed to have a public hearing in India. India and China are the only two governments, which have not endorsed the WCD.

The WCD is a recommendatory body funded by governments, agencies, private sector, NGOS and foundations the world over. It is headed by South Africa's Minister for Water Affairs, Professor Khadel Asmar.

Patkar says she gets the energy to keep marching on from the people and does not let the pro-dam stance of various governments, including the present BJP government, deter her.

"When you see injustice all around, you just cannot keep quiet," she said. "I can't say we've made a big difference, but we have made a small difference.

"People feel empowered where they don't have the right to resources they've lived with for generations; they don't have the right to information on projects imposed on them overnight. And they don't have the right to participate in development planning. They now feel confident to question development in many places."


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