(DECEMBER 31, 1995)

Medha Patkar, talking to Dilip D'Souza

"Oh, she's just a publicity-seeker!" That was a good friend of mine, recently dismissive of Medha Patkar. My friend came to mind briefly as I was interviewing Medha for this article. We were jammed in a crowded second-class compartment on a suburban train, laden with her five paper- and book-filled bags, travelling from one meeting near Bombay Central to another at Goregaon. As the hordes clawed their way in at Dadar and swirled around us, as I struggled to retain my footing and hold my little tape recorder near her face, as I wistfully wished we had done this sitting comfortably somewhere and sipping coffee, a thought occurred to me.

Whatever else Medha Patkar may be, she is not a publicity-seeker.

But it's a charge she will have to live with, as she does many others that have been flung at her over the years. None appear to bother her, however, and certainly none have deterred her from her cause. You may not agree with Medha Patkar - and most of those who whisper things about her don't - but today, it is impossible to deny any more the impact she has made. No mere publicity-seeker could have done the same.

The River Narmada runs through central India, emptying into the Gulf of Khambat in Gujarat. For many years, planners in Gujarat have eyed this always beautiful river, wanting to find a way to bring its liquid bounty to parched, drought-stricken Kutch and Saurashtra districts. That, of course, meant a dam, or a series of dams. When they first began thinking about it, Jawaharlal Nehru had famously proclaimed dams the "temples of modern India." By building them - and we rapidly became the world's most industrious dam-builders - India was showing off its engineering prowess and technical knowhow, showing that we had shaken off the yoke of colonialism and could stand tall and proud on our own.

But there was a darkness behind that shimmering vision. Nobody liked to think about it, if they knew at all, but it was there. The people displaced by all those dams had, without exception, been treated in a manner that brought shame to the dreams and ideals of independent India. They had been summarily shoved off land they had called their own for generations, left to fend for themselves as best they could. And to watch as that land disappeared under the long lakes that ballooned out behind the new dams.

As plans for damming the Narmada took shape, there was no reason to expect anything but the same story to unfold.

That -- in the early '80s -- is about when a young doctoral student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences who was interested in studying social inequality decided she would do field work among tribals in northeastern Gujarat. Medha Patkar wanted to find out how the country's development had affected tribals. In particular, she was going to find out what changes the proposed dams on the Narmada would bring to the lives of thousands of people it was uprooting.

It became quickly obvious that the changes were going to be catastrophic. Those building the dams, like with previous projects, had no particular plans or even the desire to resettle and rehabilitate (R&R) the men and women who would be uprooted.

Choosing to live her life among those very people, Medha Patkar began giving them a voice, helping them articulate their demands and fight for their too-long-ignored rights. The Narmada Bachao Andolan ("Save the Narmada Movement") began by asking for adequate R&R measures. And while in some ways, the Narmada projects have spelled out some of the best such measures in our history, as a direct result of the efforts of the NBA, in practice these very measures have been shamefully ignored and flouted.

But quite apart from R&R, the NBA soon saw that the very basis for the dam projects was flawed; the very model of development they represented, a gigantic mistake. Could hundreds of thousands of people be legitimately asked for enormous sacrifices to further such a model? Was the national interest -- never to be questioned, always the proffered reason for this kind of development -- really being served?

Because of the agitation and the issues it raised, the World Bank, in 1993, decided to stop funding the Narmada dam projects. Today, a comprehensive NBA petition about the projects is being heard in the Supreme Court. But the NBA's greatest success is that it has brought about a widespread questioning of fixed notions of development, a search for more just alternatives.

Medha Patkar was born in 1954 to Vasant and Indu Khanolkar. A veteran and well-known trade unionist, her father was a freedom fighter before Independence. Indu Khanolkar, a cheery figure who comes unfailingly to every NBA event, works for Swadhar, a women's organization in Bombay. Medha grew up steeped in trade unionism and social justice; given that, her career choice was natural. "I couldn't have selected anything else," she says about it in the interview below.

She has a BSc from Ruia College and a MA in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She registered for a PhD, but her immersion in the Narmada cause meant that she gave up her pursuit of that degree. For several years now, Medha Patkar's whole life has been the struggle she set in motion. She went through an amicable divorce as she knew her calling was with the cause, the life she had chosen.

"She has a quiet strength," Sunderlal Bahuguna, leader of the Chipko movement and the struggle against the Tehri dam in Uttar Pradesh, once said about Medha Patkar. "She will carry the voice of the Narmada far beyond the Valley."

Prophetic words. If development as we have known it for decades is being questioned today, it is due in no small part to Medha's tireless efforts. She has won several awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (called the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1992 and the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1993. But as she will readily tell you, her most valuable prize has been that the voice of a whole section of our people is now being heard.

Today, Medha Patkar spends much of her time in the Narmada Valley, but also shuttles between Baroda, Bombay, New Delhi and various places in between. Here's some of what we spoke about on that second-class train.

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself: before you first went to the valley, were you aware of the situation of the people displaced by dams?

A: I was born and brought up in Bombay, and my family background was such that doing something for society -- social, political, economic issues -- was very natural for me. I couldn't have selected anything else but that. I was made for that. But as my thinking went on, it developed into an ideological belief. So I decided that I would work with the poor and the downtrodden sections.

Now within that, I selected social inequality as my topic when I did an MA. And my further studies, my doctoral studies, were about social inequality and social movements. There I felt the need to study the concept of development. For further investigation, I decided to study economic development and its impact on the tribal tradition in society. I was interested in field action, and not merely academics. Always, there was a conflict between these two.

When I left Bombay, after my family situation changed, I decided to go into some interior tribal area. I just happened to select Gujarat. But in between I did some assignments, individual consultancies for UNICEF, and got an opportunity to travel in all three Western Indian states, including Goa. So I decided that the tribals in Gujarat, in the northeast tribal belt, were the society to work with. When I started there, the Narmada issue came to be known. So there was this kind of theoretical background, and a commitment to the poor and those facing various kinds of inequalities.

The idea of tribals or displaced people questioning development projects was not necessarily in my mind then. But in the tribal areas, what was very clear was that the natural resource base, which is their life support, becomes very crucial to consumerist development outside their world. So there is encroachment, there is acquisition, deprivation; there are illegal, unscientific and inhuman ways of denuding them of their resources. And the claim of compensation has never worked.

Q: Do you think much of urban India, the middle class, who tend to be the major beneficiaries of big dams -- are they unaware of the situation of the people in the valley? Or are they aware but just not interested, not caring about it?

A: Well, urban society is so complex. There are categories and categories of people. That section of urban people which is intellectual, the intelligentsia, the literate population -- are aware of what is happening around to an extent, but not aware of how they themselves are party to the injustice, the cause of it. But that it should influence them, convince them to change their own lifestyles or attitudes to life -- that is not happening easily. That is because this is a section that looks to those very symbols of development which are rooted in their individual and neighbourhood life, and not beyond that. They don't face issues of survival, like the tribals and other natural-resource-based communities.

But the urban poor, those who have come to be where they are because of displacement or deprivation by a similar kind of development -- I think they are quite sensitive to the issues.

It should be our aim to link these two populations: those who have become a part of urban society, and those who are still on the periphery of it.

But even within the elite sections, as we have seen in the case of Narmada, you need to make a dent and you can do it, and that also has its own value. Because, as you see with social movements all around the world, it is necessarily the middle-class intelligentsia who have played a major role, if not the only role. One should not ignore or reject that contribution.

In the Narmada movement, we have found that while the struggle had its main base in the valley, these [urban] kinds of support groups played a very different role. Analysing designs and plans, finding roots and targets of development, defining our strategies -- these are roles that urban intelligentsia can take. Others can disseminate information through the media and so forth. And if you have strategies which cannot be restricted to village level action -- when you have to come out on the streets -- you need urban supporters. You need lawyers. As long as you need support from within the system to fight the system -- just like you need a thorn to remove a thorn -- you need such support. That has to be one front of the movement.

Q: One generation ago, we thought that big dams were the symbols of modernity, development, progress. Today a number of people, like yourself, don't see them that way. What would you call today the symbols of development?

A: Well, big dams and centralised projects, which depend on harnessing natural resources, have claimed that they fulfil the basic needs of the whole population. Now it is known that they do not do so. No doubt their benefits percolate, but to a very small extent. On the whole, they remain strictly in the hands of a small section of the upper strata.

That is to be rejected. Hence the alternative is not merely an alternative to big dams -- say, four small dams -- but it is an alternative approach to development. That is getting known as appropriate development. The criteria should be sustainability and justice.

Q: But do you see that happening around us?

A: Well, it is. The present model is being questioned. Two processes are happening simultaneously. On the one hand, the centralised approach is being taken to its extreme, which is going to lead to a crisis. Like the globalisation policies, where the centres of decision-making, planning and even action and monitoring are no more within the boundaries of our nation but have gone beyond, to the World Bank and the IMF, the World Trade Organization and MNCs.

But simultaneously, the questioning of that has started. Because the silent majority will remain silent as long as their basic rights and livelihood are not evicted or uprooted. As that is happening, the questioning is also going on. I'm not saying this is peculiar to this particular phase or generation -- it probably happens in every generation. But we are seeing that it is reaching a critical limit. Because it's not only the unorganised sector, the organised sector is also claiming that they will fight for a share in the development paradigm. Facing such a serious backlash, policy-makers have to review their ideas of development.

"Mechanization equals development", or "industrialization equals development" -- these are not true any more.

So the symbols might be those kind of plans which emerge from a real democratic, participatory polity. This would reflect the right kinds of priorities. The perceptions of people, their perspectives and their visions, will be brought into development planning.

The second thing is that any development activity must be based on natural and human resources. As long as the unit of planning is small, and the self-reliance of every unit is the aim, plans would look altogether different than they are today.

Now many people say that if you give full freedom to the smallest possible units, let's say village communities or groups of villages, how do you know that they will not opt for TVs before roti? That one presumes. One presumes that equity and justice are values that noone would challenge. Operationalization may have problems.

The idea of the smallest unit level planning tells us the criteria -- not necessarily as symbols, but for validating development planning. For example, there should be sustainability and justice, which would come from the fullest possible participation by the people.

Q: You speak of justice and equality. In that context, do you think there will always be poor, in this country or elsewhere?

A: Well, the human being is also a selfish animal, you know! It's likely there will always be one or another disadvantaged section of the people. It will emerge even if the inequalities are abolished at a particular time through a revolutionary change.

Q: But then, do you think there is at least hope for an equality of justice and opportunity, if not equality of wealth? Can we hope for a world like that, an India like that?

A: Well, without that hope, our fights will be meaningless! I think one does not see it happening at one go, overnight. You keep it as an ideal, a goal. And ideals are ideals, you know. One cannot say they will never be attained. They need not be utopian, but ideals will always differ from reality and still will guide reality and change it.

Q: The one thing our country has in abundance today is divisions: whether on religious lines, or linguistic lines, or rich vs poor, or urban vs rural... Who is talking any more of uniting our country?

A: Well, the vast majority is not that intolerant, otherwise life would not go on to the extent that it does. What is happening is that a small elite in every field -- political, economic or social -- necessarily has a problem of survival. And a solution to that is to divide and rule. The British did the same, and Indian traditions do the same. That results in the unequal sections that you find. There will always be a section exploiting the basic weaknesses of human society rather than building on its strengths. How far a society is mature and developed will be decided by how well it faces such actions.

So today it seems that Indian society has fallen a prey to the politics of communalism, which has its necessary alliance with criminalisation. Certainly it appears as if the majority is responding to that -- that it is their weakness, their initiative, their decision. But look at the 70% in the rural areas: communal outbreaks are rare there. It is largely in the urban areas, where people have lost their identities, that there are vacuums of every kind which can be easily filled by adventurous political actions.

If we have a basic faith in the human being -- who is not for destruction, who is not for violence for the sake of it -- then I think we should see these kinds of designs and manipulations and have the strength to strongly reject them.

For example, I don't think that all those who went to Ayodhya demolished the Babri Masjid really represented the majority of the country. The majority of this country did not even know about it! They are always outside, always on the periphery.

There are peoples' organizations and individuals in every walk of life who realize that they cannot merely talk of economic equalities or equal opportunities, but they have to really kill this demon of division. And that has to be one point on the national agenda of any peoples' movement that demands sustainability and justice.

Q: Can I ask who your heroes or heroines are or were, Medha?

A: All those who come from that section of the society where there is no buffer to fight even for their own survival, and who are still fighting not only for their own small piece of land not to be submerged, but for a broader national transformation. There are Ranebhai and Narjibhai and Kamrudidi and many more...and also those who live a different kind of lifestyle but still are coming out and questioning all that comes to them naturally. They are siding with this downtrodden section at the cost of their own lives without boasting about paying that cost.

Q: But I'm asking because today people look up to Sushmita Sen or people like that -- those are the role models. Is there any hope that the youth, particularly the urban, middle-class youth, can be urged to look elsewhere for heroes?

A: Well, I feel that one cannot easily point a finger at the youth of today. In the Narmada, for example, we've seen that so many youths come to the Andolan, with such little effort on our part to reach out to them. In every single college, or with groups of schoolchildren, or even ordinary youths I have talked to -- in trains or wherever -- we have found a response. Now some may just take your autograph, but even that shows that they also value this, and not just Sushmita Sen. Beyond that, there are many who have come out to participate in their own way.

Now with their youthfulness, they may change their minds, or cannot stretch themselves beyond a limit. But still, they are there.

And those youths who have come to the Andolan from village communities, they are from the poorest sections. There are Karan and Chhogalal and Champalal who come from families that are either working as manual labourers or who have two to four acres of land. So that is very creditable.

And there are also the IIT engineers with first-class backgrounds who have come to give their full time to the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Q: What's the situation of the movement today?

A: Ten years after the project began, after the whole national agitation questioning the World Bank, exposing them, their campaign of falsehoods, questioning through the international network of peoples' organizations, the funding organizations who asked where their dollars were going -- with all this, the World Bank had to leave, and has now taken a policy of not favouring big dams.

But after that the Government has shown a rigid politicisation of the issue. Our answer was that we would go to any extreme in a non-violent way. So finally, a review was accepted, which was our minimum demand. The review committee has given much of its report in our favour. And so now it is all in the Supreme Court.

The struggle is still on. Those who are affected but have not moved out of the Valley are working with the remaining resources for a better life, an appropriate development. Those who got displaced and had to accept resettlement as a result of the physical repression of the state -- rapes, lathi charges etc -- they are moving back to the river. This has given further strength to that majority which has not yet moved out.

But now our case is in the Supreme Court and we have to see what judgement we get.

Q: Are you hopeful of a good judgement?

A: Good or bad, it will be a judgement that society deserves at a particular point in time! With whatever has happened till now, we are hopeful that the judiciary has now taken cognizance of the issues. Not just Narmada, but the Kaveri and every river that has become the source of water disputes. And the people who are being attacked are questioning the development paradigm.

Slowly but steadily, one step ahead toward questioning development!

Baba Amte, the Gandhian human rights activist who is the moral voice of the people of the Narmada, has worked with Medha Patkar in the Narmada Valley for years. "She is a daughter of India," he said of her.

As we fought our way off the train in Goregaon, the interview complete, this daughter of India hefted her bags on her shoulder and raced up the steps to her next meeting. Not more than a few people on the train or at the station had shown any signs of recognition on seeing her.

Odd, for a "publicity-seeker."

Quote from the Morse Report, the report of the Independent Review of the Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada conducted by a World Bank appointed team in 1991-2:
"The Sardar Sarovar Projects are likely to perpetuate many of the features that the Bank has documented as diminishing the performance of the agricultural sector in India in the past."

Some telling statistics

Number of people displaced by projects since Independence (India Today estimate) 30 million
Number of people displaced by dams 15 million
Percentage of that 30 million resettled under 10%
Percentage of India's tribal population displaced by development (Lokayan estimate) 20%
Number of people who will be displaced by Narmada dams estimates range from
100,000 to 1,000,000
Percentage of population below poverty line in command area of Narmada dams (JP) less than 20%
Percentage of population below poverty line in tribal areas of Gujarat not in command area (JP) more than 40%
Percentage of irrigation benefits which will accrue to tribal areas (JP) 6.45%
Percentage of Narmada water that will reach Kutch 1.5%
Year that water will get there 2025

Source for last two figures : Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited figures

JP: "Is National Interest Being Served by Narmada Project?", Jashbhai Patel, Economic & Political Weekly, July 23, 1994

This interview was published in "International Indian Woman", Dubai : March 1996.