INTERVIEW OF MEDHA PATKAR BY SONYA THIMMAIAH - 6th May, 2001
9.45 a.m., 'Ashirvad', St. Marks Road, Bangalore
ST: The Supreme Court is viewed by the whole country as being the highest authority in the country. What kind of legal action can you see the Narmada Bachao Andolan taking in the face of this decision that has been handed down?
MP: Legal or illegal…(laughs) we are acting. You see, even if the Supreme Court is the highest body, neither is it necessarily an authority on all subjects and issues, nor is it sacrosanct. The Apex Court must respect and respond to the people’s vision and issues. It cannot be biased when it comes to the state’s viewpoint and try to remain neutral when it comes to the people’s views or actions.
This judgement clearly reveals the face of the state and corporate sector combine, which says that there should be no questioning of any executive decision. More and more, people are feeling that the executive has taken not only an anti-people, but also anti-constitutional decision. If the Court refuses to play the role of assessing every action and decision of the legislative and the executive to see whether it is constitutional or not, what role does the Court have? So we are left with no option but to challenge the judgement and show that the Supreme Court is going away from its mandate. Only if the mandate is re-established will the respect that the people in civil society have for the Apex body be rebuilt.
One of the things that we have been criticising is the completely non-investigative approach of the judiciary. For example,we filed a review petition which, sitting in their chambers, they rejected. They are reading, no doubt, umpteen numbers of academic documents but when the situation demands a response that goes beyond paperwork, then they have no ways and means to really reach out. That is the ground reality.
They disposed off the review petition in the chamber itself without even giving it a hearing.This, inspite of the fact that the Supreme Court verdict has been a matter for public debate for so many months. It clearly reveals their attitude and limitations.
So we are not filing any other review petition. Because we understand that they are neither open enough, nor willing to review what has gone wrong. Because to do that they would have to come down to earth.
Now, because there is a contempt petition filed against us, we will use that opportunity to go and fight the Court. We are not saying no courts and no judiciary, you know. All we are saying is that the Courts should really make a difference as far as people’s issues are concerned. And so if we are invited, we will go into Court and argue, not just to defend ourselves, but also to attack what is wrong. We will use that opportunity for making ourselves clear without any compromise.
ST: Regarding the NBA’s future, do you have any concrete plans…what are your next steps in the coming months? And where would you like to see yourselves, say one or two years down the line?
MP:Where I would be I don’t know.The river is flowing and much water is flowing into it.But one thing is very clear. NBA on one hand has to stand where it is and still move ahead. It may appear contradictory.
The apparent dilemma is that the communities that are there are going to face floods. There are huge village communities with, say 500 houses or so which can be flooded this monsoon if there is a heavy rainfall.In pukka houses, in kuchcha house people are living their lives and celebrating weddings and cultivating their lands and life is going on. We know that people don’t go by the activists alone, you know. They go by their own commitment.
We have to really continue with our vision as long as the project is the same.And it's getting worse in terms of rehabilitation because there is no land. It is easy for an outsider to say, “Oh now why don’t you compromise and play a role in rehabilitating people?” But we know that rehabilitation is not possible, so how can you just go on saying rehabilitate, rehabilitate, as the Supreme Court has done?
Similarly on environmental grounds, if they say, “Compensate the environmental impact”,it is not possible. They cannot even complete their archaeological studies and excavations. If they were to transplant all the monuments that the Archaeological Survey of India recognises, it would take the next hundred years, as the archaeologists themselves have said. All that they have done is that they have scuttled the research project, stopped funding to those archaeologists and also transferred the officials inside state agencies like the ASI. But they have not completed the work.
Regarding downstream impact,they have been saying in all the minutes of their meetings, that these impacts will start occurring thirty years later, only after all the upstream dams are built. What nonsense! The impacts have started occurring since last year! In a major way! It started slowly as many as seven years ago but now the effects can be felt in a major way.Truckloads of fish are dying due to river salinity and pollution.Fish workers are out of jobs. The river pollutants have entered wells and farms. No monitoring body is capable of taking cognisance of all these things, you know.
This kind of nonsense is going on of course on paper alone.They have devoted many pages to prove that they are really monitoring the work, paari pasu (that is, simultaneously)with the project. That was the basis of the clearance that was given to the project. So it’s very necessary to understand that all these agencies represent one world which we have to fight, now much more than ever before. But at the same time you have to go beyond that, and say "Come what may…we will take up the challenge".
I was all for `final action' but many of the people,my colleagues and those who support us, felt that it would be like running away from responsibility.So I just thought of postponing it. But…let them also see to what extent the movement has to go and I think this monsoon can make a difference. I told the Secretary for Social Justice recently "You have the wrong figures. If you are not willing to learn for yourselves, the rains will teach you the lesson.Let the villages be flooded and then you will count the flood-affected people and then you will count the dam-affected by that."
At another level,the NBA has always been relating to the wider struggle. NBA to NAPM, that process does not merely going to different struggles and then saying “We support you, and you support us”. It means building a comprehensive ideological position and taking local to national action. Now with globalisation and liberalisation, which we are opposed to completely, we need to link up struggles like Narmada with other struggles. All these years we have been fighting a centralisation that is undemocratic, unsustainable and unjust. And now it is the same centralised power and structure that has been hijacked to a global level.We have to fight that also.
And it is easy to see the links. For example, we talk about choice of technology in the Narmada struggle.Now there is a global technology that is displacing not only tribals and Dalits but also public sector employees.Extra mechanisation and technology from the West drives your technology out; you are displaced.The same thing that happened to the tribals is now happening to you. So wider and wider circles have to be drawn. In the Narmada, we linked the village to the World Bank.We fought for eight years to drive the World Bank out.The WTO and the World Bank are still very much playing a central role...
ST:But the World Bank withdrew support…they withdrew funding for the dam...
MP: I'm not talking of Narmada alone. Along with the WTO, World Bank and IMF are also in the same position so we have to fight the trio. All these global powers must be fought. Do you know how we went about making the World Bank withdraw?
We made Wolfensohn come to the streets to answer questions by the tribals.At first he told us that he had many meetings to attend.We replied that we would wait on the streets for as long as it took him to make time for us. Then we were told that it was an issue of the security of the President of the World Bank to which we replied that people's security was equally important. Finally, was he not forced to come to us, and did he not boast later at the WCD dais that he gone to the streets to meet the people? So it’s not a big thing really; it just needs…effective strategisation. Even with very poor and worn-out people, you can fight the battle, provided you have an effective strategy. I see a role for an NBA kind of struggle in the national movement.
ST: The NBA has managed to attract a lot of local, national and international support…for various reasons. If a strong movement like this can be handed down a blatantly unfair judgement like the one handed down by the Supreme Court, what kind of a message do you think this sends to smaller, lesser known, weaker movements?
MP: They’re not weaker, necessarily, but more local, and the judgement is clearly to finish them off. Small to big, they want to put all the fish in one basket and say "You cannot question the executive." The judiciary, instead of being judicious in assessing the decisions of executive and legislative,is facilitating all their unjust actions. What the judgement says is that once the executive takes a decision, if anyone goes to the Court,if it is late, they will not take it. They have made it clear that they will not encroach on the domain of the executive. Of course people are bound to start saying to the judiciary, "Then close down your shop".
It is a crisis situation.They have taken a clear view against public interest litigation calling it a publicity interest litigation. They have taken a view against the people’s movements ridiculing their role. They’ve also ridiculed the tribal way of life. In doing so, they have expressed and exhibited their ignorance, their lack of understanding of the natural resource based economy. So the majority of the population who are natural resource based say "They cannot judge our lives…and they cannot even judge the decisions which affect our lives…because they are ignorant…and they don’t have the necessary knowledge and experience".
So on the one hand movements may feel suppressed by the judgement,ruled out. On the other hand I think the movements would be now…more careful on one hand while approaching the Court. Also, they will think of other strategies to really assert they’re own rights and not beg for the rights to be granted by someone else. And consider the judiciary as just the third organ of the state, nothing very great and conscience-based, because it is corporate sector based, it is politics based.
ST: On another level, Indian cities have long drawn resources in terms of energy, food, people from Indian villages, and there is a gross amount of over-consumption of these resources. How do you see an end to this or a lessening of this?
MP: End is not easily seen…but the conflict is coming up. For the rural population and rural organisations to come together and raise the issue of colonisation is very essential. Under globalisation, it is not just the unorganised 94% , but also the organised 6-8% who are also getting displaced from their sources of livelihood.
An alliance of the people’s movements…environmentalists to the public sector employees organisations - this is the crux of the matter. And there also it’s not so easy, because there are differences in viewpoint. Not all public sector employees have even given a thought to how the water should be managed. And not all the nature lovers have ever thought of what should be the balance between the public and the private sectors. They want forests to be saved at any cost.So that’s why, you know, some individuals, organisations, who have a comprehensive viewpoint have to play a major role with an accommodative nature, approach to find out the maximum common, in terms of thinking as well as strategies. That’s the real test…
ST: Was there any one incident in your life that turned the course of your life and propelled you into the kind of work that you’re doing now?
MP: Aisa nahin, actually…because, frankly…this has come through a long process…but mostly because in my family it was this type of issues that were always being discussed(laughs)…never ornaments, never anything else, you know…? So it was very obvious that one would be led into that. In my case it was just a routine thing. My father was a freedom fighter and a trade unionist and…and still…he was different, not a typical trade unionist…he was open to new issues. He wrote on environmental struggles to trade unionism.
In other families they would pull and push you towards a career…but in my case it was different. The expectation was that even through your career you must serve the people, not a service approach but more like organisational…struggle. So easy for me to take it up…and I couldn’t have done anything else. Then also the people always give you strength.
See those who are at a distance, no, their evenings are to be shared with someone else.Those who are at a distance always keep questioning " Are you still stuck with that?" It doesn't mean that we don't go out; look how much I travel these day. It is necessary.But my basic roots are there. When that is there, the relationship itself gives you strength, energy,everything.You must also understand that it’s not only the vocal activists who move out.The people in the struggle are stronger than the activists and have the strength to keep on going. After this judgement also, I was weaker than the people but they pulled all of us out. They said "Its alright. We always knew that the court was not on our side."