The following interview of Medha Patkar was conducted on August 07, 1999 at the Domkhedi satyagraha site by Venu Govindu.
VG: We are at the Satyagraha site in village Domkhedi, Maharashtra and have with us Ms Medha Patkar, the leading activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save The Narmada Movement). Medhadidi, can you briefly tell us about the basic issues the Andolan has been raising and struggling against over the last 14 years ?
MP: What the Andolan is basically questioning is the process of development planning, right from deciding the development goals as well as managing the natural resources, which are generally in the hands of the natural resource communities, without their consent. What happened in the Narmada valley over the last 30 years is that the riparian rights of the three states (Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat) were no doubt acknowledged and the conflict amongst these states over use of river waters was certainly resolved over a long process of 10 years, with an inter-state tribunal appointed under the Indian Act of Inter-State Water Disputes, 1956. But in the whole process, never were the riparian rights of the inhabitants of the valley (including tribals and peasants) taken into consideration. They were never told about the plans, which were being prepared and finalized in the capitals along with the lending agencies nor was their consent sought.
Hence, in this process what is happening all over the country and in many similar countries, is that the distorted perspective gains the priority. The goals and the objectives of development planning never really focus on giving priority to the downtrodden and in involving the natural resource based communities in using their own resource base. So here was a case where the dam was already designed and more or less considered finalized, but when the people started feeling the impacts from the early '80s, consideration of what would happen to them gained highest priority, in their response to the very meager attempts by the Government to reach out to them in the hills and the hamlets. Those who approached them, of course presumed that the villages would have to be vacated and never really wanted to seek their opinion on the project itself. Nor were they ready to involve them in the planning of rehabilitation measures.
So people said that when you do not ask us and go ahead with your plans, we have a right to demand certain things. The first and foremost demand that we made, after organizing the tribal communities in 1985-86 was that the people should have "Right to Information". The Government officials should come to the villages and give in their own language, the basic facts and figures and also release the study reports to really give a clear picture to enable the people to decide whether this project is beneficial and whether they should sacrifice their land, water and forests for it. This went on from 1985 to '88 and what came out of our own investigation, rather than the Government releasing the documents (which they didn't) was that there would be enormous social and environmental impacts of the project, which were not studied, nor were compensatory plans prepared. We came to know in '86 itself, that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) stopped the clearance to the project because of the same reason. Then we thought that the people had every right to say, "First study the dam", and without the proper cost-benefit analysis there is no point in their sacrificing for the same. So, in social impacts, the issue was that of displacement and again we came to know that the tribunal even after 10 years of its study had come down to state that about 7000 families would be affected, when the Govt. itself had slowly realized (when we and others were raising questions) that not less than 41,000 families would be affected by the reservoir alone (these are the latest Government figures) in the three states, more than 50% of whom were tribals. But we also found out that there were people displaced due to the project colony (this is the Kevadia colony - VG) in 1961, due to the canals as they went ahead with the work. The final figure of the canal affected is more than 160,000 landholders, where each landholder can be more than one family. The colony had affected not less than 300 families then, which has now grown to 900 families, since many of those families had major sons who have grown up by now. And they are not yet rehabilitated.
Similarly, as we went on, we found out that the scale of displacement was much larger because even the compensatory environment projects were uprooting people, like afforestation for example uprooting 2500 families in Maharashtra alone, in the immediate stretch adjacent to the submergence villages and so on. The sanctuary, another environmental plan is to affect 108 villages in Gujarat with a population of not less than 42,000. So, in this manner the figure for the Sardar Sarovar Project affected people alone runs into lakhs. And Sardar Sarovar is dependent on Narmada Sagar (upstream dam in MP), so a part of the submergence of Narmada Sagar should also be allotted to Sardar Sarovar. And considering that, it goes beyond 10 lakhs (1 million) people. So in this situation, when they did not have a master plan for rehabilitation, that became one of the major issues. And the tribunal itself had directed that a master plan should be developed within 2 years of the declaration of the award in 1979. So this became the main issue.
The environmental issue of course involved the loss of forests, not less than 13,800 hectares, loss of prime agricultural land in the plains and also the tribal regions where siltation would be much higher and the life of the dam would come down in the same proportion. The issue was also about the downstream impacts, which the Government had not studied and has not properly studied till date. This would affect the population of 7 lakhs (0.7 million) people who live downstream of the dam in more than 100 towns and villages, by killing fish, by affecting the groundwater levels (since the flow rate would be reduced) and also affecting the boatsmen and other population living on the river. So certainly, the social and environmental impacts, e.g. the impact on health which were studied through a very inadequate and inappropriate process, the impact on the command area land, i.e. water logging and salinization was acknowledged but not fully studied before the decision was taken. And today it is known that much of the area within the 18 lakh (1.8 million) hectares of the irrigated area is prone to water logging and salinization. As a result the benefits are to be very cautiously estimated.
So, all of this became an issue. The first and foremost issue was the right to information. But the issue was also of exaggerated benefits where the costs were underestimated, and some of the costs like the socio-cultural loss, which is non-quantifiable to the tribal communities (and also to the peasant communities) which are more or less integrated, by having them dispersed and thrown out of their social, cultural and economic environs. There was also a clear position on the over-estimation of benefits, and this pertains to the regions of Kutch and Saurashtra where the benefits would not reach, even if the dam was completed (as we saw it) since the premises were wrong. Hence, we said that when you are claiming that 1450 MW of electricity would be generated, certainly that is not going to be the case because the functioning of the two power houses and generation of power is based on many premises, including the completion of the upstream dam (that is Narmada Sagar - VG) which if not completed would affect about 25% benefits of Sardar Sarovar. So the economics of the project was also questioned by us. As we went on looking into the matter, we realized that the final cost of the dam would be not less than Rs. 44,000 crores. And if that was so, then they had no financial plan for the whole project, which was apparent from the fact that they were dependent on the World Bank initially and after the World Bank was thrown out, they were dependent on many bilateral and multi-lateral agencies and they were not going to meet the requirements. Then they would take to internal borrowing which would push them into a heavy burden of indebtedness from which they might never recover.
VG : Its obvious that the 14 years of struggle of the Andolan has raised many, many questions on various issues. You, along with many other people, have been on Satyagraha here in Domkhedi and in Jalsindhi, since June 20th. We would like to know what are the issues you want to raise through this particular Satyagraha.
MP: During the last fourteen years, we've seen what the government is like. They have no resources for rehabilitation, nor the political will. Of course, as far as displacement is concerned, they cannot rehabilitate people, which is proved by the fact that thousands of families who accepted resettlement, (although 80% of the Sardar Sarovar reservoir affected still remain to be resettled or to be displaced), those who have left their villages, are not resettled even after years. That's because the government doesn't have land to offer where the communities can be resettled as communities, land which is cultivable and fulfills requirements of both magnitude and quality. When this has been proved beginning with the families in Gujarat, today, we also know that those villages in the plains or in the tribal hilly regions who are going to be affected by the height that the dam has already reached (85 meters plus 3 meters of humps, so 88 meters in effect), could not be rehabilitated as per the tribunal award and the State's policies. Hence they would only face injustice.
This height was reached this year because the dam which was stopped on this very issue, grounds of no rehabilitation since 1995 till February '99, was allowed to proceed through an interim order of the Supreme Court, and hence this eighty five plus three meters is allowed. This order, the people along with the organization which is of the people, by the people and for the people, certainly feels is unjustifiable. It is unjustifiable because with the order, the impact that is going to occur is going to violate the stipulations in the tribunal award itself, as well as the earlier decision of the Supreme Court. The tribunal, for example, has stated that every family to be affected should be given land at least one year before submergence, and complete rehabilitation should be taking place at least six months before submergence, but that has not been happening. Hence, people demanded that even after the order, the government should show them the land, the land which was stated to be available in the affidavit, but was proved not to be available. As far as displacement is concerned, the total scale of displacement is not being taken into consideration. There is no policy for many categories of the project affected people, like the canal affected and sanctuary affected, and there is no land available for resettling thousands of farmer families. This is what people are agitating against, and hence the submergence due to 88 meters would certainly be faced by people staying put in their own houses, on their own lands, in their forest, and not moving out.
Of course, the question is also larger. Since we have raised various issues related to the Sardar Sarovar project, and the entire Narmada Valley development project, we feel that the court should give a comprehensive and final judgement looking into all aspects. This humble demand has been made in the court time and again. We also feel that the court gave this interim order because of the false affidavits filed by the State Governments, and also the Central Government. Maharashtra government, for example, said that land is available, and also ample of it, to resettle all the families to be affected upto 110 meters (although the court gave permission only upto 85 meters plus 3 meters of humps). Its now proved that there are hundreds of families who left their original villages years ago, and still are without land. So they have no land really, as of today. Nor do they have any other source immediately in sight. So this false affidavit made the court think of the possibility of trying out a few meters raise, and then see the response of both the government and the Andolan.
But if this situation has become a fait accompli, people feel that when they cannot go anywhere else, they would sit on their land and carry out what is called a Satyagraha. Today, this year itself, with the waters rising due to the 88 meters of dam, if the level is raised up to 116 in Maharashtra itself and beyond 120 in Madhya Pradesh, certainly there will be loss of houses and lands, partly or fully, of more than 2500 families. It also would depend on the rainfall, but this is the maximum that can happen. So all the families in all these 50 to 60 villages in the three states are in a way in Satyagraha, in their own villages and houses, but also at the two main centres of Satyagraha, Jalsindhi in Madhya Pradesh, Jhabua district, and on the opposite bank in Maharashtra, village Domkhedi in Nandurbar district. Satyagraha is a part of our non violent agitational strategy, where people challenge the impacts, but also in a way appeal to the governments and who so ever to take cognizance of the situation and the relevant issues, and change their position. We are saying that when Madhya Pradesh has already filed a new case in the Supreme Court saying that a new tribunal should be appointed, and a fresh, comprehensive review of the whole project should take place, the Maharashtra government should also take a similar position. Of course, we also want the court to respond to our plea that a new tribunal should be appointed and a fresh review giving a hearing to the people (unlike in the initial days as the Narmada tribunal was for one full decade) should take place.
VG: The court is currently considering pressing contempt charges against you and the Andolan. Would you like to respond to that?
MP: We sincerely feel that we respect the judiciary. We know that without that, we wouldn't even have gone to the courts. We've said it umpteen number of times. All that we felt concerned about was that due to the false affidavits, information and claims, the court is being cheated in a way by the governments, and that is really committing contempt of the court. We also feel that in this context we cannot but raise the questions related to the impact of the order, which is only partially followed while partly violated. The order says that the 88 meters raise is allowed, but that all families to be affected at 88 meters should also be rehabilitated. Now that was to be done before the monsoons. But that has not happened. So certainly, in this situation we are not questioning the judiciary's role or position, or not really committing contempt, but rather saying that the judiciary should not be cheated, and in order that the truthful judicial process take place, some ways and means would have to be found. For example, a public hearing, which we have been saying would do the best possible investigation, either through some committee or commission appointed by the judiciary, or the judiciary carrying it out themselves, if there is a somewhat radical stand. We also feel that when this order is given, the impact of which has now become inevitable, at least beyond this, instead of any piecemeal interim order, a comprehensive, final judgement, looking into all aspects, would be more welcome and acceptable, probably to all parties. These are the questions which are in the context of Narmada, but broadly about the judiciary process as such. And, I mean, what of this position really could be interpreted as contempt of the court, we cannot understand.
We feel that on the other hand, we are for judicial activism, which has become an issue of public debate during the last few years, in the sense that no doubt the executive has a major role in development planning, but when we have seen and are witnessing in this country, day in and day out, that the executive is failing in fulfilling its role of planning development within the constitutional frameworks and according to the constitutional goals, the judiciary will have to be active in the case of the decisions which are corrupt, which are destructive, which are anti people, at least when the controversy is raised, and especially when the controversy is raised by lakhs of people and it is seen that it would require a complex and detailed investigation in order to find out whether the project is really developmental or not. So if this is the appeal of the judiciary, the agitation of course becomes inevitable, for any family, community, or a Valley, when the question of life and death arises before them. In this context, and with this aim, the Satyagraha continues.
VG: As we can see around here, there are people from all over the country representing various organizations, and in their own individual capacity, who have come here to show their support and express their solidarity with the Andolan. Broadly speaking, what do you think are the issues that are critical for the Andolan and for all the other people all over the country and the world, who are interested in people's movements, who are interested in redefining the model of development as is being practised today. What do you think are the issues that they should be concerned about?
MP: The first and the foremost are the development issues, which people are raising wherever they are questioning the development process. The point is that the communities which are based on the natural resources are compelled to sacrifice those resources in the name of development, with the principle of eminent domain that the state resorts to. The state takes away these natural resources from the communities, the fish workers, the farmers, or manual labourers. It certainly stands by the marketized, industrialized, urbanized communities, and that small section of the society then uses these resources or the benefits drawn out of these resources at the cost of all those who loose theirs. This society certainly doesn't give a real share in the benefits to those who sacrifice their land, water, forests. This is considered as a part and parcel of development and the tradeoff that is necessary.
But now, its realized that while this kind of resource management leads to a highly disparity oriented planning and execution, a large majority faces the loss, deprivation, destitution, and only a small section leads a very comfortable and consumerist lifestyle. So if one is for equality and justice, one has to question this kind of planning, and on the other hand, argue for the alternative ways of planning which would begin from the bottom up, which would begin from the smallest unit of the community with its own resources, and then may have other levels, but certainly not at the cost of one would the other survive or gain resources. The question is also about what the present management leading towards. Water crisis is certainly not solved by centralized water management, because we see invariably that not only does it take away water from a large river basin in order to build large dams and have large storage reservoirs, but that when it comes to the distribution of that same stored resource, invariable it is taken away by those who already have water and power and who use the resource for their own betterment even further. The water never reaches the really needy regions which are at the tail end.
The same would be the situation of Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat, where the Sardar Sarovar waters would go more into the sugarcane fields (the sugar factories are already inaugurated), or into the cities (Ahmedabad, Baroda have already passed resolution to take away the Narmada water) before it reaches Kutch or Saurashtra, or never reaching Kutch and Saurashtra. So certainly, even the water crisis of the present time demands the same. Thousands of villages in every Indian state for example, are already declared as no source villages; not because there is no rainfall, there may be erratic rainfall, but even when there is good rainfall, people have been thinking of this as a problem, because the water is not managed locally, and the key then remains in the hands of strongmen who plan and manage centralized reservoirs. So starting from the smallest watershed as a unit and then going from the ridge to the river or from the origin to the sea, is the solution.
Same is the case with the power policy. 85,000 MW are being generated in India, the target is 1, 25,000 MW. We know that 30 to 50% of households in many states are without even one point of electricity. 30% in Madhya Pradesh, for example, 50% in Uttar Pradesh, are still in darkness. So the solution is not generating more and more of power, but instead generating power in different forms from a very multiple and mixed kind of resource base. For example, the biomass is a source of energy which the large majority of rural Indian population uses, that need not be ridiculed but should be built upon, not only through good gasifiers and things like that (when the wood can be used for generating electricity actually), but also through the use of biomass (not considering it as backward), can generate employment and can make villages self reliant as far as their energy needs are concerned. Our colleagues have done a survey in the villages in the Maheshwar area, where it has been found that even today a village is self reliant, with the wood and the biomass available there, as far as their energy needs. Only if a part of that is converted into electricity, one way or another, its possible that they would not be dependent on the state's electricity boards.
The second issue is not the planning but the technology. As I was mentioning with the water and power sector, it is the same in the agricultural sector, in the education sector, the health sector. The third issue is of course the relationship between the state and the people, the civil society. This flows from the first two and is linked to them, but has to be seen in the political context. When the state has, under the principle of eminent domain, full right to resources, the state is expected to act in favour of the most disadvantaged communities and use the resources in such a way that the common good would be really achieved, of course, within the value frame work of equality and justice. But that is not really taking place. What is happening is that the state is using all its power, its laws, ways and means, its police force, a physical brutal force, to take away the resources, and claiming that it would do the right kind of distribution, harnessing or accumulation, you know, transfer of resources from one source to another. But it is really favouring only those powerful sections of the society which are not the needy sections, and does not mind depriving the needy sections further. That is like a privatized state, which is privatized by those small elite sections, and this is being done more and more and more brutally and crudely, in the new context of globalization and liberalization, where monetary capital that is being counted since many decades has gained utmost importance and power, and is capitalizing the resources (because one who invests money still needs investment of land, water or forest) for manufacturing, producing, generating "whatever". But it is seen that when really the money, the monetary capital is taken in with a clear calculation of rates of return, it is not the same as the natural resource capital investment. Those natural resource based communities are compelled to give away their resources. Nothing is left to them to do voluntarily. They are not even given any share in the benefits that are produced by the project. So it's a constant conflict leading to a further kind of, you know, cumulative inequality, which is also an important issue.
As far as the movements and strategies are concerned, people's movements who have at the forefront displaced populations facing the backlash of the development paradigm of the present days, are raising the issues of social, environmental, economic, financial impacts, and rightly so. The displaced population is at the forefront because they're the ones who face the impacts immediately. When they start developing a wider ideological framework, it is realized that its not really an issue of fighting one single dam or project, but instead an issue of the total development paradigm. Hence, the decentralized, sustainable and just paradigm that could come through the changed water policy, power policy, etc. has to be fought for at a much different level also. Not just at the level of individual dams, industrial complexes or polluting factories, but at the level of the value frameworks, and you know, the basic beliefs and attitudes of the civil society. So that really brings you back to the whole question of lifestyle, the question of educational content and methodology, and so on.
Hence, we in India here feel that the people's movements who take up these issues must have a comprehensive, polito-economic, social ideology, which may not come merely from Gandhi or Marx, but a combination of various analysis, tools that all of them have offered to us. Looking into the reality as it is, and these individual struggles such as Narmada, the struggle related to the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the one against the pollution of the Chaliyar river by the Birla's rayon factory in Kerala, or the struggles of the hawkers who are being displaced in lakhs when infrastructure development is pushed with a particular pace and in a particular direction nowadays; these struggles really bring to us concrete examples of what kind of development we reject, and what kind of development we accept. So these movements have yet to go a long way, but what they're saying is important, and the statement is that we're not against development, but we're for a different kind of development. When it is not merely a statement it needs to be proved. So the movements have to not only struggle against the projects, but also go into reconstruction work, which would show the alternative path in practice. The Alliance of People's movements also plays an important role in this process. Unless the hawkers movement from Bengal and the dam affected movements from Maharashtra unite, this kind of comprehensiveness would not be conveyed, even to those who are actually in the fight. Without an alliance there would not be a political force to challenge the powers to be who make many irrational corrupt decisions based on vested interests, and their distorted priorities, rather than the people's priorities, interests, vision and goals. Its also necessary to have the movements as non violent ones, because violence is against the right to life and livelihood, which is the real issue. Its therefore necessary that the non violent movements which will take these matters to their logical end, will not leave half way, will really take it up as a battle and not run away from the battlefront, take up these issues. It requires special perseverance, and also a good mass base of people who can rise above themselves and their own lives. So both the people in the villages which rise up and fight, such as those in the Narmada Valley, and also the activists, youths and others who are ready to come out of their lives and become a part of the process, take up battle after battle to win the larger war.
VG: You've raised really profound questions about how we go about developing a just and humane order of society. There are a lot of people both in India and around the world who feel strongly about these, but are bewildered about what role they can possibly play. In your statement on July 11th, you had made a call for participation of the youth and all other interested people in the current struggle in the Narmada Valley and all around the country and the world. Could you briefly touch upon what vision you have for these people to participate in and how they can help?
MP: We need youth to work in the struggle as well as reconstruction phase. If this fresh cadre is here, then we know that the land of struggle is already ready, only the seeds are to be sown. Now the reconstruction should really go beyond what we've already done, only to a small extent. There are Jeevanshalas here, some workshops are conducted on self reliant farming. People are already saving their forests in each village very voluntarily, without the intervention of the forest department. But now to go beyond this would mean also selecting an appropriate unit for planning, and involving all these people, where the activists, the young activists coming from different places, can really play a catalytic role. So there is much that remains to be done. In the tribal area, if you take a unit of say fifty to hundred kilometers, with the appropriate technology, a combination of the human and natural resources, most of the basic needs could be fulfilled. But beyond that, one can also sort of give to the society, not as a sacrifice that is involuntary but as a voluntary benefit and exchange. So it would not be a self sufficient unit but a self reliant one, linking itself with the other units with dignity and strong roots of self reliance. That is something that the youth can take up.
In the specific sectors, health, education, etc. there is enormous scope. For example, we have so many herbs and herbal plants available, which the tribals are using very often. You know, so many plants and medicines are used, and especially some of the tribals are experts. We don't want multinationals to come in and engage in the recording and prolification of all these resources. But we certainly want the tribals to go beyond this kind of adhoc voluntary use, and instead systematically develop a health and medicinal system, which is what the elite section are now turning towards. This should not go through the system of state which exploits them in the process of using the same natural resources. Work has to be done to help the communities here to associate in a slightly better way with their own resources, with their full involvement and initiative. We started in a small way, we had done watershed development. So while we will not rule out the state's presence altogether, we will certainly minimize it to the extent possible, because we know what the state has been doing and has not been doing. We couldn't even run one primary school in the Jhabua district of Maharashtra, while our Jeevanshalas were being managed by supporters all over with the people's initiatives and involvement. The same is true about every single activity really. We have of course continued to fight with the state to take the minimum services to these places, the ration shops for example, some minimum visits by the paramedical workers, or the campaign of the doctors during the rainy season when sickness is on the rise. We've succeeded in many, the wells for example. We got more than 120 wells dug during the last two years, without allowing the contractors, saying that the village would dig the wells. The officials had to also appreciate the fact that they did it so smoothly without any corruption and within such a short time. That corruption is a major issue in these two tehsils was raised due to this process.
So there are several such avenues that youth could get involved in. But youth are also needed for the struggle. Nothing would be possible in today's context in the natural resource based communities without the struggle. Work at a micro level is possible only until the resources are acquisitioned by someone else, only until the original inhabitants following a different path and working on alternative technology are driven out. One comes across these issues even in the sector of education for example, as we have seen and faced. When we followed another path to start Jeevanshalas, these 'life schools' from '91 onwards, we never thought that the government would question the legality of the schools. We had teachers from local villages who had studied up to eight to tenth standard; they were running the school. We didn't require D.Ed or B.Ed teachers, certainly not with the salaries of the order the government pays them. They were our own youth, our own children and were also associated with the movement, so they of course had a very different rapport with their students and the people at large. We preferred to have them as teachers. The people together thought of who is good and bad, and the schools came into existence. People built the houses which the schools are located in, and they gave part of the grain required when the school decided to remain residential, and so on.
Still, when it came to sending the fourth standard children for the exam, the government refused to allow them to appear for it. Not only that, they said, "All your records would be forfeited. Who gave you the permission to run the school?" We said, "Who gives permission to parents to teach whatever they want to teach their children at home. We don't require your permission. You tell us whether you would allow our children to be in the formal system partly or not." We were also thinking about whether it was necessary to be a part of the formal system. But the tribals felt that the children should receive both forms of education, you know, knowledge of the jungle (forest), zameen (land), pani (water), and the movement, but also should be partly linked with the formal system. We had to give a big fight, you know. They said, "You give the records to the teacher who is in that village." There was no teacher, since the government school was never run. So we said, "You come to the village, bring the teacher before us, show us where your school is, and then we will hand over the records." It became a big issue, and the higher authorities of course scolded the lower ones. An article was written by the educationist Krishna Kumar in the Times of India. We took out a procession, took the children to the offices and demanded that the government school should be closed down. That's all. And our school should be allowed.
The youth could be a part of many such struggles, the present on going struggle, facing submergence, Satyagraha onwards, whatever happens then, and would also participate in the reconstruction in the next phase.
VG: Thank you very much.This interview was transcribed by Neeta Deshpande.