Medha Patkar made her name fighting the push for large dams in the 1980’s. Decades later, the fight rages on.
That fight all began with the Narmada River Valley Project -- the largest river dam development in India. When Medha was researching social inequality and social movements for her PhD, she learned of the plight of indigenous people in Gujarat in conjunction with the construction of the dam.
Wanting to help the cause, Medha began working with Adivasi youth groups in the districts of Dang, Sabarkantha, and Banaskantha and farmers in the Narmada Valley in India. She worked with allies to found the Narmada Bachao Andolan -- an organization dedicated to fighting for justice for hundreds of thousands of people scheduled to be displaced by dams along the Narmada river.
Beyond the Narmada valley, Medha Patkar has played a crucial role in empowering people struggling to protect their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights across India. She she is a national Convener of the National Association of People's Movements (NAPM) and has won numerous awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize.
I sat down with Medha Patkar while she was in Washington, D.C. to advocate for the Narmada communities at the World Bank Fall meetings.
Nicole Ghio: How did you get involved with activism, and what is your history with activism?
Medha Patkar: “I was born in a family where both parents were activists. [My] father was a freedom fighter, and [my] mother was a government servant earning for the family. But she also was involved in the socialist youth organization. That’s where they got married. So since childhood, I was observing the meetings with the laborers taking place in my own house and also participating in student camps.
“While in Gujarat, I came to know about the Narmada dam issue. I thought this was very symbolic. I went for a two day long walk in the tribal areas with an advocate wanting to take legal action. I thought legal action would not help. What was needed was mass mobilization and struggle. Going through those indigenous people’s communities, the Adivasis, I realized they were not told or asked about the project that is going to have huge impact on their lives and livelihoods.
“[The Narmada struggle] was seen as a symbol of the development paradigm. That’s why we couldn’t restrict ourselves to a single issue or project.[…] We thought that everything should be well-knit to present the paradigm as it is today, and the alternative vision.[...] Since we challenged the World Bank, we also questioned the whole international economic vision that these financial institutions are pushing and everything that comes with it.”
NG: What do you see as the alternate vision?
MP: “[One] that is based on the values and principles of equity and justice. To us, sustainability cannot be just compensatory measures, as World Bank and other actors put it. [...] It has to be linked with the equity and justice.”
NG: Where have you seen the use of renewables and other alternative sources in India? And what is or isn’t working?
MP: “The energy intensive way of life, way of industrialization, of everything is really taking a toll on the resources. The pace and the concentration in the areas where there [are] natural resources […] is really not just displacing, [but also] destroying everything there. The worst is that the people not involved [in planning] are cheated. [...] [In the energy sector] the allocation of resources [goes] neither to the local communities [or] even to the statutory agencies -- [they are] giving it [all] to the private corporations. [...] That is absolutely not affordable. If you want to really use the resource for dealing with the inequities, for fulfilling the basic needs, this is not the way at all.
“That is why these kinds of major mineral based energy [projects are] having huge targets and huge claims of reaching out, etc. but [are] not even bringing in that result. It’s concentrated centralized generation of power and concentrated distribution -- with no justice in distribution.
“The renewable sources are decentralized. They are in the hands of the people already, which they can have knowledge to tap and use.
“So the technologically [is] manageable for the common people. Because [of] the decentralized availability of the resource, the benefits can also be distributed in a just manner. And ecological sustainability beyond generation has to be thought of. All of those things are better served through the renewable technology. […] It has to be alternatives not only in terms of the technology, but who owns the resource and who manages the harnessing process and who gets the benefit.
NG: Is there a message you’re bringing to the World Bank meeting in D.C. this week?
MP: “The World Bank [has] experience within itself [from] when they dealt with the Narmada issue. [...] There were protests by a number of environmental [non-governmental organizations],NGOs, in this part of the world, but they also could get a response from within [the World Bank] when they protested. [...] We know that the World Bank’s small input in a project’s cost makes large impacts, whether it is in Tata Mundra today or in Narmada that day.
“We as the activists at the country level could join hands with NGOs here. [...] The World Banks says in many of its documents that they learned a lot from Narmada. We say that were not good learners. [...] They dropped large hydro, but now they are beginning to come back again to it.”
As I was leaving the interview, Medha Patkar asked me to pass on one last message to activists in the U.S. She told me now is the time to re-engage in Narmada. The world-wide pressure gave strength to the people on the ground and forced the World Bank to re-think its approach to large projects.
But now that is slipping. The Bank has forgotten its lesson and is considering backing large, dangerous hydro projects once again. Meanwhile, there is a renewed push to complete Narmada.
It is time to once again join hands and say no to displacement and destruction in the name of development.
During her visit, Medha Patkar invited others to join her in protesting the new draft of revised safeguards at the World Bank, which instead of helping protect communities are actually regressive on many issues. She testified at a meeting with civil society on safeguards during the World Bank fall meetings, where activists presented a statement condemning the draft and staged a mass walkout. Once outside, she rallied the crowd at the protest.
--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program