Patkar unperturbed by exodus of villagers

Medha Patkar, doyenne of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which opposes the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada river, has won a major battle by getting the Union government to discuss the Rs 13,500-crore dam for the first time ever with her group. After the World Bank withdrew financing for the controversial project, NBA embarked on an intense campaign to highlight human rights violations by the governments Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh -- the states involved with SSP. Her efforts have been somewhat undermined by the exodus of people from villages facing submergence to resettlement colonies, mainly in Gujarat. But this has failed to discourage her and she spoke enthusiastically to Down To Earth about NBA and its future

By Nitya Jacob
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

What are your reactions to the government finally agreeing to your demand for talks on SSP?
It's a big step forward for NBA to have brought the government to the negotiating table after two abortive attempts. We are fully confident these discussions will culminate in a review of the project. It also shows the Centre has taken us seriously, as it has brought together most of the states involved with the project. However, the absence of Gujarat, the state entrusted with the construction of the dam, is a setback to the talks. We hope Gujarat chief minister Chimanbhai Patel will eventually become a party to the discussions.

You had stipulated conditions for conducting the review. Have these been met?
There have been several compromises at talks, with the Centre accepting some of our conditions and our backtracking on others. For example, we had demanded a stop during the review of irreversible work on the dam, but Union water resources minister V C Shukla said this was impossible in the prevailing political situation. Gujarat is responsible for construction and the project is Chimanbhai Patel's ace in his political pack. So, we did not insist on this, especially as the work will stop in any case for the two monsoon months. The authorities, for their part, agreed to rebuild two huts forcibly demolished in Manibeli in May.

What will be your next step in the agitation?
We will demand that the government shares the findings of the review with the villagers involved. Specifically, we want them to place before the people the costs and benefits of the project so the villagers understand who is sacrificing what and for whose benefit. We also want to force the government to abandon its insistence that a project, however defective, must be completed simply because so much money has already been spent on it. During the review, in which our representative will participate, we will demand that each and every study and survey, prepared by the government with reference to the project, be put up for scrutiny.

More and more people are leaving the Narmada valley for resettlement sites. How will this affect the mass base of the movement?
It is unfortunate villagers are leaving for resettlement sites, but NBA has -- and will continue to have -- a popular base. Tribals and villagers who will be dislocated by the project are fully aware they are being made to sacrifice for other people's benefit. This is unacceptable to them, as it is being done without their consent. Even in those valley areas that face submergence this year, 177 families still reside. Therefore, the departure of some people does not perturb me at all. "Agar ladai se kuchch log bhag jate hain, iska matlab yeh to nahin ki main bhi himmat haar jaoon" (I won't lose heart merely because some people have deserted me). In Chimalkhedi, a Maharashtra village to be submerged this year, people refuse to move and say, "Medha behn ke liye ham nahin hatenge" (We won't move, because Medha has told us so).

Some allege your movement's urban, educated supporters are exaggerating events to the media, whereas in reality actually the movement is fizzling out.
In any movement there is an element of exaggeration to drive home a point. We need leaders and these come from the urban, educated middle class. But they are not the only leaders. At the village level, we have sarpanches and women as leaders. We act merely as motivators. The urban educated leaders you see also serve another purpose: It is easier for them to liaise with the media and the government than it is for rural people.

How has the government induced people to move?
In almost every village, government officials in charge of rehabilitation and resettlement buy off some of the villagers and then use them to persuade other villagers to move. In addition to this persuasion, the authorities used naked force, like the massive police deployment in Manibeli. We have staunchly opposed such forcible shifting and have demanded that huts that have been removed should be rebuilt at the same place. It is interesting to study the methods used to "persuade" people to move and also why, despite these measures, some villagers have decided to stay on.

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