"We hope to encourage alternative lifestyles"

Having successfully brought the plight of the peasants and tribals of Narmada valley into international focus, MEDHA PATKAR continues her crusade against the ills of mindless 'development'. Apart from being the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, she has recently taken on the role of coordinator of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM). Himanshu Thakkar spoke to this multifaceted 42-year-old at Wardha in Maharashtra, at the end of a 45-day yatra organised by the NAPM. The alliance, she hopes, would rally country-wide support against the prevailing model of development

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

How do you see the future of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), five years down the road?
Bright, very bright. Many who think about alternative development, feel the need for a common strategy- But there are some strong organisations and people who have not yet felt the need for an alliance. At the national level, there is bound to be a merging of identities. This tour and convention was part of a process to get a feel of the situation in different parts of the country.

The timing of the national tour and convention happens to coincide with the general elections.
That is just incidental. But it is quite clear that the NAPM polity desires change in all spheres, including the political arena. Although we are struggling against the vested interests of the 'haves', we also see ourselves playing the role of watchdogs in the political process. So it is not inappropriate that this movement has been initiated with the elections close on heels. The two issues in whose context the NAPm has evolved, communalism and the new economic policy, have both become very important. We hope to introduce people to the idea of alternative development and lifestyle.

Why are many significant organisations not with the NAPM?
At least 100 organisations that are part of the alliance, have not come here (to Wardha). The process of launching the NAPM has been going on for the past three years. If the alliance has to shape into a national struggle, the process involved would be a long one. In many states the process is at a very preliminary stage and it will 'take some time before they (the organisations there) can become part of the alliance. There will also be differences to sort out. The core group formed here faces the challenge of completing the process.

Such attempts at forming a national alliance have been made in the past; how is this one any different?
I do not think that an attempt to consolidate an alliance that would constitute groups working with dalits, tribals, women, and unorganised labourers, at the non-political party level, has been made so far.

There is suspicion in people's minds that the NAPM will meet the fate of earlier attempts like the Jan Vikas Andolan (JVA) and the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).
Many of these have been parallel attempts. Before the JVA, there was a process called Sahayog (begun in 1986), which brought together a number of like-minded people. That process went on to become the Bharat Jan Andolan (BJA). The JVA itself was formed in the year 1989. Even though it showed a lot of promise it could never take the form of a movement because somehow, its potential could not be realised. There was an attempt to bring together people fighting against the prevailing paradigm of development, but one did not see an effort to evolve a common stand.

Why is the BJA not part of the NAPM?
I had forwarded a proposal to form the NAPM in a BJA meeting, but members of the organisation had felt that there was no need for another front at that point of time. Rather, they had expressed the desire to further strengthen the BJA itself However, I felt that it would be difficult for coalitions and groups like the National Fishworkers Forum or Azadi Bachao Andolan, to assemble under the banner of the BJA - which is specifically inclined towards tribal groups - because the former have their own backgrounds and history. It was only an alliance that could bring together all these people.

Are you confident that the JVA and other such groups or networks will join the alliance?
The JVA has decided to permit its constituent organisations to join the NAPm and is itself encouraging us in our endeavour. Some like the Shoshit Jan Andolan are also with the NAPM. We will actively try to bring together others as well. In any case, we could still have common programmes on specific issues.

Will the NAPM process affect the strength of constituent organisations at the local level?
Well, it can be a mutually beneficial relation. Local struggles may gain by being involved with the NAPM, and association with the former will be to NAPM's advantage. The idea of building a national alliance is having a national strategy and platform. And such thinking at a national level should render local organisations more powerful.

What will be the role of other NGOs - foreign-funded or otherwise - which command the capacity to do a lot?
It was decided at the convention that foreign-funded organisations cannot participate in the decision-making process of the NAPM but can involve themselves as associates - playing a supportive role - in the alliance. For instance, they could provide technical expertise in the planning and development of watershed development. Also their publications could help in the dissemination of information. In fact we have to contact various experts to support the alliance.

If the NAPM trusts and strives for a decentralised polity, why does the alliance have to start from the top of the electoral pyramid?
We are not giving undue importance to the parliamentary elections. But there is also the question of the effectiveness of one's influence. Is it by remaining outside or getting into the Parliament, that one could pressurise the system? If one is challenging the fundamentals of a system - like asking for a change in the electoral or federal system - it is best to remain outside it. If you want to bring about reform from the inside, you only get trapped in it. And then demanding a total overhaul of the system appears contradictory to one who is already part of it. For example, for India to question the World Bank's (WB) policies at the negotiating table is impossible. That is why people like us who are asking for basic changes prefer remaining outside the system.

The Narmada struggle was an issue-based struggle, but is not the NAPM a very different ball game?
Even a struggle that is broad, ideological and national in character will have to choose its issues. Moreover, the Narmada struggle was not one operating in isolation but was placed within a larger framework.

What about the NAPM's strategy towards foreign bodies like the WB and multinational corporations (MNCs)?
For the time being we have formulated a strategy to oppose MNCS. We are going to launch struggles against Pepsi and Coke. Similarly, we are going to organise a combined opposition to the Enron power project in Maharashtra, as part of our oppopition to the processes of liberalisation and gllobalisation. Thomas Kochery will participate in the renegotiation process with the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

But that will be tantamount to giving the WTO legitimacy and you are in total opposition to that.
There is going to be an official, renegotiation and we will participate on behalf of people's movements, after consult4tion and in collaboration with Indian and international NGOs.

What were the factors responsible for your involvement in this field?
I Ever since I was a child, I had this urge to work for village welfare. The ideal of doing so was passed on to me from my parents. We were inspired by the concept of social work. In my vacations I used to travel to rural areas. And in my interscience year (class xii), I must have spent hundreds of hours pondering over and discussing (with a group that we had formed) what was to be done when one actually went to the villages. If I bad not been into what I am doing now, I would have studied medicine, become a doctor and gone to the villages. But my work with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay gave me an opportunity to read a lot on inequality, and on social justice, conflicts and movements. My papers at the Institute included some on the notion of development and these were very useful.

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