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Patkar populism lights sparks on Zee TV

Narmada Bachao Andolan activist Medha Patkar fended with dexterity the provocative questions posed to her in Zee TV's Aapki Adalat.

By Sevanti Ninan
Published: Sunday 31 October 1993

Starting her case. IN THE eight or nine years she has spent building a resistance movement to the Narmada dam project, Medha Patkar has certainly learnt to state her case. And her ability in this direction was evident in Zee TV's Aap ki Adalat, where she fielded with considerable panache, host Rajat Sharma's deliberately provocative questions. Even such accusations as tailoring the direction of the movement to her own convenience, being a puppet in foreign hands and being a politician in the garb of a social worker, refused to ruffle her.

Aap ki Adalat, which is a current events show, follows a courtroom format. Public figures appear on it to be grilled by journalist Sharma, and a "judge", usually also a journalist, pronounces the verdict. At Patkar's "trial", the judge was Usha Rai of Indian Express.

Staunch opposition
Patkar walked in with her customary jhola (cloth bag), said namaste and sat down to listen to the charges against her. Asked whether she opposed the dam project wholesale or the manner in which rehabilitation and compensation had been handled, she said she was opposed to the entire project. "If even an inch of somebody's compound is acquired in Bombay, he will fight it all the way to the Supreme Court," she said. "But when one lakh people are having their land, forest and river snatched away, nobody makes an issue of it."

Sharma's effort was to show up Patkar as sustaining the agitation because it brought her glory. He accused her of flouting democracy by inciting Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) members to keep government officials and elected representatives out of the area. Is this democracy? he asked. To which Patkar responded in the affirmative. How come, he asked then, that despite her agitating since 1986, people had continued to elect their representatives if they were as anti-people as she made them out to be? She replied, a trifle feebly, that it takes time to educate people about using the political process wisely.

Sharma also accused her of taking money from foreign donors for NBA, and basking in the glory of awards conferred by organisations abroad. Patkar retorted that if she'd been enamoured of awards, she'd keep running off to the award ceremonies, whereas she had not attended any such ceremony. And she challenged anyone to prove that NBA had accepted a single dollar, yen, mark or pound. On the contrary, she said, the agitation was funded by thousands of voluntary donations.

Was her approach negative and anti-development? If you find you are putting your life's savings into building a house on land that is not stable, will you not stop the building immediately and take the necessary measures to first secure the land? she counter-questioned.

In other words, plenty of Patkar populism was on display. She also used the opportunity to make ringing speeches about equity and equitable distribution of water and electricity. There was enough for everybody's basic needs, but not enough for those who needed airconditioned houses and cars. And the audience listened attentively to the woman who has, for close to a decade, taken on both the Central government and a state government. And not all of them were totally convinced her approach was intrinsically negative.

Not guilty
In her "judgement", Usha Rai absolved Patkar of political ambitions and of taking foreign funds, but suggested every agitation should have its limits. It was time, perhaps, for NBA to consolidate its gains and look at alternatives, she said. Patkar replied she would take the judgement back to the people in the valley and see what they had to say.

While it was heartening to see an environmental issue tackled on what is basically an entertainment and current affairs channel, Medha Patkar would not have made it to Aapki Adalat if she had not been such a controversial figure, and the controversies surrounding her were what Sharma played up to the hilt.

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