She campaigns for the rights of the poor and fights against corporate greed
New Delhi: Clad in a crumpled cotton sari and loosely tied hair, social activist Medha Patkar exuberates an indomitable spirit. Often known for her extreme views on the growth of a country and liberalisation, she is referred to as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) woman.
Patkar spearheaded the group to safeguard the interests of thousands of villagers in the Narmada River Valley. The movement was against deforestation and loss of fertile agricultural land from Gujarat government’s ambitious Sardar Sarovar Dam project. Her tireless campaign resulted in the World Bank withdrawing support from the project in 1983.
A committed campaigner for the rights of the poor, she says: “The crux of all issues is misuse and transfer of natural resources, including land, water, forests and mineral wealth. Just about everything is being transferred in the corporatised world. Lands of the poor are being acquired forcibly without providing them the promised compensation. It’s important to see how it affects the planning and conception of development, as things are not based on equality and justice.”
Having recently joined hands with activist Anna Hazare in his anti-corruption campaign, she speaks to Gulf News in an exclusive interview.
GULF NEWS: You have been at the forefront of many public protests. Which has been the most gratifying?
MEDHA PATKAR: In a way, I am never satisfied. That’s because unless the entire society and the system changes, it is not gratifying. But every movement is an experience in itself. Looking back, I can say that the NBA movement gave me a lot of strength. It empowered not only several people, including tribals, non-tribals, men, women and children, who came forward and contributed to it, but also strengthened the resolve of the activists.
Since every issue is different, do you use different strategies to tackle them?
The strength is derived from your own self. With every issue raised, whether it is the challenge of taking on the World Bank or the local governments, one learns a lot. And if the protests are done peacefully through effective strategy, you don’t feel at war with anyone, although the battle continues.
When systems don’t work, do you feel pessimistic?
I have worked with the urban poor before, but the struggle in Mumbai [on the lands issue] widened the vistas of many of us. Each struggle has its own framework of values and principles and it’s always a pleasure to interact with the opponents. Years back, when we were talking to the World Bank, we found there were people in it who represented us partly. Similar is the case with the governments, so one cannot be cynical. When we take up an issue, we know things are not going to be simple and easy. Sometimes we are betrayed. For instance, the Maharashtra government betrayed us recently over the lands issue.
Did you take a conscious decision to fight the system by sitting outside rather than through electoral politics?
Yes, though I do not consider electoral politics as untouchable, I feel the current character and also the nature of politics is such that with many electoral reforms, it would bring along truly basic social, economic and political transformation. And if that’s your vision and idea, many of the activists and their struggles will have to remain out of the arena of electoral politics. But that doesn’t mean the activists will remain away from intervention in politics.
Do you have any politician friends?
Oh yes. And I don’t consider any politician my enemy, even though some of them might think of me as one. We have dialogues with politicians across party lines. Communal and secular is a divide relevant to us even today. On development issues, we see that even political parties, who claim to be secular, are not much different. They also follow the same globalisation and liberalisation policies. They are with the corporate world and take an anti-poor stance.
Haven’t political parties approached you to join them?
Earlier they did. Not for some time now.
Are they wary of you and your strong line of thought?
I can’t say that, but they’ve kept away. In fact, we have our own People’s Political Front, which has an ideology, programmes and cadres. And politicians continue to have dialogues with us. We chalk out strategies to change the political system and not just the players. Our aim is to strengthen people’s intervention, their responsibility and role in politics.
As things stand today, how hopeful are you of the Jan Lokpal Bill being passed in the winter session of Parliament?
Some Bill will certainly be passed and I’m sure it will be stronger than the draft of the Lokpal Bill, which the government had tabled in Parliament. The Jan Lokpal Bill will also surely be looked into and the mechanisms to deal with the corrupt elements and practices will be put in place. The government may try and keep certain aspects weak. But as far as the Prime Minister, judiciary and members of Parliament and lower bureaucrats are concerned, the conflict regarding these will have to be sorted out with Team Anna. And if the gaps persist, the struggle [for a stronger version of the Bill] will continue.
What major differences does Team Anna have with National Advisory Council (NAC) member Aruna Roy, who came up with a draft of her own Bill?
Aruna is only worried that the Bill does not become something demonic in structure, which would be all encompassing. It would not only require thousands of employees, but will also have several thousand cases to handle. But there are certain issues that Team Anna doesn’t want to compromise on.
Are you happy with the Food Bill that Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, as NAC chairperson, is very keen on?
Sonia’s concern on this issue is very genuine. But the NAC is moving its space in the government. We expected much more from it, because the NAC team is a perfect combination of people. Also, Sonia should have put her foot down on the Food Security issue. Along with the poverty line, there is a need for a line for accumulation of wealth. Without decentralisation of wealth, atrocities, injustice, exploitation, corruption and looting cannot come to an end.
- Medha Patkar was born on December 1, 1954, in Mumbai to social activist parents Indu and Vasant Khanolkar.
- She completed her BSc from Ruia College, Mumbai, Maharashtra.
- Masters in social work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
- Became involved with the Narmada River Valley Project while doing her PhD.
- Setting aside her position as faculty at the Tata Institute, she plunged into the Save the Narmada campaign with social activist Baba Amte.
- Recipient of several awards, including the Right to Livelihood Award, Best International Political Campaigner by BBC and the Human Rights Defender’s Award from Amnesty International.