May 09, 2006

Obstruction As Ideology : Exposing Medha Patkar's Narmada Bachao Andolan

Medha Patkar exposed (

From: Murli Date: Sat, 06 May 2006

Of course, the usual mudslinging at Narendra Modi occurs. Murli

Web| May 03, 2006


Obstruction As Ideology

NBA defines itself mainly through negative agendas – anti-dam, anti-liberalisation, anti-globalisation, anti-WTO, anti this, anti that. The alternative development paradigm Medha Patkar claims to represent has not yet offered any practical and positive worldview or agenda for action.

The spectacular success of Medha Patkar's Narmada Bachao Andolan in making her opposition to the Narmada Dam Project an international cause célèbre and the courage and perseverance she has shown in pursuing this issue are indeed admirable. However, an honest and nuanced account of this movement is yet to be written. It is worth a serious study because the tactics and strategies adopted by the NBA movement has many important lessons to teach -- both positive and negative -- for all of us engaged in battles on behalf of the poor and marginalized groups of our society.

I am no expert on the economic viability of big or small dams. Therefore, I cannot pass a definitive verdict on the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project. My gut feeling, however, is that mega projects that cause mega displacements tend to be politician- and contractor-friendly rather than people friendly. Moreover, our government (no matter which party is in power) has a shameless record of habitually cheating people of their rights, responding to their genuine grievances with callousness and even brutality, robbing the poor of their pitiful resources and transferring them to the rich and powerful and facilitating outright loot and corruption in the guise of development projects. I also believe that our netas and babus are not enthusiastic about low-cost, eco-friendly options for water harvesting and power generation because they cannot siphon off as much money from them as they can through mega projects. I myself played an active role for a long period in the campaign against building the Tehri Dam, which I believe to be far more ecologically dangerous than the Narmada Dam. I share many of the misgivings of those opposing the Narmada Dam. Yet, I prefer that the merits and demerits of each such project be evaluated in a non partisan manner through a public audit by genuine experts, rather than adopting a permanent oppositionist position as a matter of ideology.

Despite my reservations regarding mega-projects, I am forced to conclude that the mountains of propaganda material generated by the NBA, including the melodramatic tracts written by Arundhati Roy, are not fully trustworthy. More importantly, the strategy and tactics adopted by the NBA have also often put their objectivity and ethical credentials in doubt.

Consider this:

Though NBA never tires of pointing to the real and imagined failures of Relief & Rehabilitation (R&R) as the main reason for their opposition to the Narmada Dam, it has actually worked tirelessly to obstruct many legitimate R&R projects. Medha Patkar had started her career in 1984 with an Ahmedabad based organization called SETU which assigned her the job of assisting Vasudha Dhargamwar of MARG to survey the affected villages to assess the information available to these people regarding the impact of the Narmada Project, and their rights as oustees. This exercise was meant to help ensure that people got a fair and just rehabilitation package. But by 1987, Patkar had developed extensive contacts of her own in the project area, and unilaterally parted company with a whole coalition of NGOs sincerely working there for R&R to proclaim: "Bandh Nahin Banega, Koi Nahin Hatega [The Dam Won't Be Made. Nobody Would Move]". Thereafter, she is alleged to have made it so difficult for Vasudha Dhargamwar to carry on with the work they had started by carrying on a negative campaign against those willing to work on R&R as a fall back plan that MARG and SETU had to withdraw from
the area.

Her stand became even more uncompromising when, under pressure from the World Bank, the Gujarat government agreed to give a generous R&R package.Far from welcoming it and joining hands with those who began working to ensure that the government's promise of R&R was translated into concrete action, she declared that the NBA would not accept any kind of R&R package because NBA was opposed to obstructing the "natural" flow of rivers. Even the name of the movement, "Narmada Bachao Andolan", indicates that the NBA is more obsessed with "saving" the river from human beings than protecting the interests of poor farmers.

Thereafter she began a sustained campaign by the NBA against all those who were acting as watchdogs to ensure proper rehabilitation. They were dubbed as anti-poor, anti-tribal, pro-kulaks and hostages to corporate interests. NBA activists were instructed to prevent the entry not just of government officials, but also of independent NGOs into villages for
collecting honest, updated data regarding families requiring resettlement. They physically obstructed those who tried to provide accurate information about the R&R package to prevent people from making an informed choice. They even got tribals to take a sacred oath, with water of the holy Narmada in hand, that they would choose death to relocation.

However, it did not take long for many of their local followers to realize that NBA was denying them the right to an informed choice. Therefore, despite the "sacred" oath NBA administered to them, most of the tribal villages began quietly voting with their feet and accepted the unprecedented R&R package of 5 acres per adult son and Rs.45,000 to each family for building a new house, free transportation of their household goods, including the timber frame of their house, plus truckloads of additional wood from their villages.

The R&R process in Maharashtra and Gujarat is almost complete. All said and done, the R&R package offered to Narmada Dam oustees is by all accounts better than anything we have witnessed so far in part because several Gandhians and NGOs in Gujarat did a fairly good job of playing watchdogs, insisting that the government must give the land of their choice to oustees even if it meant purchasing it from private owners. That is one of the reasons that in recent years oustees who have settled in Gujarat and even Maharashtra have not been seen seeking the help of NBA.

Most of the new villages for oustees have been provided with better schools and primary health facilities and better connectivity with urban centers than they ever had before. This is not to suggest that the rehabilitation package is flawless. According to Prof. Ghanshyam Shah of the Surat based Centre for Social Studies, who has closely followed the R&R in Gujarat, while 80 percent of oustees in Gujarat have been given a fair deal, about 20 percent have not received their full due. All this because of sustained pressure rather than due to an innate desire of the Gujarat government to give a fair economic deal. Activists of Arch Vahini who played a vital role in this were so worn out in the process that they withdrew from the Resettlement and Land purchasing Committee after resettling villagers from 19 uprooted villages spread over 155 Gujarat villages. Maharashtra government too played a lot of mischief with the awards, and the Madhya Pradesh government has also done all it could to wriggle out of its commitments. The Monitoring and Evaluation Committee of the Project as well as the Supreme Court have at various times expressed dissatisfaction at the veracity of their Action Taken Reports and forced the state governments to improve their performance.

However, those in the know have numerous sad but true stories of how, even in this part of the rehabilitation effort, NBA activists put all manner of hurdles in the way of those working for R&R, including the use of outright violence.More than 200 criminal cases have been filed in Madhya Pradesh against NBA activists for engaging in violent attacks. As per news reports, as recently as April 6, NBA activists were reported to have beaten up and torn the clothes of government officials who visited Bajrikheda for survey work. One would have dismissed this reported instance as an example of the repressive policy of the state government -- except for the fact that it is not just government officials who have alleged obstructionist attacks by the NBA; honest NGOs working for R&R narrate similar accounts. The Indian Express of May 1, 2006 also reported how when they tracked down some of the families in Madhya Pradesh whose case the NBA took to the Supreme Court, they found these families had actually bought land of their choice with the settlement money provided by the government but the NBA activists were pressuring them not to move from their original villages so that they could continue to argue in the Court that R&R was incomplete.

Such tactics are not new. They date back to the early days of NBA. This is how Ambrish of Arch-Vahini describes one among many reported episodes of NBA's techniques: When a large majority of tribals from Manibeli wanted to move to the new land sites offered to them in Gujarat, the minority who were still aligned to NBA declared they would not let those who wanted to move take their dismantled houses with them. Since tribal homes are built with a lot of valuable timber, no one who was ready to accept the government offer was willing to let the minority NBA activists take forcible possession of their houses. Government functionaries sent to assist in helping those willing to relocate to carry their belongings and construction material were stoned and prevented from entering the village. Finally, those keen to move sought the intervention of Arch-Vahini of Gujarat, since it had worked for long years to pressure the Gujarat government to implement honestly its promises of R&R. When Arch-Vahini personnel were also attacked, the entire operation had to be carried out under police protection. However, the NBA successfully manipulated the media coverage of this event to project an image that Manibeli was razed to the ground by police action and goons acting on behalf of the Gujarat government to forcibly oust the poor tribals from their village.

Another method used by NBA to obstruct R&R was to demand that, since tribals are forest dwellers, they should be given forestland for resettlement. For years the Ministry of Environment resisted the idea because the new environment laws are against allowing new settlements in forest areas. However, when, under World Bank pressure, the government of Maharashtra was persuaded to make forest land available for oustees, the NBA decided to create a big furore by reversing its stand without explanation. They objected to this deal on the plea that this would destroy the already depleted forest cover in Maharashtra, proving yet again that for NBA keeping the "movement" alive has become more important than protecting the rights of vulnerable citizens.

Maneka Gandhi, who is an ideologically compulsive supporter of the NBA, gave the following account from a whole repertoire of stories about Medha Patkar\'s obstructionist strategies with regard to R&R. In the year 2001, when Maneka Gandhi was appointed minster for social welfare, she approached Medha Patkar and asked for a list of the project affected families in Madhya Pradesh so that she could help in providing a comprehensive plan of action for rehabilitation. When she found that the NBA had never prepared a list of those requiring rehabilitation, she offered to get that job done by sending the most honest among her officers to do a survey.However, she requested Patkar not to let this be known publicly, so that the survey could be kept a quiet affair since her own party bosses were not keen on such an exercise. However, as soon as the team reached Bhopal, Medha Patkar gave a press conference denouncing the survey team and dissociating NBA from it. As soon as BJP leaders got to know of it, Prime Minister Vajpayee ordered Maneka Gandhi to recall the survey team. As a junior minister in the cabinet, she had no choice but to comply. That was yet another opportunity sabotaged for preparing an accurate list of people requiring rehabilitation.

Today, despite the obstructionist tactics of the NBA, Gujarat and Maharashtra have almost completed the R&R process. Madhya Pradesh is the only state that has not fulfilled its entire commitment. However, most of the 35,000 families whose cause NBA is currently espousing with a view to stopping work on the Dam are not tribals, though they are paraded as adivasis. Tribal lands were submerged long ago; the adivasis have mostly been settled despite NBA obstructions. The present day "oustees" are mostly from Patel and other Patidar castes. There are serious differences between the government's estimates of families requiring total relocation and that of the NBA. How do we know what is the accurate ground reality when all along NBA activists have steadfastly opposed the entry of government officials and even independent NGOs to carry out an accurate updated assessment?

Even those who disagree with NBA's methods cannot deny that by building a sustained and relentless campaign on the issue of rehabilitation, at the national and international level, making Narmada Dam an international cause célèbre and tirelessly drawing attention to the many real and imagined bunglings, it has undoubtedly played an important role in forcing the government to offer a decent R&R package. While determined interventions by the Supreme Court and the ground level work by Arch-Vahini and other concerned citizens doesn't ever get due acknowledgement, even the NBA's detractors admit that pressure from the World Bank after NBA lobbied hard to get them to withdraw from the project played a significant role in ensuring a fair deal for the

However, by their mixing untruths, half-truths and overstatements and their consistent obstructionist attitude towards R&R while cynically using the issue to stall the dam construction by defaming those who took up the task seriously, NBA has compromised its own credibility and ended up being an extremely divisive movement. It often gave the impression that keeping alive the movement became an end in itself and the oustees were being used as mere instruments toward this end.

The NBA has also harmed itself by making light of the drinking water needs of Gujarat and making it seem as if the dam was going to cater only to the urban elite. It was this total lack of acknowledgement, this total lack of compassion for those deprived of water that would make anyone feel, if not demonized, at least dismissed and totally blanked out of the picture. It is this rigid and inflexible stand, with no compassion shown or alternative offered for drinking water needs of the people of Gujarat who saw the dam as the only panacea on offer, that made this into a 'us versus them' divisive battle.

So on one hand you had Medha Patkar's rigid stand against the dam, with no viable alternative on offer, and, on the other, you had Modi standing absolutely firm in support of the dam promising water and development - just as Chiman Bhai Patel of the Congress had at one time. Medha Patkar, one could conclude, has made no small contribution in polarising the society, deepening the divide, thus helping Modi get people to forget his part in the killing of thousands, enabling him to reinforce his image as a symbol of Gujarati pride.The high profile international campaign by NBA also easily lends itself to the fears and phobias being cultivated by their leaders that there is an international conspiracy to halt Gujarat's march towards a prosperous future. It is a combination of all this which evoked and aroused chauvinistic feelings which in turn were exploited by Gujarati politicians—both from the Congress and BJP—allowing them to get away with their own quota of lies and half-truths regarding the potential costs and benefits of the dam.

While the NBA has been successful in winning support for its cause among large sections of national and international NGOs, the Gujarat government has been eminently successful in convincing the people of the state, cutting across almost all divides, that the Sardar Sarovar Project is their lifeline and answer to all their problems with regard to water and power needs. Gujaratis are so charged on this issue that they are willing to overlook all the lapses, including evidence of corruption and lies being peddled by their government. For example, so far only 10 percent of the available water from the dam is reaching Gujarat because the network of canals required to transport the full load has not yet materialized. Gujarat has stretched its budgetary resources to such a limit that it does not even have the money to build the required canal network. And yet, it insists on raising the height of the dam. In the process, the state has almost bankrupted itself by sinking more and more money in the ever-escalating costs of this project, justifying it as a matter of Gujarati swabhiman.
Another important reason for NBA losing a lot of goodwill it had initially garnered is that it appears to have made a religion out of opposing all kinds of development projects without examining the merits of each case. NBA defines itself mainly through negative agendas – anti-dam, anti-liberalisation, anti-globalisation, anti-WTO, anti this, anti that. The alternative development paradigm Medha Patkar claims to represent has not yet offered any practical and positive worldview or agenda for action. That is why even those of us who have serious misgivings about the Sarkari Paradigm of Development feel sceptical of the Patkar-Roy Politics of Non-Development. They have made the single theme of obstructionism into high ideology. One expects a more constructive approach in politics from those who claim to draw inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi.


SuzieDsouza said...

I have been working on the college project regarding Narmada Bachao Andolan. Medha Pathkar is an true inspiration and an example of dedication and sincerity she has shown towards the people who will be suffering due to the number of dams. Even the celebrities like Aamir Khan understood the importance of non-violence and supporting such an noble cause. I will be glad when I will win a price for such an live and great project.

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