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Interview with Medha Patkar
O ver the past two decades the struggle against dam projects that threaten the right to life and livelihood for the people of India’s Narmada valley has grown into one of the world’s largest non-violent social movements. Activist Medha Patkar has been at the center of these struggles. For this work, Patkar and her colleagues were given the Right Livelihood Award (often referred to as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize) in 1991 and in 1992 won the Goldman Environmental Prize. Patkar has served on the World Commission on Dams, an independent global body, and currently leads the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NBA), a network of more than 150 political organizations across India.
JENSEN: There is a well-known quote from India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who called dams the “temples of modern India.” Does that historical connection of dams with progress make NBA’s struggle more difficult?
PATKAR: Nehru said that in 1955, but three years later he described big dams as “a disease of gigantism” that we must withdraw from. Even Nehru, within a short time, realized that approach to water management was not going to work. But unfortunately, the textbooks have the first quote but not the second one.
How are big dams being sold to the Indian public?
This is done by exaggerating the benefits and underestimating the costs. In India, almost all of the 4,000 large dams have been sold to the public by emphasizing the benefits—drinking water, irrigation, flood control, and hydropower. The social and environmental costs are never really assessed. Before all those costs are adequately studied, the clearances [to build] are granted. With those clearances, the planners claim they have taken care of everything.
The social costs are underestimated because only the so-called “directly affected people” are included, but even that number is underestimated because land records are never updated, especially in the case of indigenous people and rural communities. For example, in the case of Sardar Sarover—just one dam—when the tribunal was set up to resolve the inter-state conflict, working from 1969-79, it estimated the number of affected families as below 7,000. Today the official figure is about 43,000 families and the actual figure is somewhere near 50,000. Over 25 years, only 25 percent of those people have been taken care of in any way, though not necessarily receiving all their entitlements. There are another 23,500 families affected by the canal system. The colonies and sanctuaries also affect people, especially the indigenous forest-dwelling communities. More than 100 villages are affected by the sanctuary.
Then there is the cost to the culture of the loss of the common property resource. Only the titled land is recorded by the government. But there are maybe 1,000 hectares of grazing land occupied and used by traditional society that are not on record as “owned” by the community.
There is new legislation that has come up in the past decade that provides for self-rule of the tribal community, which gives the right to the whole village community and not some small body to decide about any project that may affect their resources. Without their consent, the project cannot go ahead. But this is not followed. In practice, the underestimated costs and claims of compensation push the project ahead.
What about environmental questions?
On the environmental side, the downstream impacts of the big dams are never studied. The waterlogging and salinization that will occur, even in areas said to benefit from irrigation, is studied very late. All these voluminous reports come out, either simultaneously or post facto, but by then the project is considered a fait accompli.
You’ve talked about how costs are underestimated. Are the benefits overestimated?
Even if there are marginal farmers, small industries, or the poor who may get something, the benefits will go mainly to the large cities and industries.
At the same time, the cost ends up being many times the original estimate. The per-hectare irrigation turns out to be 10 to 20 times the cost of small irrigation projects, for the same kind of benefit. So, if the farmers can’t afford it, the water will go to industry and that will then seem justifiable. The whole vicious cycle continues. One group will suffer in the name of helping another group that is suffering. It is offered as a people vs. people issue, as if the state is very neutral. The term they use is the “right to development,” which is the World Bank language that is used very effectively by our politicians.
Do the international lenders play a role in this?
Once the financing is taken care of, the scientists, technocrats, contractors, and much of the public presumes the project has all the necessary clearances. Foreign capital legitimizes the process. Lenders like the World Bank bring their own credibility, among the elite and planning population, and then people say, “Who are you to know better than the World Bank.”
In the case of Narmada, before the minister of the environment could clear the project, the Bank had cleared its aid and so the minister’s clearance had no relevance. The ministry pushed its conditional clearance, but the conditions were not fulfilled. The ministry said the clearance had lapsed, and even today that is true. The clearance has lapsed.
Institutions like the World Bank undermine the process of community participation within the country. The politicians are at least accountable to the voting population, but the bureaucrats and technocrats are not accountable to anyone except the bankers.
Do you see these issues as fundamentally international in scope?
Development issues cannot be contained within national boundaries. In India, even though there is hardly any land to relocate people onto, the projects are on the fast track, and those decisions are being made not just in Delhi and Bombay but also in Washington and Geneva. When there are more and more such projects going forward, the people’s sovereignty over natural resources and human rights are bypassed. It’s essential that we reach the global centers of power to fight not just centralized planning, but privatization-based planning. We have fought that at the local and national level. We have to ally with friends across the world to know the companies and challenge the companies; we need joint plans and action.
What role can people in the United States play?
We have to challenge these forces, conveying to them that we who resist are not just in nooks and corners of the world. We are together. A decade ago no one could have imagined we would be in Seattle [protest of the World Trade Organization in 1999] or Prague [protest of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in 2000] in such numbers. But it can’t be just a one- time demonstration in the street, but continuous strategizing and action on multiple fronts that can challenge these forces, which are otherwise very arrogant and secretive. People in the United States can have a confrontational dialogue with U.S. companies, and convey to them our views. It’s important for us to get information about these companies—about lawsuits against them in the United States, for example, or about those companies’ interests—so that we know what companies are being ushered in by our government and then we can mobilize people in India more effectively.
The development paradigm can be better challenged if we join hands. Otherwise, it is seen as the poor and displaced people raising questions for their own interests. There has to be a micro-to-macro linkage to put ourselves forward as political actors.
For example, the World Bank is going into water and hydropower, not only through large dams, but also in the inter-river basin transfer projects and even some large dams in the northeast of India. This is threatening the water rights of many communities. This interlinking of rivers will lead to privatization of our rivers. Groups in the United States can help us by challenging the institutions there that are involved.
Some say “You want to keep people poor” or “You romanticize peasant life.” You’ve heard those criticisms. What is wrong with their development paradigm? What is your vision of sustainable development?
We’ve made it very clear that we are not against development per se, if that is defined as a change that is desirable and acceptable within our value framework. Our framework is not an individualist one. It is the framework of the Indian constitution, values of equity and justice. Sustainability has to mean justice to the population beyond one generation. That can come only if the priorities are set right. Our priority is the basic need fulfillment of every individual and that cannot happen unless the planning process is really democratic. Equitable and sustainable development presumes that the natural resources will be used. But in the choice of technologies and the priorities of goals and objectives, the preference should be given to the most needy sections, not to those who already have.
If you have to submerge the land in an agricultural area, you are not only displacing people, but also affecting the core of the economy, and hence that decision needs to be taken carefully, to avoid displacement as much as possible. The government does not have the alternative land to rehabilitate people. If we don’t give priority to community needs and instead focus on taking water to distant populations, then we invariably encroach on community rights.
How should development go forward?
We must have decentralized management of resources, whether it is water, land, forest, or fish. Rights should be granted first to the smallest unit of population and the benefits should first take care of that unit, moving upward. That doesn’t mean that no exogenous source of water should be used. The same can be said of minerals. Unless you grant rights to the people living on the land under which you find mineral resources, you deprive the local population of that resource.
Our view of development is supportive of labor-intensive technologies that would not create unemployment, but would create livelihood opportunities for people when the resources are used. We are for technology that will not spoil, pollute, and destroy our natural resources, which still are rich enough and still in the hands of rural communities, which are simple-living, non-consumerist communities. The choice of technology is invariably related to the kind of living standard and lifestyle one visualizes as a part of development. Simple living, which would bring in more equity and justice across the world, among countries and within countries, is what we value. Technologies can bring some comforts, but we shouldn’t go to the other extreme of not using the human body and human power.
The process has to be decentralized and democratic, which is more than simply allowing people to participate in some consultations—it’s allowing people to have the first right to their resources and to say yes or no to a plan proposed by some outside agency.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective (www. nowarcollective.com), and author of Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004).
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