“I am not opposed to development like a lot of people mislead others into believing,” says Medha Patkar. “This is a people’s movement for inclusive growth and that is all they are fighting for.”
As her struggle enters its 25th year like it or leave it there is no ignoring the feisty Patkar. Pallu tucked in, smile firmly in place she is meeting tribals in Nandurbar’s remotest villages.
Bhima Tadvi, a local Bhil villager, complains to her about the tehsildar’s office making him run around for his compensation. She hears him out patiently and asks her activists to accompany him so that he does not get harassed. “Medhatai is our Narmadamai. Like the river who is our mother she never says no,” he says.
But this adulation has not come easy. A social work post-grad from TISS, Medha Patkar began her career working with voluntary organisations for some years before joining TISS as a faculty and beginning work on her PhD. But in 1985, she along with a few of her colleagues visited the Narmada valley and found that the Sardar Sarovar programme had been temporarily suspended at the ministry’s request.
Listening to the people, Patkar learned that the only information they had was that the dams would be built and people in the area would be rehabilitated or displaced.
“She became so deeply immersed in the issue that she gave up a career, a PhD, and her marriage to become a full-time activist fighting for the project affected people in Narmada valley,” points out a retired senior faculty member at TISS. “When Patkar formed Narmada Bachchao Andolan in 1989, all the local groups fighting on the same issue joined this national coalition of environmental and human rights activists, scientists, and academics with a non-violent approach.”
She and her organisation filed an unsuccessful case in the Supreme Court to stop the construction of the dam. She later helped form a network of activists across the country called the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM).
Her concerns over livelihood and displacement have seen this 55-year-old activist fighting for the slumdwellers in Mumbai, villagers in Singur and Nandigram, West Bengal, and the project affected people because of a thermal plant in the Hanakon, Karwar region in coastal Karnataka.
This is not to say that there has not been any criticism. Politicians, corporates and many from the intelligentsia like sociologist and human rights activist Gail Omvedt have criticised the NBA “for becoming the voice of eco-romanticists, not that of Adivasis, Dalits, and Bahujan farmers of the valley”.
At her alma mater, director Dr S Parshurman says, “Irrespective of whatever criticism, everybody has to agree that Patkar, through her movement, led to the churning of several pro-establishment views on sustainable development.”