Medha Patkar: Even the US has decommissioned big dams 

Big dams should be seen from the social aspect, and not just the economic or environmental aspect. They cause a large-scale displacement of people, says Medha Patkar

Amit Sengupta

Ashish Bhawan, the NBA office in Badwani, is named after Ashish Mandloi, the firebrand NBA leader who died young. The land was donated by a neighbour, farmers and villagers collected wood, building material, old doors and windows, and the house was built by the collective work of NBA workers. Several activists live here, and villagers keep streaming in and out.

The community kitchen offers basic food. The day starts at 6 am, there are strict timings and schedules are fixed, including a prayer meeting at 9 am where a song for the river Narmada is collectively sung.

There are rooms full of documents, besides a computer room where youngsters are working non-stop. Medha Patkar has a small room in the modest building. Like all others, she sleeps on the floor, surrounded by papers, books, letters she is writing, and the latest press clippings. She spoke to Amit Sengupta and Gaurab Roy Dasgupta.

Q. What is your critique of big dams? How do they impact ecology and social life?

Ans. Big dams should be seen from the social aspect, and not just the economic or environmental aspect. They have far-ranging social, cultural and economic impact. If you look at the social costs, they are huge. They lead to large-scale displacement of people. People are brutally ousted from their roots. It is not just the people, but also their culture, food habits, traditions, family, community, oral traditions, bio-diversity, folk narratives, natural resources, memories -- that gets ravaged.

Environmentally, too, it submerges huge tracts of fertile soil and forests, causing siltation and soil erosion. This leads to hydrological droughts and floods. All major developed nations such as the US and China have stopped the construction of big dams. They have a terrible impact on the flora and fauna of the ecology as well. Justice Krishna Iyer once told me that Jawaharlal Nehru and legendary engineer M Visvesvaraya had once shared a stage from where Nehru had actually spoken critically on big dams. It was quite the opposite to what he had thought about earlier.

His visit to China had brought him closer to the reality of big dams. Yet, India went ahead with the model that came from the Tennessee Valley authorities in the US. As far as the US is concerned, they have stopped building big dams since 1994. I got this information from Dan Beard, the chief of the Bureau of Reclamation – the authority that was building dams in the US.

The Bureau stopped and declared a moratorium in 1994, on the basis of economic reasons, and not just social and environmental costs. The US has now decommissioned those dams. Academic Bharat Jhunjhunwala once wrote critical articles about me and the NBA in Indian newspapers. He has changed his stance now and has written a book on the decommissioning of large dams.

Q. You have stuck to Gandhian nonviolence and satyagraha. How were you able to cope with state violence and oppression?

Ans. Non-violence has been the core of our movement. We have always believed in peaceful measures, instead of the path of violence. That is why we have sustained the movement for 33 years. Non violence is a way of life for us, it has long-term goals. It teaches us values and ethical landmarks, and sensibilities which outlasts even the struggles. It impacts our daily life and daily behaviour. It shapes our character. Our ideas are simple.

We will protest with everything we have, but will not turn violent. If we resort to violence in the face of oppression, we might get what we want and might grab more eyeballs, but, then, it would also lead to suffering and brutality. It is a high cost to pay for those who choose violence, and we do not want that to happen. It is the Gandhian way, and we will continue like this.

Q. This movement has been unique because it is truly driven by women, mostly led by women… how were village women mobilised?

Ans. Since they remain inside their homes, they know the real problems. They are also very strict on morality, humanism and ethical values. They will always move ahead and bring about a different narrative to the movement. These women are made of substance, full of heart and determination, stoic and resilient. They abhor corruption of any kind. Interestingly, you will see the menfolk cheering for their wives, mothers and sisters when they take part in the movement. Initially, considering the patriarchal nature of our society, it was difficult for us to mobilise women.

But, with time, the men realised that women are needed, and they have to be integral to the movement, if the movement has to go forward. Women have a very different approach towards a movement. There are situations when a woman’s response to a conflict is very different, yet, many times more creative and patient, than her male counterpart. It is also about self-empowerment and self-development of women that we are fighting for.

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