Medha Patkar made her name fighting the push for large dams in the 1980’s. Decades later, the fight rages on.
That fight all began with the Narmada River Valley Project -- the largest river dam development in India. When Medha was researching social inequality and social movements for her PhD, she learned of the plight of indigenous people in Gujarat in conjunction with the construction of the dam.
Wanting to help the cause, Medha began working with Adivasi youth groups in the districts of Dang, Sabarkantha, and Banaskantha and farmers in the Narmada Valley in India. She worked with allies to found the Narmada Bachao Andolan -- an organization dedicated to fighting for justice for hundreds of thousands of people scheduled to be displaced by dams along the Narmada river.
Beyond the Narmada valley, Medha Patkar has played a crucial role in empowering people struggling to protect their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights across India. She she is a national Convener of the National Association of People's Movements (NAPM) and has won numerous awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize.
I sat down with Medha Patkar while she was in Washington, D.C. to advocate for the Narmada communities at the World Bank Fall meetings.
Nicole Ghio: How did you get involved with activism, and what is your history with activism?
Medha Patkar: “I was born in a family where both parents were activists. [My] father was a freedom fighter, and [my] mother was a government servant earning for the family. But she also was involved in the socialist youth organization. That’s where they got married. So since childhood, I was observing the meetings with the laborers taking place in my own house and also participating in student camps.
“While in Gujarat, I came to know about the Narmada dam issue. I thought this was very symbolic. I went for a two day long walk in the tribal areas with an advocate wanting to take legal action. I thought legal action would not help. What was needed was mass mobilization and struggle. Going through those indigenous people’s communities, the Adivasis, I realized they were not told or asked about the project that is going to have huge impact on their lives and livelihoods.
“[The Narmada struggle] was seen as a symbol of the development paradigm. That’s why we couldn’t restrict ourselves to a single issue or project.[…] We thought that everything should be well-knit to present the paradigm as it is today, and the alternative vision.[...] Since we challenged the World Bank, we also questioned the whole international economic vision that these financial institutions are pushing and everything that comes with it.”
NG: What do you see as the alternate vision?
MP: “[One] that is based on the values and principles of equity and justice. To us, sustainability cannot be just compensatory measures, as World Bank and other actors put it. [...] It has to be linked with the equity and justice.”