`It is a serious situation'

Print edition : January 16, 2004

VIVEK BENDRE

Interview with Medha Patkar.

With BJP governments in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the odds seem to be stacked against the people of the Narmada valley as well as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and its work. NBA activist-leader Medha Patkar spoke to Lyla Bavadam about the implications of Madhya Pradesh, the State in which all the dams except the Sardar Sarovar are located, having a BJP government. In a television interview many years ago, Uma Bharati,the new Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, when asked who she considered a formidable foe, had replied "Medha Patkar". The activist merely smiled when asked about that. Excerpts from the interview:

You have already written a letter to Uma Bharati. What have you conveyed to her?

I have told her that she should not take a decision without talking to us. I have said that we are sure she would like to take a decision in the interest of the people as well as the State. And if that is to happen, then she must have a dialogue with us, especially since the officials have been feeding in false data. If the Chief Minister came and saw the ground realities, she would find that thousands of families are not yet rehabilitated but on paper they are shown as resettled and rehabilitated. She should also not presume that people's movements are just fighting for the sake of fighting. I would also tell her of the temples and mosques of the valley that are ages old. They are an integral part of the culture of the valley and need to be saved. Displacement and other issues need serious and urgent review.

When did you write to her? A few days after she took over. Any reply? I expect one.

Uma Bharati has said that she wants to make Madhya Pradesh another Gujarat. Was this statement a matter of concern for voters in the valley?

We did bring this statement up in the local forums but finally it is the people who have to make the decisions. The BJP was clever enough to say that they were referring to development and not to the communal angle. Now practically every area has cast a vote in favour of the BJP. Even the Adivasi vote, which has traditionally gone to the Congress, went to the BJP. The Jhabua Hindu Sammelan created an atmosphere that helped utilise the identity crisis that the adivasis are facing. The ground was prepared by bad economics, wrong development policies and displacement issues. The seed that was finally sown was not cultural, it was communal. The Congress could not counter it.

From your perspective, what went wrong in these elections?

(Gujarat Chief Minister) Narendra Modi and (Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister) Digvijay Singh were together on the Narmada issue. That was the main compromise that Digvijay Singh made. People in the Narmada valley believe that it is because of his betraying us that he had to go. We tried to tell him that we are a part of the secular force but when I wrote to Sonia Gandhi about the whole situation some months ago, Digvijay Singh responded by saying that there is no difference between communal and secular in the matter of Sardar Sarovar. I had written back saying it was not so. Many people who have betrayed the NBA have been wiped out politically - Sunderlal Patwa, S.C. Shukla, T.N. Seshan, Motilal Vohra... especially those who supported us initially and then changed their position. The Congress did not bother to gather all the secular forces in the State. Of course the Congress also had a lot to answer for. Our mass bases could have stood up and questioned many actions of the Congress. And though we did speak in the villages about communal forces, the local masses were completely against the incumbent... it was an anti-incumbency vote.

The BJP put aside Hindutva and concentrated on development as an issue. So it knew clearly where to hit Digvijay Singh.

Yes, that played a huge role. Power, water, employment, displacement, farmers' issues, organised sector issues, infrastructure - all these played a role. Development has become a two-edged sword. They are not defining development. When we speak of infrastructure, the farmer does not want highways. He is looking for small connecting roads. Development right now is defined through rhetoric. But both development and governance are just electoral issues. They will not be translated into reality. The issues are politicised. I don't know whether this is a good thing or not.

Did you experience any positive outcomes of Digvijay Singh's decentralisation policies?

His policies were very well drafted but he ended up following a globalisation model. People did not know whom to fight since the seat of power is neither in Bhopal nor in Delhi. It is in Washington. The only way the people can express themselves is by taking out their anger and frustration at whoever is in a position of power and is accessible to them. That is what happened and will happen in the coming days.

Has the Gujarat government used Digvijay Singh on the Narmada issue?

As far as energy and power are concerned, he was advised by many that since power was becoming an electoral issue he should blame the NBA's opposition to the dams. So he blamed us openly. First he came to a bargain with Modi. Then he puts the power scarcity problem on to us and linked the Sardar Sarovar/Maheshwar issues. He did not look into the reality and dug his own grave. Yes, he was used by the Modi government. The first thing that Digvijay did was to let Modi take water to Rajkot, with which Modi won his election. That water reached Rajkot only for 17 days - just those crucial pre-election days. Then it was diverted into the Sabarmati. The people of Rajkot protested and were given water from the Mahi river. Digvijay had given clearance for projects in Madhya Pradesh on condition that some other projects be started in the State. He hoped to get credit for them but he didn't even get that. The credit for Omkareshwar [dam] went to Uma Bharati and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee.

This kind of bargaining didn't work well for him. He had no need to ally with Vajpayee and Modi especially when he knew their politics. When Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister L.K. Advani visited the Sardar Sarovar dam site, he listed the BJP's achievements. He had said 1998 was the year of the nuclear test, 1999 Kargil and 2000 Sardar Sarovar [the Supreme Court judgment in favour of raising the height of the dam]. Digvijay should have lobbied and allied with Rajasthan and Maharashtra on the dam issue, instead of getting entangled in the politics of the BJP.

It was not always like this. Digvijay Singh was quite an accessible Chief Minister initially. When did things start changing for the NBA in Madhya Pradesh?

It was after the Supreme Court's judgment in 2000. Digvijay said that the judgment compelled him to take a different stand. That was not the case at all. He chose to change his position and we realised that after many attempts to talk to him. Every attempt at meaningful dialogue would end in an illogical conclusion with him referring us to the bureaucrat in charge or the Deputy Chief Minister. We wondered what had happened and what had turned him into such a different person. Then we realised that it was related to Modi's election. Modi was to stand for election from Rajkot on January 23, 2002. On January 7, Digvijay, Modi and Vajpayee had a meeting from which even Vilasrao Deshmukh (Maharashtra Chief Minister) was excluded. They made a bargain and Digvijay Singh agreed that the NBA and other mass movements were no good for political interests. This is despite the fact that in the last election, the Congress won the entire valley from Bargi [dam] to the Nimad regions [lower reaches of the river where the Maheshwar and other dams are proposed to be built]. And yet Digvijay took this sort of a stance.

Clearly there is more to it.

The problem is that he turned in favour of globalisation while our clear stand against globalisation meant that we had to criticise him. That really used to hurt him. We always used to have dialogue with him. He knew what we were thinking and what we believed in. Once the matter of big corporations came up in our talk. He told me that I could question him if he invited Enron to the State and then he said, "Please don't question Reliance." I asked him how he could expect us to do that and then he said loudly: "Oh! I have to make a choice between Medha Patkar and globalisation." I said, "No, you have to make a choice between globalisation and people's power." That used to be a favourite term of his - people's power. So, the point is that he has had corporate linkages all through. This is the sad point about electoral politics. Every single party needs to have some link with corporate powers if they want to survive. And that is why even those politicians who support us ask us the question: "Do you want us to come to power or not? And if you do, then don't be so rigid about corporate participation.' That is the kind of message we are getting. Corruption in elections is a result of this kind of corporatisation. We question it because it has serious impact on land, water, forest rights. It is killing the democratic process and bypassing the sovereign indigenous agencies and monitoring agencies. That is what we are fighting. We aren't just fighting some capitalistic idea in the air. It has concrete implications for the whole development planning process, people's roles and rights and in their share of development, planning and choice of technology.

Digvijay Singh could have used people's power to fight the election. He could have used the alternative approach of gathering together all the angry, agitated masses and taken them with him to fight those centralised decisions. But his globalisation perspective took him on another path. His ideology was confused. He said he was against big dams and was in favour of small dams. At the World Water Forum, he made a statement that water first belongs to the community and that in Madhya Pradesh no water project is built without community involvement. And then he comes back and implements policies that are clearly guided by the principles of globalisation. He had only one goal and that was to retain power.

What is the next step?

It is a serious situation. Not just because of a change of government but because the Congress and the BJP both have the same perspective on large dams. At the Narmada Control Authority's (NCA) recent meeting, they presented completely fake Action Taken Reports (ATRs) and this has become a matter of routine. No official agency has visited the valley in so many years. Some junior officials of the NCA made a brief trip to check entitlements and it was clearly established that the official ATRs were wrong. Our people have surveyed the area and have the full data. Our team went twice. When individual cases of rehabilitation were looked at, it was found that people who had shifted 20 to 30 years ago had still not got their entitlements. So now we are providing data to the government. Even though there is a complex situation with the authorities, the law is on our side. We will continue to use the legal system to make our case.

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