Interview with Medha Patkar


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. 


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? 

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. 

are big dams being sold to the Indian public?


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. 

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. 

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. 

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

about environmental questions?


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. 

talked about how costs are underestimated. Are the benefits overestimated?


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.  

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. 

the international lenders play a role in this?


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.” 

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. 

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. 

you see these issues as fundamentally international in scope?


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. 

role can people in the United States play?  

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

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. 

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.

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


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. 

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. 

should development go forward?


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

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. 

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., and author

Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity

(City Lights, 2004).