2000 Mahatma Gandhi Lecture on Nonviolence,

Centre for Peace Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada



Medha Patkar

Medha Patkar has been a central organizer and strategist of Narmada Bachao Andolan, a people's movement organized to stop the construction of the Narmada Valley Development project; one of the world's largest river development projects which will displace hundreds of thousands of villagers, mostly from tribal communities.

In 1985 Patkar began mobilizing massive marches and rallies against the project and, although the protests were peaceful, she was repeatedly beaten and arrested by police.  She almost died during a 22-day hunger strike in 1991.

Patkar's actions led to an unprecedented independent review of the project by the World Bank, which concluded in 1991 that the project was ill-conceived.  In 1993 Patkar and other activists forced the Indian government to conduct a review of all aspects of the project.

Medha Patkar is a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, and the Right Livelihood Award (a.k.a.  the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize).

Presented at McMaster University, Canada, October 2, 2000

I am happy to bring to you greetings from the people of the Narmada Valley, people who are fighting a battle that is for them a life and death struggle.  Just as Baba Amte, who is very closely associated with this struggle, is currently on a mission to visit Pakistan, so, too, I am here for more or less the same work: to build national and international ties in a world of globalization and liberalization. 

To have to speak to you about the people's movements and development issues that are currently engaged in the land of Gandhi is to say that Gandhi's struggle is not yet over.  Nor is the struggle of the people in one small river valley-the Narmada river valley - over yet.  It has been going on for the past fifteen years.  This struggle is at a critical stage, since the Narmada Dam has been stopped for the last five years.  There are still fifty-one metres of dam to be constructed; there are still thousands of people to be affected; and there is a court judgment to be handed down at any moment.

The wider struggle, which began even before the national struggle for freedom and independence that our parents were involved in, was led by Gandhi, who had a vision of an independent India that would belong to the downtrodden, the common villagers, the common toilers, and he had a vision for the world as well.  By remembering him today, on the day of Gandhiji, I pay the highest tribute to all of humanity.

Why is it that the people's movements are still so active, and must remain so, in India?  Why are there so many battles that are like fights to the finish, in the land of India?  What issues have these movements been raising, either jointly or separately (but always from the common denominator of a common ideology and strategy)?  The foremost issue that has been problematic is the definition and conceptualization of development.

Development is desirable change that everyone seeks.  It should not be defined by a handful of politicians.  In a democratic society, when decisions are made in the name of development-decisions that have the potential to affect people greatly either directly or indirectly-then those decisions and the whole development planning process must be defined collectively at the appropriate unit of development planning, using democratic processes that include challenges to it.  Development planning includes the proper choice of technology (this does not rule out science, that vast body of knowledge that human beings have gathered together and drawn upon over the centuries), for the application of technology gives us a choice and that choice too needs to be made in a participatory process.

There is a lot happening in the name of development.  It's not just about buildings going up, concrete jungles being raised and forests being felled, land being acquired, distributed and redistributed, or the water of an entire river valley being tapped, not in small ponds and on farms and roof-tops, but rather in a few centralized, large water bodies and reservoirs.  It's also about people who face the direct backlash of these activities and the decisions behind them.  These people are raising questions.  They are bound to raise questions because when natural resources and human resources are brought together and try to be matched to create something that is referred to as "development benefits," these benefits are not shared and the people are not cared for.  These people are not allowed their right to resources and to planning with those resources.  They believe that they have rights to the natural resources, and have had those rights for generations, if not from having asserted them through organizations, mobilizations, mass actions and movements.  These rights, which are listed in the Charter of Human Rights that is being ratified in convention after convention by countries like India, are what common people in India, and also in places like Mexico and Brazil and other parts of the developing world that are forced to stand in a queue to look forward to "development," feel an entitlement to.

To give just one example, consider the International Labour Organization's Convention 107, addressing indigenous and tribal people's rights.  These people are supposed to possess traditional and customary rights to their land's natural resources; but these very people-the farmers, fish workers and forest-produce gatherers-still have to fight battles like the one in the valley of Narmada, and they continue to fight those same battles in the river valleys of the Amazon and Mekong too.        '

All of these communities who live off of the natural resource base, a base which has become crucial capital for economic development (at least as it is presently defined), have had to give way to development projects that cannot take place without claiming rights to their land, their water sources, their forests, their fish, their culture and their communities too.  This does not discount age-old battles that have taken place in temples and mosques over the ownership of land.  Even within the national legal framework of many countries, rights that should have been granted to indigenous communities were never granted.  People have been treated as if they were encroachers, when they are in fact the ones being encroached upon by the state, who takes what the indigenous people consider to be theirs.  In fact, it is these very people who have retained, conserved, and sustainably used the natural resources for generations ....  otherwise there would be no forests.  Look at a map of India and you will see that it is only where the indigenous populations of India have lived that forests remain.  These resources, which are not a part of property or capital (as it is known to the Southern world), are the life support and social supply of indigenous communities.  It is being taken away by the state thanks to the British framework of 1894 that remains valid to this day.  The indigenous population and marginal farmers, who have a land holding of two and a half acres or less, and also those farmers who belong to communities with bigger land holdings, all line up, one after another, to protest these actions.  It is the majority who are at the forefront and this majority is also the most downtrodden-not just disadvantaged because they live on natural resources rather than money, but also because they are socially disadvantaged, being dalits, tribals, or women, who face cumulative inequalities.

When these populations, who live simple and harmless lives, are told one fine morning that "the plan" is ready; that there is a map of Narmada Valley on the drawing board which has lines drawn on it; and that the forest occupied for generations by their ancestors (the names of whom can be given by each tribal elder in the villages of the Narmada Valley within a minute of asking) will no longer be liveable, simple questions arise in their minds: Were they consulted about this decision?   Why were they not informed about such a decision that so directly affects their lives?   Did they ask for the plan, or consent to it?   Are they going to be taken care of?   What kinds of benefits will this plan for development deliver to them, and how equitably will any benefits be distributed?   Is the plan sustainable?

If these questions are not asked, then let us not celebrate Gandhiji, who told us that when we are facing a crossroad we should think of the last man.  Gandhi's values and principles need to be revived, and lived, if we have the courage.  Considering all the compromises that we make, the fact that we still remember him means that somewhere inside us we still believe in his values of equity and justice; if we do, then the questions that are being raised in the Narmada Valley cannot easily be dismissed.

The questions that these indigenous communities, tribals and other disadvantaged groups are raising center around a cascade of dams-thirty big dams and 135 medium sized dams.  To quantify a dam as "medium sized" is to say that it will submerge 17-20 villages, while a "big" dam is measured by the ruination of 248 or 254 villages in Narmada's neighbouring valleys.  One hundred and sixty two villages have already been wiped out, evicted in the 1970s, although it was only acknowledged for the first time in 1994 that there was no plan to rehabilitate them.  There was no money to build canals then and there is no money to build canals now.  Instead of irrigating 500,000 hectares of land, it was thought they would be better off to build the Bargi Dam.  Never mind that the Dam forced 162 self-sustaining villages off prime agricultural land and forest.  And that the Dam is only irrigating 10,000 hectares of land ten years after its completion.  Beginning with the Bargi Dam and traveling westward some 1,300 kilometres to the Arabian Sea, through the three Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, there are 165 dams at different stages of completion.  The people that raised questions for the first time did so after six dams were built almost to completion at the tail end of the river.  By then it was too late.  But to be told that 248 villages over a land of 214 kilometres were to be submerged, wouldn't you wonder when that decision was taken and by whom?

This is what happened to the people of the Narmada Valley, especially the tribal communities who remain intact but who do not have legal entitlements to the land on which they live.  To give but one example, 33 villages in the state of Maharashtra previously had access to 20,000 hectares of land.  Since the Dam there was built they have been displaced and re-situated on 4,200 hectares of land.  Land records have not been updated since the British were consulted in matters pertaining to private property.  Regardless of this, the tribal and indigenous communities were never heard during the long process preceding the construction of the Dam.  No tribunal was set up to reconcile the growing conflict between the state and its people.

An international delegation, which came on a mission to investigate the region, did not consider the laws and rules of the indigenous ministries-and now they do so even less.  Even then, in the 1980s, they dealt with the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Water Resources, but not with the Ministry of Environment or the Ministry of Social Welfare.  The international delegation handed down a decision, with the list of studies to be conducted in the annexes of the appraisal, and with the risk analyses predicting an escalation of costs and a reduction in benefits that would lead to a net benefit of zero.  The various risks that the project would face and the possible negative conditions that would result were all put forward, but regardless of these warnings, financial assistance was granted.

All of the people who are staying in the valley to this date (approximately 80% of the original population) stand upright and are more organized as a community than ever before.  Certainly, they ask questions.  Where were we?   Where are we?  And where are we going to be?  These questions have no answer.  But these are the questions that communities dependent on natural resources have been raising, and not just in the Narmada valley.  It includes aboriginal fish workers in Canada who are struggling with commercial fishing vessels which, having depleted their own resources, are now encroaching upon the traditional land claims of native peoples.  Of course the fish workers in both countries are fighting a common battle, saying the same thing and asking the same questions:

How can decisions related to coastal territory and fisheries be taken without ever involving fish workers themselves'?  And of course the dalits, the so-called backward castes in India who occupy the lower sections of the hierarchy created by man, are looking out for their right to land.  They are facing the same battle as fish workers.  There are umpteen numbers of examples where natural resource-based communities are saying, "No," to those who are coming with monetary capital, which is just one kind of capital and which ultimately cannot produce hydro power.  But the capital, which can produce hydro power (meaning the natural resources) and the owners of that capital, who have no social status, economic status, nor political space or role in the development planning process, continue to raise questions.

These questions are leading to changes in laws.  On the one hand, some change is in favour of the indigenous communities, such as the "tribal set-rule act." With this act, a right to the minor forest produce is granted to the indigenous communities.  On the other hand, however, although a community has the right to the minor forest produce, which means to have the right to fruit extracted from a flower, still, the forest can be taken over by the state.  And now with the new economic politics of globalization and liberalization, lands are to be made barrier-free so that forests can be taken over by the party with the most monetary capital.  We have raised objections.  Every single village has raised an objection but never has any family from the affected communities been heard.  Our simple legal right to land has not been granted.  Now, the land acquisition act-valid since 1894--is going to be changed.  The objective of these changes is that in the new economic policy, companies will have easy access to land and everything attached to that land.  The final goal of that policy is to make it possible for land to be acquired at a much faster rate than it has been to this point.  Imagine what would happen.  It is not 2-8 per cent of India's population; but rather, 60-70 per cent who live on or are involved with the agricultural sector.  If all of them are to be thrown out through this so-called legal, but inhuman process, they have to fight.  There is no alternative to such a fight, and there is no need to think of an alternative, because only if the land, water and lifestyle of their community survives, can the people themselves survive.

These are examples of the battles for survival that the natural resource-based communities face, unlike the monetary resource-based communities who can easily find food.  These battles represent only one kind of battle that is going on in the name of development, When we look closely at development plans and the benefits that these plans are supposed to bring, it seems that our old theory of trade-offs and our continuing language of sacrifice for development must be examined and questioned.  The Narmada Valley is but one example of this over­growing need.