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Dam Politics: India’s Leading Activist Medha Patkar Takes on Corporate Control of Water

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We speak with Medha Patkar, one of India’s best-known and best-loved social activists. She is the iconic founder of the Save the Narmada Movement and the National Alliance of People’s Movements. She led the nonviolent struggle against the Sardar Sarovar dam project over the Narmada River for more than two decades and continues to fight for the rights of some 300,000 people, those already made homeless and those facing displacement by the dam. Patkar has organized several mass rallies, demonstrations and hunger strikes, survived numerous jail terms and police violence, and won many important victories. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: From the ongoing fight against water privatization, we turn now to a leading voice against the displacement and environmental destruction caused by dams. Medha Patkar is one of India’s best-known and best-loved social activists. She is the iconic founder of the Save the Narmada Movement and the National Alliance of People’s Movements.

Medha Patkar has led the nonviolent struggle against the Sardar Sarovar dam project over the Narmada River for more than two decades and continues to fight for the rights of some 300,000 people, those already made homeless and those facing displacement by the dam. Medha Patkar has organized several mass rallies, demonstrations, hunger strikes, survived numerous jail terms and police violence, won many important victories. She has worked with both the urban and rural poor, insisting on their right to life, livelihood and access to natural resources and calling for alternative and just visions of development. She has served on the World Commission on Dams, received several awards, including the Right Livelihood Award, the Goldman Environment Prize and the BBC’s Green Ribbon Award for the Best International Political Campaigner, also the Human Rights Defender’s Award from Amnesty International.

Medha Patkar is in the United States for a short visit and delivered the Sheth Foundation Endowed Lecture at Emory University in Atlanta last night, titled “People’s Movements, the State, and Civil Society.” She will be speaking at MIT in Cambridge later today, and so she joins us now from Boston.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, world traveler, Medha Patkar.

MEDHA PATKAR: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you start off, since we were talking with Paul Krugman about the global economic meltdown, about the effect you feel in India and in working with people’s movements around the world of this massive economic global crisis?

MEDHA PATKAR: On one hand, no doubt, it’s taking away the jobs in India, because, unfortunately, the Indian economy is linked with the global markets and money coming from the foreign centers and the lenders more than what should be necessary for the Indian economy, and hence this globalization is inevitably having an impact of whatever happens out and away from India.

But on the other hand, if it really cuts down the outsourcing from the countries such as yours, we would be more than happy. Although the immediate impacts would be negative, I think the long-term impact would be coming out with our own indigenous and self-reliant alternatives, which would not be market-based as much as it would be the natural and the human resource-based.

So, one has to still wait and watch, because with Obama’s risks taken in economy and polity over here, what are the not just United States but also the Western inputs in the context of this meltdown is also yet to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the state of the water movement in India, the state of the Save Narmada Movement, and, for a global audience, even where is Narmada and what this movement is all about?

MEDHA PATKAR: Well, the Narmada Movement is still on, and now it has spread to at least nine large dams out of thirty large dams in the one single river valley of Narmada. This is the most ancient of the civilizations in the world, even older than the Mohenjodaro and Harappa, as is known to the pre-history branch of archaeology now. It was the birthplace of the first human being and also the first farmer in Asia.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam, which is being fought against, because there is no rehabilitation, because there is no compliance on the environmental compensatory measures, and because the economics and the benefits that were claimed and promised have been turned topsy-turvy, is the dam where the fight is still on. Being in the state of Gujarat, the dam remains stopped for the last two years. Although the wall, as high as 122 meters, is built, the seventeen-meters-high radial gates are not permitted to be placed, and that’s because not less than 200,000 people are in this emergence area, and whether the water will be filled, which, you know, is the submergence that would grasp, you know, grope in not less than 100,000 people at the present height itself. And that can happen in the upcoming monsoon, as well, but that decision is going to be the political and economic decision, because now the cost is ten times the original estimate. It is 45,000 crores rupees, as the planning commission now agrees with us after twenty-five full years. And there are no backwater levels yet finalized, as is now accepted. There are hundreds of crores, of rupees, corruption in the rehabilitation, which we have dug out.

And the land is not coming forward to be offered by the governments, especially one of the governments, Madhya Pradesh, where the largest of the submergence is to take place. And there are indigenous people who have already lost land. But there are thickly populated communities, rural and urban both, which are yet to be drowned, and we want that land, the prime best agricultural and horticultural region, to be saved along with the culture, along with the valley. And the other dams, which are completed, are also stayed, because the water is not allowed to be filled by the high court in India.

While in Sardar Sarovar even, the benefits are exposed. The drought-effected regions, in whose name the dam was to be built, are not getting enough water. They are also going to the courts to get their share. And instead, the bottling water plant is permitted in the state of Gujarat, which has drought, on one hand, and the largest number of water parks, on the other. The canals are breaching, and there is no equitable distribution of water, even in the command area. And the environmental compliance lacking, the Ministry of Environment has expert committee to review all the measures since 1979 ‘til 2009. And the compliance is not proved. The noncompliance is reported by the expert committee. So, the dam remains stopped, and the fight goes on with the struggle, on one hand, the reconstruction with the alternative ways of land, water and power harnessing that is on in the Narmada Valley.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what inspired you to really be the mother of this movement, to take on not only the Indian government — you took on the World Bank, that was in support of this dam, until they were forced to back out, to back down — and what it means to drown the communities of central India, as the dam — as the water flows west in western India?

MEDHA PATKAR: You see, it’s not just the Narmada Dam that matters to us. What matters to us is the people, the human resource, the human living communities, and also the natural resources. And when the activists, not just me, but all my colleagues together, and the people themselves from the indigenous communities, the farmers, the fish workers, the potters and all those who form the populations in Narmada and every single river valley in a country like India, is that these resources should be harnessed equitably and justly, not only sustainably. And for that, it is necessary that the communities really plan the harnessing of their own resources. They should be given the riparian rights to the resources and also to the development planning processes.

Instead, when these centers, whether within India or outside India, such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the bilaterals, such as the USAID, the KfW, and whatnot, or ECD of Japan, which is now ODA, all of them come in with their money and their market interests and, you know, somewhere, apparently, state that this is joining the borrower country in achieving the public purpose, but in reality achieve the private purpose of their firms, their lending, their investments. Then the investment of the land, water, forests, of the minerals and the groundwater underneath, and of the human power itself, by the communities in this so-called borrower country, is always ignored bypassed, and not even properly valued and, rather, is destroyed for the private profits rather than serving the public purpose.

So, if the public purpose is really satiating thirst of every single human being, the citizens of India, and if it is to take the waters to the drought-affected area, even for one single crop protection granted to and guaranteed to every farmer, and a new alternative development paradigm is necessary, and that is necessarily to be acentralized, not just decentralized from the top to the bottom, but coming up from the bottom to the top. It is also to be labor-intensive and natural resource-intensive, but not like the Coca-Cola’s or the Pepsi’s bottling water plant, which are water-intensive in a vulgar way. It has to be labor-intensive so that it can create income generation and employment for the local people, who would harness the land and water. It has to be decentralized or acentralized so that the water is harnessed in the smallest possible unit of the mini and the micro watershed and not start with the river basin or the inter-river basin transfers, which have proved to be a failure.

Those take waters away from the real needy populations to the corporates and to the city dwellers, who can always buy water if they want to. And it makes a business through commodification of water. Privatization of one kind is there in the large dam paradigm, and the privatization of another kind, which is straightaway, you know, commodifying and marketizing water. But the companies which are coming into large dams, to build large dams, the companies which are coming in to use the large dam water through their bottling water plants, companies which are coming up to extract 500,000 to 2,500,000 liters of water per day, like the Coca-Cola, as I said, all of them need to be questioned and answer their questioning.

AMY GOODMAN: I thought it was interesting, Medha Patkar, that you gave your speech at Emory in Atlanta, the headquarters of Coca-Cola. Have you been talking with Coca-Cola executives?

MEDHA PATKAR: You see, they are not really interested for a truly decisive dialogue. And if the dialogue has to take place, it cannot be in Atlanta. It has to be at Plachimada in the state of Kerala, where for last more than 2,500 days, people are sitting in front of the giant gates of Coca-Cola, which are closed, and the factory is closed, too, but they want the factory to be shifted out. And those are the indigenous communities, which are taking decisions, passing resolutions, time and again, to say that they own — they have the rights to the groundwater and the land, which Coca-Cola has already destroyed, and hence should be compensated.

It should also take place in the Uttar Pradesh state, where the factory is not really producing bottles, and it is not really even compensating the loss of the groundwater. It’s the people who have built — brought their groundwater levels again by digging the small ponds and by saying no to Coca-Cola, the women at the forefront who have faced oppression, so on and so forth. So, dialogue has to take place not with activists like me, but with the communities. And myself or Sandeep Pandey, an activist, can always be a party to the dialogue, because we are also a party to the conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Medha Patkar, can you talk about the planned dams and, well, through South Asia in Bhutan, in Nepal, in Pakistan, the plans to build mega-dams that would go through the rivers of the Himalaya Mountains?

MEDHA PATKAR: Oh, yes, the dams have been bringing in devastation. You know, the Kosi tragedy, it’s not a natural calamity. It’s a manmade – manmade, not woman-made — manmade calamity, which is the result of building large dams, large barrages and also the embankments. The river has taken a new path and changed it over. But it has drowned hundreds of thousands of people, and they are in a devastated state, even today, in the state of Bihar.

But this is what is happening to the Himalayan rivers, which are being more and more tapped, in spite of our unanimous report as World Commission on Dams, which even the World Bank was a party to. There were the former advisers to the World Bank on the Commission, like Thayer Scudder, and there were the presentations coming from the World Bank’s senior-most officials and dialogues. And Wolfensohn, the former president, released a report with Nelson Mandela.

But it is certain that the World Bank has not learned a lesson. They were taught the lessons, but they seem to be bad students. What can we do? They are still investing into the dams and dams and dams and large and giant dams in the northeast of India, in the Himalayan rivers, in the regions which have the interstate flowing rivers bringing in huge silt, with the glaciers changing, changing their paths and changing the water flows. And it’s not just the climate justice that we want; we want justice on the ground.

And hence, the World Bank needs to be seen as a party to the devastation, because they are now not just investing into individual dams. And World Bank’s investment is not just World Bank’s investment. It means giving a security to the bilaterals and multilaterals and the foreign-to-Indian multinationals to come in and invest. So the World Bank becomes the motherly lending agency. And this lending, which doesn’t care for the social and environmental impact, which doesn’t even care for the real economics of the project, as is proved in the case of Sardar Sarovar in Narmada, that they came in with five percent of their budget at that time, but then they left back — they went out of Narmada due to the strong protest, due to the independent commission’s review, which really went against them, but leaving a mess behind to be cleared by all of us, our own governments and ourselves.

And they influence the government’s policies nowadays, because they are funding the sectors. So, in the water sector, they’re bringing in large dams, they’re bringing in the privatization, along with the ADB and other multilaterals, and they are really bypassing or ignoring the laws of our land, including the laws which give the indigenous and the farmer communities, the rural and the adivasi communities, rights to the resources and right to development planning.

AMY GOODMAN: Medha Patkar, we —

MEDHA PATKAR: So these international financial institutions must be questioned, even by the people here, who should raise a question: where is their dollar going through their shares to the World Bank? I hope Obama takes this issue also as a part of his new development agenda, which we looks forward to.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the special economic zones, the SEZs, what they mean, what they have meant for corporate control, where they are in India? And we only have a minute. And the people’s movement against them?

MEDHA PATKAR: You see, the special economic zones are really special exploitation zones. We want special ecological zones, we want special farming zones, special green zones, but instead, taking it from the US-India Forum, taking it from US-India CEO Forum, where ours and yours representatives, not people’s, but the governments’ and the corporates’, are really ruling, it has come to have hundreds of —- not less than 700, as on today, but thousands are proposed within India, these kinds of zones, where the corporates have a loot ki choot. It’s full tax concessions under twenty-one tax laws. And we don’t want to follow the Chinese ACZ models. We don’t want this kind of corporate zones at the cost of agriculture, the green land and the farms. We don’t want them to get the priority over farmers and fish workers -—

AMY GOODMAN: Medha Patkar —

MEDHA PATKAR: — to water and power for the movements that are —

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I thank you for being with us, founder of the Save the Narmada Movement, the National Alliance of People’s Movement. She’s based in India.

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