Damn the dams: An interview with Medha Patkar

By Robert Jensen

Published in Alternet · February, 2004

Over 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, gaining worldwide notoriety for sharp analysis and courageous activism that has included long fasts, police beatings and jail.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) has tried to pressure the Indian government and foreign investors to stop dams that submerge huge sections of the valley and displace hundreds of thousands of people. The NBA has won some victories, most notably in 1993 when the World Bank expressed concern about human-rights problems and withdrew its funding. But the Indian Supreme Court — which at one point had stayed construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, the centerpiece of the Narmada project — ruled in October 2000 that the project could go forward.

(A similar project in China, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, has sparked similar opposition. Three Gorges, which will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world when completed, could force the displacement of as many as 1.9 million people.)

Though the NBA has been unable to halt construction, it has challenged the Indian government’s claims that such projects will provide water and hydropower to people most in need and that people displaced by the project are being properly relocated and rehabilitated. The NBA continues to challenge the dams and the ongoing attempts to raise the height of them, while at the same time working to help the displaced people find justice.

NBA also is working to stop a new plan of the Indian government for “inter-linking” of rivers — the long-distance inter-basin transfer of water. The government claims that such a project would reduce the regional imbalance in the availability of water in different river basins, re-directing water that would otherwise flow into the sea to areas of the country that need it. Critics point out that such a capital-intensive and technology-intensive project will — like the big dams — undermine democratic planning, benefit a few, and wreak social and environmental havoc.

Beyond the specifics of these projects, the NBA also has challenged the reigning “development paradigm,” the idea that these large-scale projects are always beneficial to ordinary people. Patkar argues that while such projects generate large profits for a small number of people, they also bring social and environmental devastation to those who are in the way of “progress.” She and NBA activists put forward an alternative vision of how people can take control of their own lives and guide economic development in the interests of the vast majority of people, not of the wealthy and the corporations.

For this work, Patkar and her NBA colleagues in 1991 were given the Right Livelihood Award (often referred to as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize), and in 1992 she 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, a network of more than 150 political organizations across India.

As a featured speaker at the World Social Forum in Mumbai (Bombay) in January 2004, Patkar focused on the threat to “the very life-supporting resources of the world” posed by corporations and the so-called “free market” of the neoliberal economic program, which bring “displacement, destruction, disparity.” Patkar linked the goals of the movement to challenge corporate globalization to the longstanding struggles of the adivasi (indigenous, or tribal) people and dalits (the “untouchable” castes) in India to control their own lives, saying, “Without community rights, no human rights can be sustained in the face of corporatization, criminalization, communalism and corruption.”

In this interview conducted during her speaking tour in the United States at the end of 2003, Patkar elaborated on these themes.

RJ: 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?

MP: 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.

RJ: How are the big dams being sold to the Indian public?

MP: This is done by exaggerating the benefits and underestimating the costs. In India, almost all of the 4,000 large dams that have been built have been sold as the means to common good 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. And with those clearances, the planners claim they have taken care of everything.

The 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. And over 25 years, only 25 percent of those people have been taken care of in any way, though not necessarily receiving all their entitlements. That’s only the reservoir-affected people of one dam project. There also 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 in the case of this one dam. And all of it is not included.

And then there is the cost to the culture of the loss of the common property resource; all that is not included. 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.

There 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. And 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 ahead.

RJ: What about the environmental questions?

MP: On 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.

RJ: You’ve talked about how costs are underestimated. Are the benefits overestimated?

MP: It is at the tail end of the canal system [to deliver water] that the drought-affected areas lie. In the case of Narmada, it is the Kutch, which is quake-affected and drought-affected. We’re told the people there will be helped. But that doesn’t take into consideration the political pressure, the demands of the cities and industries that are on the way to that tail end. The water is not going to go through some kind of express canal to get to Kutch. The already developed areas, especially in Gujarat, will take much of that water along the way. The actual distribution is going to be very skewed, and it’s most likely that the tail-end regions will be left high and dry. So, both the valley and the tail will suffer, while the main benefits will be to the “haves” in between. Even 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.

And at the same time, the cost ends up being many times the original estimate. It is 10 times the original estimate in the case of Sardar Sarovar, as we have calculated from the government’s own documents. 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. And 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 v. people issue, as if the state is very neutral. The term they use is the “right to development,” which is the World Bank concept, language that is used very effectively by our politicians.

RJ: Do the international lenders play a role in this?

MP: Once the financing is taken care of, the scientists, technocrats, contractors, and much of the public presumes the project has all the necessary clearances. The 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.” That becomes part of the propaganda. So, even if the rest of the financial plan is not ready, the international contribution pushes the project ahead.

So, in 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.

Institutions 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.

RJ: Do you see these issues as fundamentally international in scope?

MP: Development 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. So, it’s essential that we reach the global centers of power to fight not just centralized planning, but privatization-based planning. We have had to fight 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 have to have joint plans and action. The same is true of the struggles of people in Mexico, the Philippines, Pakistan, South Africa, or within the United States and European countries. They also need to know the linkages between the nation-state governments and multinational corporations.

RJ: What role can people in the United States play?

MP: We all 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 has to be not just a one-time demonstration on 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. And 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 effectively.

The whole development paradigm can be better challenged if we join hands. Otherwise, it is seen as the poor and displaced people raising the questions for their own interests. There has to be a micro-to-macro linkage, to put ourselves forward as political actors.

For example, the World Bank is going into, in a big way, 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 in India. And they may be into the interlinking of rivers, which is a project proposed as a fait accompli, based on a Supreme Court judgment. But in reality there is no project and no plan because the preliminary studies are still going on. But it’s being discussed in the corridors of power, among technocrats and consulting agencies, and I’m sure in the World Bank and other bilateral agencies. This interlinking of rivers will lead to privatization of our rivers, and groups in the United States can help us by challenging the institutions there that are involved.

RJ: Some 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 development?

MP: We’ve made it very clear that we are not against development per se, if that is defined is a change that is desirable and acceptable within our value framework. And 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. Otherwise, the elites — the haves — take their own big share of the cake, and the voices of the marginalized people — their vision of development, even their valuation of their own resources — are never really heard and are not included in the cost-benefit analyses of the planning agencies. 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.

If 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 the community rights. These are the rights of the people who are the core sector of the Indian economy. They are still playing a major role in feeding the population. So, submerging their land doesn’t lead us anywhere. It leaves the displaced populations in the slums and shanty towns, and also affects the major natural resource capital, which claims to be developed through these kinds of projects.

RJ: How should development go forward?

MP: We 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 resource.

Our 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 that technology that will not spoil, pollute, destroy our natural resources, which still are rich enough and still in the hands of rural communities, which are simple-living, non-consumerist communities. Development shouldn’t benefit the small, heavily consumerist groups. That is where the lifestyle questions matter to us, because 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 in some comfort, but we shouldn’t go to the other extreme of not using the human body and human power, creating sicknesses and unemployment.

The existing development process is skewed; in the name of development, it leaves a large majority of our population out of the real benefits of this growth model. The 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.