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

Medha Patkar talks about trying to save one of the oldest civilizations and battling the world's most formidable institutions.

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.

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