September 13, 2022

Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether Medha Patkar’s activism on Narmada Dam Project was necessary or misplaced. We also look at the bio-village project in Tripura, among other news.


The Narmada Dam Project – Was Medha Patkar Wrong?

Among those who have been the face of environmental activism in India, Medha Patkar has been one of note. Environmental activism didn’t start with her, but she has been amongst the most vocal on the front lines. She has opposed large-scale infrastructure projects across the country and spoken out on behalf of those who might be affected.

One high-profile project is the Narmada dam project. Controversial from the beginning, Patkar was among those most vocal against it. Now, with rumours circulating about her being a possible chief ministerial choice of the AAP in Gujarat, she’s come under criticism. It’s nothing new for her. Concerning the project, was she right in her opposition? Or did she get it wrong?


Born to socially active parents, Patkar has a social work educational background. Her early activism happened in the 1960s and 70s. At the time, the Indian government looked at building dams as a way of modernisation. More specifically, dams would harness river water for drinking and irrigation in impoverished areas.

One such endeavour was the Narmada Valley Development Project (NVDP). The government wanted to build thousands of dams across the Narmada River and its tributaries in other states like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. While proposed in 1946, work began in 1978 after the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) approved it.

In 1985, Patkar visited villages in the Narmada valley that would be affected once the Sardar Sarovar Dam in southeastern Gujarat gets completed. The project faced its first major legal hurdle when Patkar petitioned the Supreme Court against the project. In 1998, the court vacated the earlier stay order.

Patkar developed a following in the years since and formed the Narmada Dharangrast Samiti in 1986. In 1989, it became the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). She wanted the people of the region to have a voice, have their concerns addressed, and bring attention to the indifference of the local officials and government.

Years of protests led to a victory in 1993 when the World Bank withdrew from the project. Patkar rose in prominence on the domestic and world stages. In 1996, she formed the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), dedicated to opposing globalisation policies. All the while, she wasn’t actively engaging in politics. Then she formed the People’s Political Front with members of the National Alliance of People’s Movement in 2004.

Things changed in 2014 when she joined the AAP. She contested in the 2014 Lok Sabha election from the North East Mumbai constituency but lost, receiving only 8.9% of the votes. In 2015, she resigned from the AAP criticising how its founding members Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan were treated.

With the Gujarat assembly elections coming up, there are reports of Patkar coming back to the fore. Perhaps as a chief ministerial candidate for the party she was briefly a part of. Her record and activism on the Narmada project have come up with some criticising her alleged falsehoods. But was she right?

VIEW: The project affected thousands

In 2017, the government’s official line was that 18,000 families would be affected, which included more than 6,700 living in the submergence areas. They were about to inaugurate a dam on the river. The actual numbers were higher, according to activists and experts.

The Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for the Sardar Sarovar dam to run at full capacity. At the time, the government wasn’t sure how many would get affected and how they would be rehabilitated. It’s believed they wanted to reduce the number of affected families to keep costs in check. It would also help avoid future legal headaches. This was always one of Patkar’s issues with the project – inadequate resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R).

While the Sardar Sarovar project is now functional, 30,000 families still lived in its submergence zone as of 2019. For them, fishing is the means of survival. With the dam, a large portion becomes a lake to hold the impounded water. The submergence zones get flooded every year during the rainy season. Mining has all but killed many species of fish. Patkar, commenting on the state of the river said the government had been consistently ignoring it.

Over the years, Patkar has been consistent on the need to protect those who lived on the banks and catchment areas. Not only has the government fumbled the R&R efforts, but the project has also wreaked havoc with the local ecology. Ultimately, it’s the locals who suffer.

COUNTERVIEW: Opposition to any form of development

Patkar is now in the crosshairs of the BJP in Gujarat. The messaging from the likes of Amit Shah is clear – why would the people of Gujarat want to vote for, let alone elect someone who opposed a project that provides water for drinking and irrigation to people?

Water from the Narmada reached places like Kutch, Saurashtra, and Rajasthan a decade ago and benefitted millions. While the project costs increased due to delays, water sold to municipalities and industries at commercial rates made it financially viable. On the issue of R&R, Patkar was being selective, according to her critics. Neeraj Kushal from Columbia University and Swaminathan S Aiyar undertook a project. It showed that resettled tribals were better off owning land and other parameters.

Some criticised Patkar’s claim that resettled tribals would be devastated by any contact with modern life. One of the criticisms of Patkar’s activism was that she fought more against the dams rather than for the upliftment of the locals and tribals. One of the organisations on the frontline was the Action Research in Community Health and Development (ARCH). They were the ones who fought for relief packages without much publicity.

Overall, Patkar represents a type of left-wing activism that has come to oppose any form of development that could benefit people. The dam project became successful despite her opposition and activism. If not, lakhs would be without water.

Reference Links:

  • Medha Patkar: Indian activist – Britannica
  • The struggle for Narmada’ presents the anti-dam stir from the perspective of Adivasi leaders – Scroll
  • 1985: Narmada Bachao Andolan – Frontline
  • AAP to field Medha Patkar, Anjali Damania for Lok Sabha polls; releases first list of 20 candidates – Economic Times
  • Medha resigns from AAP – The Hindu
  • BJP targets ‘AAP CM face’ Medha Patkar in Gujarat, AAP says it’s ‘like saying BJP’s PM pick is Sonia’ – The Print
  • Thousands of indigenous people to be displaced by Narmada dam – Cultural Survival
  • Flip-Flop over victim numbers – DowntoEarth
  • Dammed and mined, Narmada River can no longer support her people – Mongabay
  • Those giving backdoor entry to Medha Patkar have no place in Gujarat: Amit Shah – Hindustan Times
  • Rent-A-Cause Activism: Why Indians Must Beware of Medha Patkars and Fatima Babus – News18

What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) Medha Patkar’s activism on Narmada Dam Project was valid and necessary.

b) Medha Patkar’s activism on Narmada Dam Project was misplaced.


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