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“No Alternative to People’s Movements,” Says Internationally Acclaimed Human Rights Activist Medha Patkar

Naeem Qadri

AHMEDABAD—World-renowned human rights activist Medha Patkar has underlined the need for building up people’s movements to save the four pillars of India’s democracy. “Building up people’s movements will help us get rid of the termites eating into all the pillars of India’s democracy,” she said.

Patkar said this while delivering the Chunibhai Vaidya Memorial Lecture on ‘Zameen-ni-Sangarh ane Padkaro’ (Struggles for Land and Challenges) at the Indian Medical Association (IMA) auditorium in Ahmedabad on Sunday (December 19, 2021) evening.

“All micro-level struggles are key to building a macro-level agitation that questions the very paradigm of development at all levels,” she said.

“Chunikaka said gaon ki zameen, gaon ki hai — but is it really happening now? Do the villagers control the jal, jungle, zameen being given away by the government to the corporate sector, the mining mafia? Where is the three-tier Panchayati Raj system?” she questioned, adding, “there is no alternative to people’s movements.”

Patkar, 67, an alumnus of the Mumbai based TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), a premier institute of social science research, is a well known and eminent social activist working on various crucial political and economic issues concerning tribals, Dalits, farmers, labourers, women and other marginalized sections of the society including minorities in India.

She spearheaded a relentless 36-year battle against big dams represented by the ambitious Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project setup across the Narmada River in south Gujarat. The dam displaced thousands of tribals from their lands, mainly in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

In her lecture lasting nearly 90 minutes, Patkar dwelt on various topics. Citing the example of the long drawn out but hugely successful farmers’ agitation, which saw the ruling government go on the defensive and Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly apologizing and declaring withdrawal of the controversial farm laws, the firebrand rights activist stressed and asserted that “This would not have been possible without a pitched public agitation.”

Again citing the example of the dogged Shaheen Baug (in Delhi) agitation, Patkar, throughout her address, time and again, underlined the need for people at large to become more aware and more sensitive and make themselves ready to take up issues. Stressing on the need for public agitations, Patkar said, “We may fight legal battles or may find stray supporters among the bureaucrats and judges, but few changes would come about without people’s movements in the field.”

She said the need of the hour was to fight real political battles from outside party politics by those who become the first victims of so-called welfare policies framed, ironically, in their very name.

In a sharp snub to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘andolanjeevi’ taunt at those leading people’s movements in the country, the firebrand activist declared in her true inimitable style, “Yes, we are andolanjeevi because today’s centralized policies are pushing the marginalized communities further to the margins, squeezing all options for the poor but to take to the streets.”

In another pointed rebuff on the charges levelled by the present government about NGOs receiving foreign funds, Patkar retorted, “They allege we receive foreign funding for our agitations while I had returned even my award money, but there is huge money coming into the country to implement the so-called PPP (Private-Public-Partnership) model policies.”

Launching a frontal attack, she questioned, “How much foreign funds came into the PM Cares Fund and for disaster management? Where is it?”

According to Patkar, the government, on the one hand, claimed had no money for the tribals, the landless, the poor, and the farmers. “But this very government has money for Central Vista, for Sardar Patel statue and waiving of corporate NPAs to the tune of Rs68,000cr.”  

Giving examples, she pointed out the “lopsided distribution” of the dam waters favouring big urban cities like Vadodara, Ahmedabad, and Gandhinagar. In contrast, the promised Narmada waters failed to reach the parched farmlands of Saurashtra and Kutch in western Gujarat.

Referring to the judiciary, she said, “We have seen some good judges who could withstand political pressures until a point before succumbing and looking for middle-paths. We have seen it from Ayodhya to Kashmir and also seen them taking up Rajya Sabha memberships.”

She said the time had come to fight at the level of international funding agencies like the UN, World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, who “appreciate and understand the concerns of Adivasis, the Dalits, but also fund government agencies implementing policies against them.”

She recalled how her Narmada Bachao Andolan had forced the World Bank to withdraw funding to the Sardar Sarovar Project. But, Patkar pointed out, “The World Bank’s internal document on Narmada stated that they would get an entry into the tribal regions!”

December 19, 2021, was the seventh death anniversary of Chunibhai, popularly known as “Chuni Kaka.” Born on September 2, 1917, in a small village in Patan district, Chunibhai passed away in Ahmedabad on December 19, 2014, aged 97 years.

A well-known Gandhian and a Sarvodaya veteran, he participated in the Indian independence movement and later in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement. He worked for peace in Assam when violence broke out in the 1960s. He opposed the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 and was jailed.

Chunibhai also edited the ‘Bhumiputra’ journal and in 1980 founded the Gujarat Lok Samiti, a voluntary organization. When Gujarat faced a severe drought from 1986 to 1988, Chunibhai was involved in relief work and construction of check dams in Patan district, irrigating 12000 hectares of land.

He was also critical of the 2002 Gujarat violence, which saw nearly 3000 people losing their lives and property worth crores of rupees destroyed by rioting mobs.  

Chunibhai also wrote “Assassination of Gandhi: Facts and Falsehood,” translated and published in eleven languages.

Known as the Gandhi of Gujarat, Chunibhai led several people’s movements through Gujarat Lok Samiti forcing many large business houses to withdraw or change their plans.  

Earlier, former BJP MLA from Mahuva and social activist Kanubhai Kalsaria gave a brief speech. “Chunibhai has left us physically, but his legacy is with us, which provides us with strength. Kalsaria, who is leading a prolonged agitation against big corporate houses like Nirma and Ultratech Cement taking up thousands of acres of farmland in Bhavnagar and Amreli districts of Gujarat, recounted a rainy evening in September of 2010 when Chuni Kaka addressed farmers in Mahuva from a makeshift stage from a tractor amidst a heavy downpour.  

According to Kalsaria himself, a trained surgeon, “Bringing awareness amongst people is very difficult. But only when difficulties come do people become aware.”

Well-known academician and activist Prof Sanjay S Bhave gave introductions of Chuni Kaka and Medha Patkar. Chuni Kaka’s granddaughter Mudita Vidrohi compeered the programme while Mahadevbhai Vidrohi proposed a vote of thanks.

Several leading academicians and social activists, including Prof Vidyut Joshi, Prof Hemant Kumar Shah, Dwarkanath Rath, MH Jowher of SPRAT, Ashok Shrimali, Ashokbhai Patel of Rajkot, Chuni Kaka’s daughter Nitaben were present.  

The programme started with Narendrasinh Solanki rendering a song.

Coming to Gujarat, Medha Patkar had brought along with her beautiful saris woven by poor weavers of Madhya Pradesh. Priced at Rs 950/sari, Patkar appealed to the assembled guests to purchase at least one sari and pay more than Rs950/sari as this small gesture would go a long way in helping these weavers.

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