Rare Gandhi-style protest in India

A recent hunger strike by longtime activist Medha Patkar secured official promises to help those displaced by a dam.

Medha Patkar is not the last living Gandhian, but she is certainly part of a dying breed.

The Gandhian-style nonviolent resistance methods that gave this country its independence have been trumped by the politics of influence, where money or threats or a combination of the two brings results. Holding a hunger strike or a sit-in is about as fashionable as a Swadeshi loincloth.

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. But Medha Patkar and her scrappy band of environmentalists, villagers, and poets who are protesting India's largest ongoing dam project have never been conventional.

"When I came to the Narmada valley, one felt that something must be done," says Ms. Patkar, sitting in her tiny two-room apartment that doubles as her office in Bombay (Mumbai). "The initial estimates were that only 7,000 families would be affected by the rising waters, but they hadn't done proper surveys. Now there are more than 43,000 families. Those people are just thrown away."

If one is looking at physical results, then Patkar's movement, the Narmada Bechao Andolon, is an outright failure. Despite 19 years of Gandhian sit-ins, hunger strikes, road blockades, and even refusals to budge from villages that are about to be flooded, the Narmada Sardar Sarovar dam project is nearly completed, pushed by big money, big industry, four state governments, and for a while, the World Bank. Yet the impact of Patkar's nonviolence in the Narmada valley has been so great that future big-dam projects will surely have to adjust their methods to secure local support.

"Nonviolence is our shield," says Parvin Jehangir, spokeswoman for the Andolon in Bombay. "The state tries to make you violent, they will harass you, put false charges on you. But once you use violence, the police are trained to return violence."

For beneficiaries, there is much to love about the Narmada project. The effort, which includes 30 large dams and 300 smaller ones, would divert water to two states that are perpetually short of it - Gujarat and Rajasthan - and send hydroelectric power to two states the are increasingly home to industrial growth - Maharashstra and Madhya Pradesh. Skeptics question the expense of irrigating Gujarat's desert, which has never supported agriculture. One dam in Madhya Pradesh will submerge more land than it will irrigate.

Most opposed to the dams are the people who live in the project's flood zone - 136 miles long, and three to six miles wide on each side of the river. Narmada valley residents are among India's most disenfranchised citizens. Many are adivasis, members of tribal societies that predate the advent of Hinduism. There was no attempt by the government to win their approval, and for them, the dam amounts to theft of their land.

'That was my land'

In the village of Jalsindhi, Gulab Singh wades to his knees in the Narmada River and points to a spot deep under water.

"That was my land," says Mr. Singh, one of the estimated 100,000 tribals who will be displaced by the Narmada project. "My house was there."

Jalsindhi village has been disappearing over the last decade, as officials slowly increased the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Earlier this year, they raised the height from 330 feet to 360 feet. When the monsoon comes, the basin will reach its highest point yet, and Jalsindhi will cease to exist.

On July 14, Patkar ended a two-day hunger strike that forced the Maharashtra government to agree to increase the number of displaced adivasi families eligible for new homes. Neighboring states have been less generous.

Officials say everyone displaced by the Narmada project will get new land, a home, a community with power, water, schools, and hospitals. It's a small price to pay, the government says, for the greater good - electricity and water for a country where shortages are a constant source of misery.

Yet Patkar says the government underestimates the number of displaced people because it never did a proper survey.

While not a tribal herself, Patkar says she has become so tied up with their plight that she now wakes up with nightmares of villages being submerged.

Are Gandhian tactics up to the task?

Patkar's commitment to the valley started nearly 20 years ago. Traveling village by village, she and other organizers taught tribals how to resist state policies without weapons. These supporters, in turn, became one of the best organized and most coherent networks in recent Indian history.

Through pressure and hunger strikes, the Andolon forced delays by courts and governors. Their biggest victory came in 1993 when the World Bank canceled support for the project. The bank had funded the dam in 1985 with a $450 million loan but withdrew, citing a lack of environmental studies and faulty resettlement plans.

Yet the dam project itself keeps rolling along, leading even some Patkar supporters to say that Gandhian style methods don't work. Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author of "The God of Small Things," recently told an Indian news magazine that nonviolence on the Narmada had been "an outright failure."

Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that Gandhianism has fallen out of favor in modern India.

"You can use Gandhianism as a corrective of something that has gone wrong, but as a way of life, you can't do it," says Mr. Gupta. "It's a backward Utopia. Gandhi believed that Indians could have lived without the desire for progress. But if that is true, then we wouldn't have come this far ... in terms of material development."

"We are not that kind of environmentalist that says don't touch a tree," says Patkar. "We are saying, use the resources by taking the people who are affected by the dam into the planning process."

Many of the angry villagers have been willing to plant themselves for up to 28 hours inside homes as the chilly Narmada waters rose up to their necks. Thus far, none have been swept away, but many have resisted vigorously when police dragged them to safety. Others have lost their lives, however, wading into the quicksand-like mud that collects on the banks. Still others have refused to eat for up to 26 days, keeping each other's spirits up by praying and singing Hindi film songs.

It was that group spirit that kept people going, says Patkar, with a laugh. When you see what is at stake, "you don't feel like living in this world without [achieving these goals]. You're so committed to getting that thing that it comes naturally."

Patkar insists that the Andolon must avoid becoming just a one-issue movement. "People tell us, look just stick to rehabilitation, that is something that people understand," says Patkar. But "we have to ask all the issues. The top-to-bottom approach to development is undemocratic."

Dan Morrison contributed to this report from Jalsindhi.

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