Consider the Alternative: Medha Patkar and Chidambaram

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Photo: Arun Sehrawat
Photo: Arun Sehrawat

If THiNK needs to be justified — and in the face of reasonable criticism, some answers are clearly warranted — this morning’s sessions featuring the activist Medha Patkar and later, the Finance Minister P Chidambaram, is that justification. Patkar was clear about her worldview. What she fights for is justice and that means favouring the disadvantaged rather than helping the already advantaged further the gap. We lead parasitic lives, Patkar said, feeding off the sweat of the majority. She puts the responsibility squarely on policymakers who do not follow the constitution’s “directive principles”, who enable wealth to be concentrated in the hands of the few.

Patkar’s point is not that there should be no ‘development’, that there should be no mining, or no dams. “We’re all part of a society that uses natural resources,” she said. “But to go on extracting, to go on destroying. Life cannot be without rivers, without groundwater, without land.” She emphasised her point about groundwater by holding up a packaged drinking water bottle. In other words, the corporations’ greed for profit must be regulated by government. Instead, as with those who could not understand the protests against the Tata Nano factory in Singur, the State allows undemocratic land grabs.

The problem, for the development fanatics out there rolling their eyes, is not the use of resources, but what Nehru described as the “disease of gigantism.”

In his session, Chidambaram, not unexpectedly, demurred with Patkar’s claim that “State actors lie, they do not follow the laws of nature or land.” He has, he said, a straightforward test to which he put any plan, any theory- does it leave the people whom you’re fighting for in the same state of poverty, or does it leave them less poor? “I have”, Chidambaram said, “a suspicious view of people who stop power plants, coal mining, small dams, big dams.” Patkar would argue that the point is not to stop power plants but to give people about to be displaced a say in their own lives. To allow them the dignity of being consulted on their futures.

Besides, as Shoma Chaudhury pointed out in a tough, incisive interview, often land is commandeered for the sake of being commandeered. When two lakh hectares of coal fields haven’t been mined, what’s the excuse for opening up another forest?

Sandwiched between the Patkar and Chidambaram interviews were Subhashree Panda and Thimbu Oraon — the latter was a Maoist, while the former is the wife of a Maoist rebel leader who has chosen to run for election as an independent, working within the system as opposed to her husband working without — who live among the people Patkar would describe as those dispossessed and exploited by their country, a country that is fast becoming a corporatocracy. Maoist rebels choose violence, as opposed to Medha Patkar’s Gandhian non-violence, but, as Patkar herself argued, the government has guns too.

Chidambaram, to his credit, was honest about the government’s failures. Honest too about how Rahul Gandhi, if he is to be leader of the Congress Party must “speak in detail about issues.” It is the same criticism that Chidambaram has about Narendra Modi – his unwillingness to speak in detail about his policies as opposed to just making election promises. But where Chidambaram was less impressive, less honest, if you like, was his defensive suggestion that those who could do better than him were welcome to try their hand at getting elected into a position to effect change. The fact is that it is the executive’s job to make decisions. It is also the executive’s job to engage, to wend a path through all the stakeholders, all the lobbyists. Somewhere that map has been lost.

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