‘For equitable growth, we’ve to bring back the Gandhian model of cooperatives’

Medha Patkar | Social Activist
Medha Patkar | Social Activist. Photo: Ishan Tankha

For 35 years, Medha Patkar has been synonymous with people’s movements across the country. Be it standing in the neck deep waters of the Narmada, protesting the dams, or agitating against the demolition of a slum in Mumbai, she has always stood for justice for the unheard voices. Patkar talks of these millions of voices and what they represent, and how ignoring them could cost us dear.

Edited Excerpts from an Interview

In a life of activism, you have fought for a myriad causes. If you are to crystallise that into one idea of the world, of justice, so to speak, how would you articulate it?
It is not just me, but millions of people in this country, and across the world, who are fighting for dignity. They are fighting for the respect of their own vision, not of activists’, and certainly not of the system. They are also fighting for justice and justice includes favouring the disadvantaged, not the advantaged. So they have to ‘fight against’ as well as ‘fight for’. We have a National Alliance of People’s Movements, which includes farmers, labourers, fishermen, the urban poor. They are the ones who build and produce and we all have a more or less parasitic existence. We are with these people.

What is the reason that almost 80 percent of India is left out of the mainstream narrative? Where are we going wrong?
The policymakers are just not following the Directive Principles in our Constitution, which the State is duty-bound to follow. Article 39(c) says that economic development should be such that wealth should be equitably distributed. But, whereas an Ambani or an Adani has property worth crores of rupees, there are people who continue to live in poverty, are dispossessed and displaced. That’s one reason.

The second reason is that this unabated exploitation of resources can only lead to disaster. The Constitution talks of the need to protect the environment, and this does not only concern climate change or the outermost layer of the ozone. It’s not to be only operationalised by attending seminars and conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun. There is no dichotomy between development and environment. What is happening in India is that in the name of development, for every big project, laws are being changed to allow for maximum extraction of minerals, to allow for rivers to be tapped and bound. That is not acceptable to us. We are not saying that there should be no mining, no dams, but if we go for the “disease of giganticism” as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru called it, it becomes dangerous. What is all this for? If it is for life, then that should be protected first. We cannot have life without water or land, per se.

Very often, this activism, this view of equity is seen as diametrically opposed to ‘development’ as we know it today. What’s the vision of development that you are comfortable with?
The vision comes from the people. The Adivasis, for example, feel it’s very undemocratic, the way they are forced to compulsorily give up what they have protected and revered for generations. Despite the new Land Acquisition Act, which puts some barriers between the corporates and the land to be taken away, land can still be acquired for public sector projects in the name of common good. By calling it a sovereign right — and this is 66 years after Independence — the government can take away whatever natural resources it chooses. Now, if the community has no right to these resources, as they should, it feels shortchanged. This is what they are objecting to. We say that all stakeholders should be involved, their advice taken and then go ahead with a project. If you can woo big companies with the red carpet treatment, then you can easily wait for the real stakeholders of the resources not only for their consent, but also for their expertise and their understanding, without which we cannot survive in the next generation. That is the real common good. That is where we are failing, particularly the State.

Our fight is also for the labourer, for the slum-dwelling worker, for the driver. They are 96 percent of the workers in this country. They are not unskilled or unorganised, but they don’t even have basic security. That is what we must compel everyone to understand. Start afresh, start with a debate, we are open to that.

Governments articulate a riddle, an inherent dilemma, where equity cannot happen without corporates, why it is essential for corporatisation to happen so that money can be pumped into the exchequer to ensure that educational and health benefits reach more and more people. What are your views?
I think that if at all it is to be a mixed economy, it has to be a public-public partnership, where the people have to take precedence. We respect all the pillars of democracy, including the judiciary and the State, but it is the first pillar that has to be respected the most, and that is the people. There is no alternative to that. We have to achieve industrialisation made by the people with the State or vice-versa.

When you talk of public-public partnership, are you delegitimising the corporate entity, or are you saying that the design of corporate activity, which has been rapacious so far, has to be made better?
That is where Mahatma Gandhi’s model of trusteeship has to come back. The sector we should uphold is the cooperatives sector. India is one of the few countries where the unit, that is called a community, still survives. So, a socio-cultural-ecological unit, which can also be made an economic unit, must be given primacy in planning.

People can be brought to the forefront and corporates can play a very, very minimal role in this model. We should be with the community, and if at all an institutionalisation has to take place, we should form cooperatives. That sector is neither statist nor corporate. That is the real middle path, which can be humane, just and also legal and constitutional.

Medha, you have come to Jantar Mantar in New Delhi repeatedly to protest, the people you represent have immersed themselves in water for days on end, and yet you are disregarded, you are not listened to. Have you ever in your life felt the urge to give up the Gandhian path of non-violence?
On the contrary, Gandhi’s non-violence is much more relevant today. I do not condone violence from any side; if the Maoists have guns, so does the State. Despite many false cases against us, calling us rioters and what not, we have remained non-violent. In fact, I’d go to the extent of saying that capital punishment should be done away with. That kind of barbaric practice should not happen even in dealing with crimes against women. It is only a human-to-human and a human-to-nature relationship that can change things. We have to bring that to our agenda, our vision.

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Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka, a weekly newsmagazine widely respected for its investigative and public interest journalism. Earlier she had worked with The Pioneer, India Today, and Outlook. In 2000, she left Outlook to join Tarun Tejpal, and was among the team that started Tehelka.com. When Tehelka was forced to close down by the government after its seminal story on defence corruption, she was one of four people who stayed on to fight and articulate Tehelka‘s vision and relaunch it as a national weekly.

Shoma has written extensively on several areas of conflict in India – people vs State; the Maoist insurgency, the Muslim question, and issues of capitalist development and land grab. She has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting. She lives in Delhi and has two sons.


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