MEDHA PATKAR IS one of the world’s foremost anti-dam activists and a leading Indian environmentalist. She is the founder of Narmada Bachao Andolan (the Save Narmada Movement). The Narmada River flows through central India; millions of people rely on it for nourishment and economic activities. Large dams built on the Narmada threaten their livelihoods. Patkar, together with a number of like-minded people, has led campaigns against the dams and similar projects. These campaigns have drawn upon the tradition of nonviolent protest pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi. Hunger strikes have hurt Patkar’s health but have heightened public awareness and sympathy for her causes. Following one hunger strike, the authorities arrested Patkar for attempted suicide, which is considered a crime.
The Indian government treats nongovernmental organizations with suspicion. In June 2006, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Narmada Bachao Andolan had accepted money from overseas sources and was involved, therefore, in unpatriotic acts funded by non-Indian sources. This accusation is a common tactic among governments of the developing world: Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are typically characterized as working to undermine the home country and nationals supporting them are treacherous. This enables the government to take action against identified NGOs and their supporters and to demonize them in popular media. Legislation, either from a previous struggle against insurgents, or else resulting from the war on terror, is then used to suppress public dissent.
Nevertheless, large-scale protests by members of the public, when allied with support from influential political interests and international audiences, can force governments to make concessions. This was the case with the Narmada Dam, as state officials accepted the need for a review of its height and construction details. However, obstructionism and opaque decision making might still be deployed to delay final decisions not favored by funding partners. The struggle for Narmada was not over at the end of 2006 as the government began another attempt to bring the dam into service; more protests were anticipated. Medha Patkar is an example of the modern form of popular protest, employing networks, vivid public demonstrations, and innovative public relations. The use of information technology, particularly the internet, has helped local protests become global in scope and support.
Dams; India; Narmada Dam.
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