Sometimes undercurrents are stronger than waves: Medha Patkar

Social activist Medha Patkar, who took on a new role when she decided to contest the Lok Sabha polls with an Aam Aadmi Party ticket, talks about her plans if she enters parliament

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Geetanjali Minhas | April 17, 2014




When Medha Patkar, founder of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and convener of National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), decided to contest Lok Sabha elections as an Aam Admi Party candidate from Mumbai Northeast, the reactions were mixed. While many  welcomed the move, others felt she should have stayed off the electoral course. The Magsaysay award-winning activist tells Geetanjali Minhas the reasons behind joining politics. Excerpts:

How does it feel to be in mainstream politics?

The Congress and BJP are united in corruption and play divisionary politics. We have entered politics after 40 years and will fight with dignity.
Party politics does matter and we realised this during our earlier struggles. Though the immediate aim here is to win the elections, it’s not the end of our lives. The strategy is to reach out to people through media, colleagues and meetings in areas through young people active in different localities. Whether there is a wave or not (in favour of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi) cannot to be known from large gatherings. Sometimes undercurrents are stronger than the waves.

It feels awkward asking for votes. The common people are struggling and feel this can be part of their struggle. But we will have to wait and see. We are saying, ‘Mattayadya, haqqa meva (give vote, take your rights)’. People know us and I don’t think they will ask us for a washing machine or a liquor bottle. In fact, we are taking a position that distributing freebies is as toxic as liquor.
 
How would you respond to BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar’s remark that you are anti-Gujarat and anti-development?

These people have neither studied the complicated model of Gujarat’s development nor of the Narmada valley or Kutch. We took (Arvind) Kejriwal to Kutch to show him that promises have not been kept. The canal network has not been built and there is no water. At the cost of irrigation and drinking water, which Gujarat was promised, Narmada waters and land in command area are getting diverted and sold to big corporates. Construction of the dam itself has stopped as no rehabilitation is coming forth for 2.5 lakh people. We have (also) found huge levels of corruption in Madhya Pradesh, which is now under investigation by the commissioner of inquiry. All this is on record and official arguments and various declarations now have to be brought through the media.
On this basis they want to challenge AAP and project it as anti-Gujarat. By now people understand that the current paradigm of development is questionable and the impact is being felt across classes. Environment – with hailstorms affecting farmers; pollution; or floods in Mumbai due to clogging of Mithi river – is an issue. BJP will try their best to subvert the issue and drum it up to their advantage by making it a non-issue. We have available facts, analysis and perspectives on the basis of which we will challenge them at given opportunity.

What do you have in store for the deprived communities of Mumbai?

Slum people are smarter than the middle class and understand politics well. After AAP’s achievements in Delhi, people want change and understand the strength of movements. Across classes people are being cheated. Be it redevelopment carried out by MHADA [Maharashtra Housing & Area Development Authority] or other developers, government servants, officials and many bank employees are involved in corruption. Catholic properties in the heart of Mumbai are being grabbed by builders and for this we are holding meetings in housing societies. The government has to give self-reliant housing to people categorised as per needs for which an agency like MHADA should bring out plans through public partnership where people across spectrums will be involved. For this 30,000 acres of blocked land including 300 to 3,000 acres held by six companies and individuals has to be released. Like BJP in case of Gujarat earlier, to bluff the electorate, there will be likely resistance from the builder lobby but by now people are aware of our perspectives and transparent strategies.

The Sachar committee’s recommendations have not been implemented and minority communities do not get due recognition for their sources of livelihood. Muslims are very frustrated with Congress. Most minority committees run small-scale produce and enterprises, work in services sectors and face hell due to FDI in retail and globalisation. AAP’s decision on FDI in retail has gone a long way and they perceive AAP and Medha Patkar countering this kind of economy.

Then there are also issues such as corruption.

There are five years between elections when there is no politics but only corrupt practices. Now people want us to become direct interveners. Who questions corporates like Ambani and Adani, inequities, inorganic business, deprivation, not giving adivasis rights to natural resources for self-sustenance! Whether it is recognised or not, the right to information too came after [our] hard struggle.

Three hundred millionaires in parliament have done nothing to help poor who continue to struggle for basic necessities. Corruption is breeding inefficiency. Nitin Gadkari, Eknath Khade, Jayant Patil and Rajesh Tope are [all] involved in the sale and purchase of cooperative units in Maharashtra. Farmers have suffered and politicians have amassed wealth. Hiranandani was given 230 acres of land at 40 paise per acre. Elected representatives do not give accounts to people. Highways, flyovers, monorails, BMC – all are riddled with corruption. Politics is not in favour of the poor. People should join hands and come out with their own demands.
 
How is Aam Aadmi Party going to contribute to women’s empowerment?

Politically and economically, women have been very naive. It is through participation in movements that women can empower themselves with their rights rather than depending on outside support. The justice Verma committee recommendations have not been implemented. When political will is absent much can be achieved through social will. Swaraj cannot bring self-sufficiency. It is self-reliance that can bring change at the community level and that is the position we have taken for women.

Is our democracy representative enough?

The paraphernalia around the structure of democracy today has gone much beyond the three-tier system as stated in the constitution. Though we have not challenged representative democracy per se, there is no representation. Even if it is power relationship, large numbers of millionaires in parliament have not provided a relationship that requires a continuous dialogue and interaction. Instead, there is only power and no relationship. It is a warped situation.
Compared to our neighbours, we can acknowledge some democracy but here the ‘demo’ is missing and ‘cracy’ has become crazy. Governance does not mean filling number of posts or positions or tiers, but taking decisions, evaluating and implementing them and it is here that fraud is being played which is deliberate and inadvertent. Because the rulers have become looters there is fraud in every sector of government. The vested interest is not in running the government, giving service or in public good but in filling their own pockets, retaining and regaining power and developing their own careers. It’s a banana republic situation.

Is the media complicit in this mess?

Though it’s being corporatised, the media is the fourth pillar of democracy. It’s my personal view that there are a number of rational and irrational criteria on the basis of which the media decides. If the focus is only to criticise then it becomes a personal battle, which I would like to avoid. Like AAP, Narmada too received good media support with a good amount of criticism.

If there is a courageous move to challenge Ambani and Adani you also have to balance Modi and Gandhi. Keeping in view who owns media houses, one cannot be naive about it. Though acts of courage may have a negative impact in the immediate context, strategically done, they come out well in the long term.

How would your responsibilities change if you enter parliament?

Becoming a member of parliament does not bring magic. You debate law and policies. For us as movements that is also important since we have influenced many acts like RTI. We were part of Aruna Roy’s struggle in Rajasthan. We won the president’s award for Narmada Bachao Andolan and RTI, dug out 3,000 fake registries in rehabilitation. The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act was part of the National Alliance of People’s Movement with umpteen meetings, draftings, redraftings, speaking to the minister and all his officials in Delhi, after which, finally, the Act was implemented. Although certain sections like regulation, recording of labour, etc. are very weak, as a movement we continue to fight for them.

For the hawkers Act we had to take urban poor and hawker organisations from all states into the federation to Jaipal Reddy, Shailesh  Jha,  Shivraj  Patil  and their officials. We got the policy in 2003, which became a bill in 2009 and was finally passed in 2013, which as yet has not been signed by the president. Everything came with intense struggle.

Every now and then we would present our reports to the parliamentary standing committee, but they would not go to parliament. Despite the fact that representatives of all parties are part of various committees they would not study them. Now if they do not insist on bringing up the report for debates the entire process goes waste. This situation compels us to think of other ways of influencing and intervening beyond movements as, despite our achievements, the irreversible loss is going to leave us with nothing. If people’s movements were an effective alternative, there was no need to choose electoral politics. It was the Modi threat that made me think that there has to be a group in parliament to connect with issues of the street and common people.  

 

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