The traffic hardly came to a halt and only a few heads turned as Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) leader Medha Patkar led a group of some 500 farmers, fishermen and daily wagers last week through the streets of Barwani, the town known as the epicenter of her anti-dam agitations.
Apart from creating a din, their full-throated slogans —demanding better compensation for those being displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and a cap on the height of the dam — achieved precious little. Madhya Pradesh officials barely took note of Patkar’s rally, or the 49-day relay hunger strike that she organised in the town recently, prompting many to conclude that the iconic activist’s influence has dwindled.
Even the smallest rally by the NBA earlier attracted 5,000 people in the town, recalls a textile showroom owner. One phone call from her and the entire town would shut down in the past, points out another resident.
But much water has flown in the Narmada since. And Patkar is struggling to mobilise support for her agitations that once drew activists from India and abroad.
To her credit, Patkar’s decades-long struggle did force policy changes in the past. “It is because of NBA that the government framed rehabilitation policy for dam oustees. It is because of us that there were debates across the Indian sub-continent whether big dams need to be built. The NBA succeeded in generating awareness towards environment protection,” she says.
Irrespective of the turnout at her rallies, Patkar remains committed to the cause. “We are not politicians. We don’t work to get votes. For us, people matter. That is why we are taking up these issues,” she insists.
But many locals who may have supported and sympathised with her cause earlier, have a different take now. “People don’t have time for agitations these days. They are busy with their jobs,” says Rohit Patidar, a farmer from Kauti village near Barwani.
Ironically, one of the factors drying up Patkar’s support base is the 200 km-long SSP reservoir that has generated employment across Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Five cooperative societies in Maharashtra have also reportedly opened up earning potential through fishing in the reservoir. There are also plans to promote tourism in the reservoir by plying ships from Gujarat to Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh.
“People are looking at employment opportunities and its benefits like irrigation and electricity. They have realised that the SSP dam construction will be completed despite the NBA agitations. Moreover, the SSP-affected families have calmed down after they received the rehabilitation package,” says Mukesh Chauhan, former Narmada Control Authority (NCA )chief engineer and secretary.
Patkar’s stock has also apparently fallen in inverse proportion to the BJP’s rise to power. “Now that the BJP is at the centre and the states, the dam projects have speeded up and NBA can’t do much,” asserted a state BJP functionary. Her crushing defeat as an AAP candidate from Mumbai in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls damaged her further. “She is respected, but her agitations are a thing of the past,” says a former NBA activist.
While her rank and file is shrinking, even some of her erstwhile close aides were not present at the relay fast that concluded last Saturday. “We work independently in our areas but consult Medhaji. Because I am doing the same work, I didn’t need to be at the Rajghat agitation,” explains Chittaroopa Palit. Pune-based Nandini Oza insists she goes to Narmada valley only whenever possible.