Interview with Medha Patkar, social activist and reformer

We talked to Medha Patkar, one of India’s most famous social activist and reformers, who had an interactive session at IIT Bombay during Mood Indigo, 2015. Medhatai spoke on how the Chennai floods reaffirm the importance of the environment as something we as a society need to take care of, the gap between intellectuals and the on-ground realities, how students of science and technology can contribute to helping those in need and much more

Correspondents: Mihir Kulkarni, Shardul Vaidya
Cinematography: Vikas Kurapati
Editing: Kumar Yashaswi
Transcription: Mihir Bhosale

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Mihir: So ma’am, the first question we’d like to ask you is – Recently we had the floods in Chennai which were attributed to the destruction of natural canals. So clearly there is a need for our country to have some discussion about environmental issues and to take these things seriously. Do you see this happening in the near future?

Medha Patkar: Your first sentence?

Mihir: We had the flood in Chennai…

Medha Patkar: Well, yes. It’s a very serious issue. In water sector there are two kinds of crises. One is of water management from the point of view of land-water relationship and also the green cover, and the second is from the point of view of drainage and urban areas specially are affected because of lack of drainage.

Now it is very clear that when the-the whole city gets flooded, it’s because the natural drains are blocked. Now normally the slums are blamed for this invariably we see that the big structures, whether it is the… some institute/university in Chennai or the Mithi river being blocked by the Airport Authorities’ rubble…It is their deeds which the slums also get affected due to and the whole city really depends.

It’s very necessary that the urbanization which is pushed by the real estate developers, the vested interests who want more and more construction
and which is generally violating the development control rules, or the rules in themselves are weakened by the politicians and real estate developers of the interest nexus. So Chennai has taught that lesson. The Coovum, the Adiyar on the banks of which I was with my young colleagues there few days ago…are needed to be dredged, those are needed to not to be embanked and the small slums around need not be evicted, but rather the rivers need to be properly channelised and linked with the natural drains. Now that, no one is bothered about, no one. They are saying they have big plans of water management in Chennai since long. Once the city development plant of Chennai was also reviewed by Devasahai and [the] like person, but the new draft was never taken into consideration. So I think the time has come, because Indore, Chennai, Mumbai, every city is getting flooded, Baroda included.

Shardul: So, while you’ve done a lot of revolutionary on-ground work for the envronment and social rights, what do you think the role of an academic in society or, for example, a writer, is, when you compare it to somebody on ground, especially in the Indian context?

Medha Patkar: I don’t take- consider our work as that revolutionary because otherwise the conditions in the country would have changed long back.
But with all humility at my command I would say that while the common people – especially the suffering people, the oppressed people, downtrodden people, like the adivasis, dalits, the unprotected workers are fighting, intellectuals are still falling behind and to play their role, there are literaturers who have their commitments- recently those who returned their awards – filmmakers to the poets.They all have come forward to at least express their feelings against communalism, which we have welcomed.

But they must go beyond that and we would welcome if they support us, like Aamir Khan once supported us, Arundhati Roy supported, Shriram Lagoo, Sadashiv Amrapurkar. Similarly these social artists who- the literaturers have much to give to the society, and although they can have their own world, we cannot attempt to change all that and we can’t say they only draw the pictures of the slums and of the drowning villages. But they must take a position with sensitivity that gets effected into their art, apply it towards the people’s common problems. When the state is very very callous, they can stand by us whenever – like Ramdas Bhatkal here in Maharashtra, or Anand Patwardhan stood by Narmada Bachao Andolan, Amrapurkarji came all the way to the valley, Shriram Lagoo visited us during our Satyagraha – the state is compelled to think and rethink. There are reactions like Aamir Khan faced so much, but that same film of his was sold to the highest value. So I think they must come forward and we must reach out to them. They must write about these issues, they should write songs for the movements, and they must also act as mediators, as some of them did do that, between the state and the people, and compel the state to listen to that portion of civil society- they are also civil society, not just the city dwellers.

Mihir: Ma’am, recently we had an interview with Justice Markandey Katju, so he was the opinion that in the next 10-15 years, because of the current social, political, economic climate, the country is going to have a revolution. So do you see that happening in the future, at least at the grassroot level?

Medha Patkar: What will happen?

Mihir: A revolution of sorts.

Medha Patkar: I don’t know- Marx thought the same, Gandhiji led one kind of revolution, which was for the political freedom. But the revolution as we see it- and also Bhagat Singh, who did not want violence throughout in revolution – not at all, he was against it – and Justice Singhvi has quoted him in one of his judgements -formal Supreme Court judgements – where he says that only when the exploitation stops the day of the revolution starts, and that is a long way to go. It will certainly not come in our generation. Next generation of course, because if there is so much of
growing disparity beyond limits and vulgar consumerism on one end, and the unjustifiable deprivation on the other, then people will react- will not only resist, they will take to the new path and they may even denounce these kinds of party politics and this kind of economics, and will take a different path- like we also feel that between the statist and the corporate economy, there should be a co-operative economy. Communities are also like small cooperatives and we can have the cooperative sector flourishing in industrialization and so.

Shardul: Ma’am talking about your past, you stood for election in 2014 despite your activism and groundbreaking social work for nearly three decades-

Medha Patkar: That question remains to be answered.

Shardul: So do you think that the best way to bring about a change in society or in our country especially is only through politics?

That is not the best way- that is one of the ways, but if there is an intervention into electoral politics which succeeds, fine, but otherwise the non-party, non-electoral politics of the people’s movements is also a must. Most of the new pro-people acts in our country- Right To Information and Government Guarantee, PESA Act, Forest Rights Act, Unorganized Sector Workers’ Act, Hawkers’ Act, New Land Acquisition Act have come as a result of the initiative by the people’s movements. We can’t say no to electoral politics, but then it becomes such a game, that without very revolutionary changes in our People’s Representation Act, that is the electoral reforms, revolutionary reforms, the real people’s representatives will not come to those fora. So they will remain outside, so only when that happens, then we can attempt.

Last question?

Mihir: Ma’am, as students of science and technology, what is your message to people in IITs, and in general in colleges in colleges which are studying technical education, for people who want to give back to society.

Medha Patkar: See, I was also a student of science and I also studied the Scientific Method in my Social Science research work. It is necessary to understand that technology evolves from the vast arena of scientific knowledge. Now there we have to have a choice -we will not go for amniocentesis because we don’t want female infanticide. We will not go for nuclear power –I don’t know about your opinion– because that is so much destructive, and there is know going back once you pace ahead. So in water management, in housing, everywhere there are number of alternatives, and unfortunately even the legal development hplanning process in this country does not take the options assessment seriously – selecting the right kind of option. So one, we have to put forth the options. Two, the proper option should be selected, at least include not just technological choice and options, but also the service option, the process options, and that can go on. So that is my appeal, not message, to the students, that they must use their knowledge of science and technology to bring in the appropriate science and appropriate technology, and that also should be democratic, that is the first condition.

So unless those whom you want to benefit- unless they are a part of the process, it will not be sustainable. Sustainability is not just ecological sustainability, it has to be also popular sustainability, and the maintenance sustainability. People have a big solar unit but they cannot maintain it. We have in our – this – IIT generated cycle – the electricty generating cycles, but distilled water was not available, and somehow it did not work beyond a limit. So these kinds of practical things also need to be taken. Work closely with people, work closely with people’s movements, give them your knowledge of technology to be used effectively, help us fill our gaps, and then your technological knowledge, your vision of equity and justice, if it is, that you’ll certainly feel satisfied. You are moving towards that. That will not happen through your placement in the corporates, which may give you money, but not the satisfaction, and a heart.

Mihir: Thank you, ma’am.
Shardul: Thank you so much.

Medha Patkar: Welcome.