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Defending Human Rights in India


ENVIRONMENTALLY sound development, says Medha Patkar, must include concern for human rights and fairness.

The slight social worker from India, one of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize winners, sits cross-legged in her sari and sandals on the edge of a hotel bed here.

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She is talking about a huge development project planned along India's Narmada River. Widely considered the largest project of its kind in the world, the development includes 30 large, 135 medium-size, and 3,000 small dams. Close to 1 million people would be displaced.

In the mid-1980s, just after the project was approved, Ms. Patkar began to work with residents of 248 villages in the Narmada Valley. She quickly realized that few villagers had been told much of anything about the plan except that they would have to move. "Their questions were not properly answered," she says.

Many villagers relied heavily on the surrounding farmland, forest, and river for their livelihoods. Yet, Patkar says, officials appeared to have given little thought to how people would survive without such resources. Patkar concluded that one key benefit of the dams, hydropower, would help city dwellers and "those in five-star hotels" more than they would poor villagers.

Also, she says she saw few signs of any government plan to keep village-dwellers intact as communities in any move. Such resettlement policy is a guideline at the World Bank, the key lender in the project.

"I saw the situation from the eyes of the tribals," notes Patkar.

Thus began her impassioned seven-year fight against what she sees as a political decision to build the dams. She appealed in person and by letter to officials at various levels of government in India and in the World Bank. She urged them to focus their attention more directly on the plight of those who would be displaced. The World Bank, though insisting it was only the lender, wrote strong letters to Indian officials setting deadlines and stronger rules once the bank "heard our side," says Patkar.

She and the villagers marched and protested in support of their views. They were often arrested and sometimes beaten, she says, for what government officials viewed as obstructionism.

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Many would argue that this Indian woman, whose father was a trade unionist and whose mother was active in women's organizations, has already scored several major victories.

The World Bank called for an unprecedented outside review, finished just last week, of its plans for the Sardar Sarovar. It is the large, first dam in the project that Patkar insists is "ecologically unsustainable."

The bank has shelved plans to aid construction of a second dam. Japan has withdrawn its bank funding for the Narmada project, and some European nations have urged the bank to drop all funding.

Yet in Patkar's view, the situation is at a critical stage. "The first dam is not yet stopped," she says.

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