Thus, on independence day recently, while Medha Patkar was launching a dharna with a motley crew of a few hundred people on the banks of the River Narmada in the politically inconsequential Barwani district of Madhya Pradesh as shown below, Narendra Modi, as the Prime Minister of India, was addressing thousands of people at the Red Fort and his speech was being televised to millions more across the country and the world. Since, what he had to say was more important to track as it had more of a bearing on what we in Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath were doing than what Medha had to say, I too was listening to Modi through TV instead of being at Barwani!!!
Medha and Modi are at loggerheads in a very fundamental way currently. Immediately after coming to power in 2014, in his very first Cabinet Meeting, Modi had a resolution passed that the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the River Narmada, which had been stalled, should be begun forthwith. Soon after this the Narmada Control Authority after a meeting gave the official go ahead for the construction to begin and since then work has been going on apace. The work on the last 17 m of the dam for the installation of the gates will be completed in another two years or so. The work had been stopped because there are still many households in the submergence area, especially in Barwani and Dhar districts who have not yet been rehabilitated. Since the Supreme Court had in its order stipulated that the dam can only be completed after all the affected people have been rehabilitated, the work was stopped. The Congress Government earlier had not made much of an effort to get things moving faced with the opposition of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). However, for Modi the Sardar Sarovar dam is most important and the centrepiece of his industrial development thrust which has led to the dilution of many social and environmental safeguards since the BJP Government assumed power last year and so he is pushing ahead with its construction. That is why the NBA has now launched the Jeevan Adhikar Satyagraha in Barwani against this blatant violation of various statutes and court orders.
Actually it is not a clash of personalities but that of global politico-economic trends. The 1980s were a crisis time for global capitalism as demand was sagging all over the world and environmental problems had assumed threatening proportions leading to mass movements like that of the NBA in India. The subsidised welfare apparatus put in place in the developed countries from the early twentieth century onwards was becoming too costly to fund for their governments. This, triggered the neo-liberal onslaught of capitalism with the rolling back of welfare states across the world and a fierce attack on labour and the environment so as to shore up profits through primitive accumulation. Information technology made it possible to outsource both manufacturing and services on a global scale and casualise work. Casualisation of work not only economically weakens the working class but more importantly reduces their ability to organise for their rights. Then, in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe collapsed severely discrediting the whole ideology of mass mobilisation for revolutionary change. Across the world conservative political parties, like the BJP in India, began to gain in popularity and come to power backed by huge funding from the corporate sector. Even liberal and social democratic parties became more rightist. The media and academia, which form public opinion and ideology, controlled as they are by the capitalists, were dominated by neo-liberal ideas completely marginalising the mass movements for a more equitable and sustainable world order. Thus, the beast of centralised neo-liberal development has completely overwhelmed the beauty of decentralised equitable and sustainable development which continues to languish at the margins. That is why three decades on from 1985 Medha and Modi are at two contrasting ends of the spectrum of political power!!!