Over Her Dead Body

India's unsinkable anti-dam activist

Medha Patkar has long intended to die for her cause. She repeatedly tried drowning herself in the rising waters behind the dam she loathes, the nearly one-mile-wide Sardar Sarovar, in hopes that a furor over her death would cause the Indian government to reconsider its ardor for dams. She’s been on hunger strikes as long as 26 days; her latest, this spring, went 20 days and landed her in a hospital, where she was forcibly injected with stabilizing fluids. By an Indian news service’s calculation, she has spent at least 320 days of her 51 years on politically motivated fasts, and the power of her single-minded example has inspired a movement. In 1993, Patkar, along with her allies among India’s tribal people, the poorest of South Asia’s poor, forced the World Bank to withdraw the last third of its $450 million loan for Sardar Sarovar—­the first time in the bank’s nearly 50-year history that it had pulled out of an ongoing project because of activist pressure. Two years later, a petition filed by her organization, Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement), led the Indian Supreme Court to suspend construction on the dam for four years. With her triumphs, she has helped legitimize the anti-dam movement, given hope to hundreds of tiny grassroots groups around the world, and won numerous awards.

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Yet for Patkar, the Sardar Sarovar story has been a tragedy that has overtaken her so completely that the only death she can imagine is in protest against the dam. The Indian government went on building Sardar Sarovar without the World Bank’s support—it now stands 363 feet high, taller than a football field is long, yet it is still only four-fifths complete. By the time it is finished, it will have forced the desultory resettlement of more than 200,000 people, more than half of whom are adivasi tribals, scorned by many Indians as beneath caste. As they are dispersed—some to inadequate resettlement camps, some to cities’ fringes where they become day laborers or beggars—their cultures are being shattered. The dam will block the flow of sediment downstream, causing a drastic decline in the lower Narmada River’s fishery, one of the largest on India’s west coast. And in 100 years or so, sediment will fill the reservoir, turning the $10 billion dam into a useless waterfall.

What prompted Patkar’s latest dalliance with death was a decision by Indian authorities to raise the dam by another 37 feet—in the process inundating another 200-plus villages whose residents have not been resettled—in apparent violation of a 2005 Indian Supreme Court decision. The fast focused so much attention on the government’s decision that Indian police confined Patkar to a hospital. Though the protest did not prompt a revocation of the government’s decision, it again drew the Supreme Court into the dispute. Dam opponents briefly held out hope that the court would halt construction until villagers were offered an acceptable resettlement proposal, but on May 8, the court ruled that building could continue.

Patkar is often compared to Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose repertoire of nonviolent civil disobedience tactics she has embraced and refined. He spent more time in jail; she has gone on longer and more numerous fasts. Yet she lacks Gandhi’s strategic suppleness, and has sometimes seemed trapped in her own tactics. In a 1999 protest against Sardar Sarovar, she announced that she and several followers would drown themselves in the dam’s reservoir when monsoon rains lifted its water level over their heads. They stood in bone-chilling water for 30 hours, until they were neck deep; then the police broke down the wall of their hut with a barge, yanked Patkar from her comrades’ desperate grasp, and detained her until the water receded. Undaunted, Patkar tried again. Two years later, when I came to see her try to drown, the monsoon failed, and the reservoir’s water never reached her—I was surprised by the depth of her disappointment. She returned in 2002, and that time might have succeeded if not for her own followers, who pulled her out of the swollen reservoir as the water reached her chin. They couldn’t allow Patkar to die, they told her; they needed her in the struggle. Patkar had no choice but to give up her drowning tactic.

But she reserved for herself the right to die for the cause. Indeed, I suspect a part of her looks forward to death, as the only way out of the life of unrelenting denial she has chosen. As a youth in Mumbai, she attended movies and dressed stylishly, but by the time I met her she never allowed herself the luxury of, say, a restaurant meal or a brief vacation, and had given up nearly all her personal possessions. She works relentlessly, rarely staying in one place for more than a few days or sleeping more than four or five hours a night. Girish Patel, a close confidant who made decisions for her during her 22-day fast in 1991, said that when her kidneys started to fail then, he and other activists insisted that she break the fast. “To this day,” he said, “she blames me for this decision. She says, ‘Why did you not allow me to die?’”

Vijaya Chauhan, one of Patkar’s closest friends, told me that as time went on, Patkar seemed to become drained of all things personal—all that mattered to her was the cause. “Though she is there,” Chauhan said, “she is not there.” When I asked Patkar if she’d ever been tempted to stop a fast because it was too hard, the question seemed to confuse her. “No, never. Personal feeling you mean? Actually, it’s a good torture.”

Political violence and nonviolence are commonly considered poles apart, but that’s a misconception: Patkar has walked a knife edge between the two, deploring violence yet offering herself as its victim. She lives so close to the abyss that she feels the power of bloodletting, and feeds off it. Her power lies not in her oratory—she is a predictable, often strident speaker—but in the example of her unswerving dedication. Baba Amte, the legendary 91-year-old social activist and Gandhi Peace Prize winner who has acted as Patkar’s mentor, told me that the moral sanction for offering up one’s life in opposition to the dam is this: “The victor is he who even in defeat never surrenders.” It sounds like Patkar’s epitaph.

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