Sunday May 21 2006
Power to people
Even as the anti-quota stir fire threatens to spread , it is time the nation woke up to the reality of another silent struggle for justice that has been going on for decades, writes K S Narayanan
Noorji Phadvi from Nandurbar district is now nearing 60. For more than two decades he has been associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and has been participating in hungerstrikes, dharna and protest marches. But he is yet to be compensated for his 60 acres, which the Narmada Control Authority acquired for the Sardar Sarovar Project.
Champa Devi Shukla and her family of three sons, two daughthers and her husband, lived peacefully at their Risaldar Colony, a few meters away from Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. Until that fateful night of December 2, 1984, when poisonous fumes leaked from the factory killing her two sons and later her husband.
For the last two decades, a determined Champa Devi has not only fought for her family and other victims of the Bhopal tragedy, but her struggle also raises several issues as India opens its vast economy and resources to multinationals.
Soon after she passed the class XII exams with flying colours, Unnati, 17, took five crisp hundred rupee notes from her father Shekar Krishnamurthy to treat her kid brother Ujwal, 13, with ice-creams, chocolates and movie. The two children went to Upahaar Cinema in New Delhi to watch J P Dutta’s Border but they never returned home alive.
Both Unnati and Ujwal were among the 59 people who had died of asphyxia after a fire broke out in the cinema theatre on June 13, 1997.
What do Noorji Phadvi of Nandurbar, Champa Devi Shukla of Bhopal and Shekhar Krishnmurthy of New Delhi have in common?
Victims of state
They are all victims of the state. Fighting against corrupt politicians, inefficient bureaucracy, greedy businessmen, a lethargic criminal justice system, these and many more like them are fast losing all hopes of seeing justice done in their life time.
Even as thousands of affected people throng New Delhi crying for justice, they are viewed either as ‘news’ or ‘nuisance’ value. Because development-related displacement, safety issues and man-made tragedies remain a ‘non-middle class’ issue. It does not raise the ire of the middle class or the ‘beautiful people’ enough for them to come out on the streets and march with the affected.
Points out Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, a long time researcher on the Narmada agitation, “Space for all peoples’ movements is shrinking. All that you can do is sit and scream. Violence against such movements is being supported by the state.” Asks Ganguly, how would people feel if their own apartments were taken over by force or money power.
Even though there was greater mobilisation for an issue like Jessica Lall murder case, there is little sympathy for the peoples’ movement.
So how are these movements sustained? D L Sheth of Centre for Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, argues, “They are not pressure groups unlike the minorities or OBCs so their influence is limited to immediate localities.”
Mohan Guruswamy, advisor to former Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha, and founder of Centre for Policy Alternative, says, “The issue is not the dam per se. It is about rehabilitation. Everybody understands that all this is being done for a greater common good. But if the state is unable to provide compensation I am left with no options but to protest.”
Guruswamy also questions the nature of compensation and the manner in which they are fixed. “The compensation is fixed randomly. Often there is no compensation of land, livelihood and emotional ties with the land.”
Raising her voice along with other womenfolk, Kamla Yadav from Bhadwani in Madhya Pradesh says that cash compensation is only creating havoc in the lives of the oustees. “Men buy two-wheelers and spend the rest of the money on alcohol. They often end up in hospital with fractures as they do not know how to drive.”
Thanking Medha Patkar for keeping the movement peaceful, Guruswamy has a word of caution: “Naxalites are spreading their tentacles in central India and it is only a matter of time before they influence the non-violent struggle to turn violent. Thus there is a big onus on state governments and the central government to deliver fast on relief and rehabilitation.”
Prof Pratap Bhanu Mehta of Centre for Policy Research, calls for constructive participation between government and people’s movement to find livelihood for the Narmada oustees as land is scarce.
The Narmada movement has also had its share of success. Says JNU Prof Surender Singh Jhodka, “This movement raised fundamental questions about issues of development, rule of law, and rights of the citizens?
After leading the movement for more than three decades, Patkar feels, “The state is not only mismanaging resources but is also abdicating responsibility,” adding, “Our fight is not over yet. The challenge is deeper, larger and bigger.”
Like the Narmada movement, the Bhopal gas victims also threw up fundamental questions on the models of development that India needs to adopt. “We want a toxic free India. But by allowing foreign MNCs to set up factories and shops here, the government is not helping the cause,” says Satyanath Sarangi of Bhopal Group for Information and Action.
People’s movement is more about assertion of their fundamental right to life and liberty. And wherever and whenever their basic rights are infringed, such movements will raise and grow against their oppressors.