Medha Patkar is a well-known Indian social activist, working towards several political and economic issues of the farmers, Dalits, tribals, labourers and women. Having dedicated her life to social welfare from a young age, she initiated and formulated several national policies to fight against land acquisition, unorganized public sector workers, etc. She initiated the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) that has been in operation for the last 32 years. The NBA movement fights for the rights of people, affected by the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, which aims at building dams across the Narmada River. She was also a member of the World Commission on Dams, which worked towards finding the social, political and economic impacts of large dams globally. Over the years, she has voiced against casteism, communalism and other forms of discrimination. She founded the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM) along with other activists and filed public interest litigations against private real estate builders like Hindustan Construction Corporation, Adarsh Society and Hiranandani. An alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Medha Patkar is a fearless social worker who has been considered as the commoner’s leader for many years now.
Childhood & Early Life
Medha Patkar was born on December 1, 1954 to Indumati, a freedom fighter and Vasant Khanolkar, a labour union leader. Her father participated in the Indian Independence Movement and her mother worked for Swadhar, an organization that supported financially weak women.
Inspired by her parents, Medha Patkar dedicated her time to social service from a very young age.
Before becoming a social worker, she graduated in science from Ruia College, Mumbai and completed her masters in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
She pursued her Ph. D from TISS, studying the impact of economics on traditional societies. However, she could not complete D. Phil as she was engaged in the Narmada Bachao Andolan by the time she finished her M.Phil.
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Medha Patkar started her career by working for voluntary organizations in Mumbai’s slums. After working for various organizations for five years, she started working towards the welfare of the tribal districts of Gujarat for three years.
She came under the limelight when she started the Narmada Bachao Andolan in 1985. She has been part of the movement which involves the participation of tribal people, labourers, farmers, fishers and others living near the Narmada valley. The movement also involves the participation of scientists, academicians, artists and environmentalists who have questioned the undemocratic planning of dams and the unfair distribution of benefits.
Medha Patkar questioned the strategy of linking rivers in India, which according to the government was a measure to fight water shortage issues in the country. Medha argued that Sardar Sarovar Dam project would displace more than 40,000 families, who live along the Narmada valley. Her argument was supported by many as the government did not have any rehabilitation plan in place. She fasted for 22 days, protesting against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, before winning the battle against the government.
In 1996, Medha Patkar, along with other activists, founded the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM). The alliance worked towards attaining social justice, equity and political justice to people. She founded the organization with an aim to fight against oppression and to question the current development model, which according to her, favours only a section of people.
In 2005, Medha Patkar initiated the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan which highlighted the struggle for housing rights in Mumbai. The movement began when the government of Maharashtra demolished 75,000 houses in 2005 which left thousands homeless.
She also protested against the construction of a factory by Tata Motors at Singur which aimed at manufacturing Tata Nano cars. Consequently, Tata stopped the construction at Singur and moved its factory to Sanand, Gujarat.
In 2007, she initiated several movements in Nandigram, West Bengal to prevent forceful land grabbing.
Hindustan Construction Corporation started a big project named ‘Lavasa’ in Maharashtra which is yet to be completed. Medha Patkar, along with the villagers of Lavasa, protested against this project, citing that the project would use up excessive amount of water, meant for farmers. She also filed public interest litigation in Supreme Court against the project.
In 2013, she initiated another protest against the government’s decision to demolish thousands of houses in Maharashtra. Though the government had already evicted 43 families and displaced over 200 people, the protest avoided further demolition. An inquiry was conducted but only a partial solution was offered. Hence, the communities continued to protest.
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Another popular protest led by Medha Patkar was the one which aimed at saving the Sugar Cooperative sector in Maharashtra. She accused the state government of selling industry assets at throw away prices to politicians.
She, along with other activists, argued that real estate tycoon Niranjan Hiranandani had violated rules by building luxury flats in places that were meant for building budget houses for the poor. She also opposed the proposal of Kovvada Atomic Power Project in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, saying that this project would pose a great threat to environment as well as to people of that region.
She also joined Anna Hazare in his fight against corruption.
Medha Patkar ventured into politics in January 2014 by joining the Aam Aadmi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal. She lost the Lok Sabha election after receiving only 8.9 percent of votes in the North East Mumbai constituency. She then left the party on March 28, 2015.
Medha Patkar is well-known for the Narmada Bachao Andolan through which she fought for the rights of people living along the Narmada valley. The construction of Sardar Sarovar Dam risked the habitation of thousands of people. Since 1992, the NBA has been running Jeevanshalas, a number of schools set up in the Narmada valley. As many as 5,000 students have already passed out of the schools. Over the last 30 years, the NBA has been working consistently in several sectors like health, environment protection, employment, etc.
Awards & Achievements
Medha Patkar has been honoured with several awards for her relentless services towards the well-being of people. In 1991, she bagged the Right Livelihood Award. In 1992, she was honoured with the Goldman Environmental Prize.
She has been bestowed with other honours like the Green Ribbon Award for Best International Political Campaigner by BBC, England (1995), Human Rights Defenders Award from Amnesty International, Germany (1999) and M.A. Thomas National Human Rights Award from Vigil India Movement (1999).
Some of her other awards include Person of The Year, BBC (1999), Deenanath Mangeshkar Award (1999), Kundal Lal Award for peace (1999), Mahatma Phule Award (1999), Bhimabai Ambedkar Award (2013) and Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice (2014).
Medha Patkar was criticized after she refused to participate in the protest against the proposal of Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. It was reported that she refused to participate as the situation did not demand for a protest at that point of time. She also reportedly stated that she had to rush to 20 states in order to participate in the Narmada Bachao Andolan and hence was practically left with no time to take up a new protest.