Published: 17th August 2019
Don't think we can save even one river in this country: Medha Patkar
Medha Patkar speaks about the social, political and legal ways through which the country's natural resources can be conserved
My soul is in Narmada today because the water is rising and the densely populated villages with 32,000 families that are still there in the submergence may partly or fully go under water. This is because it is the determination of those who are on the other side of the dam, not the people in the downstream, but those who wrongly believe that big dams bring in big miracles. And while they opened the dam gates this morning, they seem to have closed a few others and hence, the water has started rising. I wish I had a helicopter to reach there but that's not possible. So this is an opportunity to have a dialogue about this critical situation that's really troubling me. But time is running out, that's really the crux of the matter.
For everything that these youngsters (Edex 40 Under 40) have been working on, time is running out. Our lives are so short that I don't think we can even save one river in this country in this lifetime. You all know that it is 'water, water everywhere' today. The Kochi airport which was built on the wetlands is facing hell and it's been closed down. On the banks of the Narmada, villages with millions of trees and archaeological remnants, not just temples and mosques, but living communities of the adivasis have drowned.
So we see this scenario where there is a flood today where there was a drought a few days ago. One such incident that had shaken us all was bringing water through train to the Latur district in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. But today, where would we go and search for water? This is a question that is not just asked by the Adivasis, who have rivers flowing at their doorstep — until they are either encroached upon or bottled to be sold. They never finished off the green cover which has kept the rivers flowing.
When we comparatively call for these people to be civilised, we must ask if having the lifestyles where we try to bottle the rivers and sell it across the nook and corners of the country is really being civilised? Every single source of water is getting destroyed today. It's over exploitation on one hand and wrong policies of harnessing management of this life supporting system. It would be very dangerous to call water a resource because when you hear the word resource, you think of the market, so let's call it life support. But those entities which reserve and preserve water yearly for all living beings are destroyed. This destruction which is coming in the name of development itself is really contradictory.
One of the central ministers raised a question in the parliament: Do we want ecology or economy? And he said that the public must answer this question. Let's answer this question. Is there any such dichotomy? The economy is producing notes and garnering votes. Forests are where they are, not in our metro cities. Although we find Adivasis cutting our trees and collecting dry wood, they are the ones who have been the conservators of nature. But now the money and market has entered their lives as well. And that's where ecology is facing a threat from the economy.
We need these resources to build robots, bottle water or having as much power as we want. Hence, this question needs to be applied to the water sector as well. First and foremost, what has binding our major rivers with major dams brought to us? Yes, hydro power which is considered clean and cheap. But why is the United States of America, who gave us the Tennessee Valley model and got Damodar Valley in the clutches of the planners, decommissioning more than 1000 dams?
How much do we gain and how much do we lose? If there is no monetary valuation that can be applied to human beings, we cannot do it for nature either. Demonetisation of a new kind will be necessary if we really value these natural resources. The commodification of natural resources and to some extent, human lives, is something that needs to be targetted and attacked.
This is the politics of everything that considers the economics of nature as something that cannot be sacrificed, even if it means that natural resources are to be taken over, accumulated and brought to the market as a commodity. This is what is happening to our groundwater right now. With these river basins getting destroyed, we are also destroying the forests. Today in the valley of Narmada and Krishna, you find thousands of trees in every rural community which are not even counted. Why talk about the complimentary afforestation which is always on paper? TAnd still they claim that everything that gets destroyed for will be compensated for. No, just as a life cannot be compensated for, the ecosystem cannot be compensated for.
It's not just that time is running out, what is happening is that every resource is running out. The sand is running out, subsurface groundwater is running out of aquifers and the rivers are dry for months every year. Today, every city is getting flooded. There is no chance to really have development planning based on a careful consideration of the alignments. Infrastructure has become a word so powerful that no one would allow you to go through the plans or question it.
So where is the drainage? Where will the water flow? The river flows to the sea. This is what happens when rivers are stopped from meeting the sea. 80 km of the sea has entered the Narmada today. This has not just put an end to the theerthas and the yatras, it has finished off the fisheries, the estuaries and the agriculture. People keep fasting in protest and dying and there is no response, neither from the state and unfortunately, not even from society at large except for the handful of us.
Where do we go from here? We know that we have to use water, we need to use wood. We need every natural resource because of our parasitic existence. Without the support of these resources, we cannot survive. But in order for this to happen, we have to select the appropriate units for supplying and the appropriate technology for harnessing. We need to select the intensity and the levels which need not be sanctioned by any ministry. Under the law, the Air Act, the Water Act and the Environment Protection Act, why even the constitution is on a path of change towards the opposite direction. No act would be seen anymore that would even question, challenge or even put conditions before these mega projects.
When we project and present actual impact on human lives from the fishermen to the farmers and thereby link it to the food security that is being lost, the courts only look at the legalities. But even then there are sensitive judges in place who really judge the situation. We get good orders but this is not cared for. All of this is considered as being in the name of development. Hence, we question the development per se.
The answers lie in going forward without presenting the present paradigm, going for decentralisation, decomissioning wherever it has become a must, not going for the mega solutions like the interlinking of rivers. We cannot just draw a line on the map from one river to the other. Supply and deficit solutions do not work for us. We need the solutions to come from society at large and the politicians next.
In political manifestos, there's no space for the ideas that come from different environmental groups. If they take up something here and there, so many contradictions can be found. After the elections, everything comes to an end. We need to have an in-depth dialogue which is not just political but ecological, economic and socio-cultural.
Only because the land in Kashmir could not be bought over has it survived so far. Those who are encroaching upon the riverine populations in Gujarat, do so as Sardar Patel looks down at the Adivasi farmers below. No one is against going to nature, that could be done through parikramas where human-nature relationships were being built. That is being destroyed today. We need different kinds of ways and means where the educational and aesthetic objectives and goals can be met with. Save the rivers from the illegal wild sand mining, do not cut trees or submerge. Because otherwise, planting these trees become just a farce.
We cannot talk about the water sector without looking at the land, the sand or the green cover. Hence, the conflict between the environmentalists and the adivasis is very unfortunate. We need to find a way out. Sometimes, that kind of acts like a double-edged sword. This is because the individualisation of the forest dwellers trying to own and think about their own land while they were dealing with common property resources earlier was brought in by this act to an extent. We who use the forest for our elitist lives must understand that we cannot blame them if they practice the values that we teach them indirectly. And yet, they are the best conservators of nature. It is only if the forest departments don't take over that they can better manage their resources. Management is the wrong word, they will preserve, use and survive along with the forest and the wildlife.