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Medha Patkar arrested in MP: Who stands to benefit?

It is widely believed that one reason Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan did not initiate any talks with Patkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan is that he did not want to raise Modi’s ire. With elections in Gujarat round the corner, Chouhan did not want to do anything that would obstruct the supply of irrigation water to the neighbouring state

Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) leader Medha Patkar, 62, who was arrested under section 151 of the CrPC to “prevent commission of a cognisable offence”, was sent to the district jail of Dhar in Madhya Pradesh on August 10 evening. She has been accused of “abduction, wrongful confinement and preventing a government servant from discharging his duties”.

Madhya Pradesh Police arrests Medha Patkar

With Patkar behind bars, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government can now mercilessly suppress the protests in the Narmada Valley, and the Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSP) in Gujarat can be filled up to the Full Reservoir Level (FRL), thus enabling the Modi-Shah duo to claim that they have brought water to the parched lands of Kutch. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to guess that this will help BJP’s poll effort in Gujarat, where assembly elections are due less than four months from now.

Continuing its crackdown on the NBA, the Madhya Pradesh government, had on August 10, banned Medha Patkar’s entry in the two districts for one year. The NBA has been spearheading an agitation for justice to 15,000 families, of the Dhar and Badwani districts the state, who will have to leave their homes once the dam is filled up to the brim.

The order, issued by the SDM of Dhar, was served on her when after she was discharged from an Indore hospital and was proceeding towards Badwani. The order said: “There is an input that she is trying to go to the submergence area and might try to instigate the agitating people for fast and other actions that might cause harm to their lives.” After she refused to sign a bond to this effect, she was taken into custody under section 151 of the CrPC.

That is not all; 2530 NBA activists were booked for violence and for preventing government servants from discharging their duties – although only 30 people were named. In another case, 500 people were booked on a complaint by an ambulance driver that they had pelted stones at the vehicle. The cases were filed in the Kukshi police station on August 9.

Describing the government’s move as “a complete travesty of justice and an attempt at intimidating and terrorising the Andolan”, a stunned NBA added, “The last ten days would be remembered in Indian history as the government’s planning phase for a watery grave for its own people.”

On August 7, the police forcibly removed Medha Patkar from Chikalda in Badwani district, where she was on an indefinite fast, and admitted her to the Bombay Hospital in Indore. It was the 12th day of her fast. Technically, it was not an arrest, but she was not allowed to meet anyone at the hospital, except one NBA worker. She was also not allowed to use her mobile phone.

S.C. Behar, former chief secretary to the Government of Madhya Pradesh, meets Medha Patkar at her fast venue in Chikalda, in Badwani district, Madhya Pradesh, on August 4

Patkar was “release” from the hospital took place on August 10 after the NBA filed a habeas corpus application in the Indore Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court when they were denied access to their leader on August 8 and 9.

After being discharged from hospital in the afternoon, Patkar met with her supporters. She visited a hospital where many participants in the agitation were being treated for the injuries they sustained while try to prevent the police from forcibly removing her. She rested for some time and then left Indore at 4pm on the same day. During this period she continued her fast. The nine other activists also continued their fast in custody at the Dhar District Hospital.

Then, according to an NBA press release, “As Medha’s vehicle was moving towards Badwani, her vehicle was intercepted by nearly 35 police vehicles and taken over by them. The vehicle’s driver was forced out and a police officer started driving them towards Dhar.”

Earlier, Patkar had announced that despite the police action, the protest for proper rehabilitation of SSP oustees would continue. “The fast and protest will continue till complete rehabilitation of Sardar Sarovar dam oustees is carried out,” Patkar told reporters. She said that she was continuing the fast and had not had any food while being treated at the hospital.

Described the police action as “dictatorial”, Patkar said, “I was illegally detained. I was not allowed to use the mobile phone. Even during hospital visiting hours, I was not allowed to meet people,” she said.

The NBA has been working in the Narmada valley for the past 32 years and has won many battles for the Narmada oustees.

The latest battle began in mid-July this year after the government announced that it would be closing the gates of the SSP, as allowed by the Supreme Court on July 31, so as to fill the dam reservoir up to the FRL of 138.69 metres, up from the present 121.92 metres. That would partially or completely submerge 176 more villages, affecting 21,808 families.

Medha Patkar began her fast-unto-death on July 27, demanding complete rehabilitation of the oustees, which she clarified, did not mean giving them only houses but also livelihoods. However, the government looked the other way as her health deteriorated and did not initiate any talks with the NBA. Instead, the chief minister addressed busloads of so-called oustees, who had been brought from the submergence zone to Bhopal by BJP MLAs, at his residence and gave vague promises. As pressure mounted, on August 3, the chief minister tweeted a request to Patkar to end her fast. The next day, a three-member team of senior officials reached Chikalda for talks with Patkar. They listened to Patkar and the oustees relate their grievances for three and a half hours, only to declare that they were merely postmen. “We will convey your demands to the chief minister”, they said, before heading back.

Whether that was done or not is anybody’s guess, but from the next day, armed police contingents started converging on the valley from different parts of the state, the fast venue was cordoned off, and on August 7, Medha Patkar was forcibly removed from the spot. Inspector General (Intelligence) Makrand Deoskar claimed that 32 policewomen were injured in the operation, that many of them were “molested” by the agitators and that they were feeling so humiliated and distressed that they were planning to quit their jobs!

One of the resettlement sites

It is widely believed that one reason Chief Minister Chouhan did not initiate any talks with the NBA is that he did not want to raise Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ire. While he was the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had led a virulent campaign against the NBA and shut down the organization’s office in Ahmedabad. With elections in Gujarat round the corner, Chouhan did not want to do anything that would obstruct the supply of irrigation water to the neighbouring state. The watertable in vast swathes of Gujarat has sunk to unheard-of depths due to the wanton sinking of tubewells for growing water-intensive crops like groundnut and cotton.

Meanwhile, on 4-6 August 2017, a team of concerned citizens visited some villages in Dhar and Badwani districts in the submergence zone. The team comprised S.C. Behar, former chief secretary to Government of Madhya Pradesh; Arun Gurtoo, former director general of police, Madhya Pradesh; L.S. Hardenia, senior journalist, social activist and author; and Chandrakant Naidu, former regional editor of Hindustan Times and Indian Express and former executive editor, Free Press Journal.

The team found “glaring gaps between the claims of the government regarding the rehabilitation of the oustees and the ground situation”.

The team said in its report that almost all areas earmarked or allotted for rehabilitation are much below the road level, and need a lot filling before construction can begin. A large percentage of the proposed resettlement sites in this area don’t have regular water supply despite having been set aside years ago.

“Nisarpur, a large village of ten thousand people claimed to be the model of rehabilitation activity by the government, shows that the work in progress will need months to finish,” the report said. “The government’s claims on preparedness for resettlement are supported by a large set of photographs of various community projects like schools, PHCs, community centres, water tanks and houses. They have obviously picked up selectively from diverse locations not related to the areas where relocation is due. But there is a glaring mismatch in the government’s claim regarding the work at rehabilitation sites and the team’s observations.”

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About The Author

Amrish Herdenia

Amrish Herdenia is Editor (Translation), Forward Press. He has been the Madhya Pradesh bureau chief for ‘Deccan Herald’, ‘Daily Tribune’, ‘Daily Newstime’ and the weekly ‘Sunday Mail’. He has translated several books, including ‘Gujarat: Behind the Curtain’ by R.B. Sreekumar, former Director General of Police, Gujarat, from the original English to Hindi

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