Medha Patkar Biography

Medha Patkar spearheads the Narmada Bachao Andolon (NBA), trying to safeguard the interest of thousands of villagers in the Narmada River Valley, against deforestation and the loss of fertile agricultural land from the Gujarat Government’s ambitious Sardar Sarovar Dam Project. Initially funded by the World Bank, the mega – dam project was intended to build over 3000 dams of different sizes over the river Narmada in an attempt to generate hydroelectricity and provide irrigation water to drought – affected areas in Kutch.

Medha Patkar was born on December 1 1954 in Bombay, Maharashtra to social activist parents. Her father Vasant Khanolkar is a well known freedom fighter and trade unionist while her mother Indu Khanolkar runs a women’s organization called Swadhar. Coming from such a family background, she grew up to be highly individualistic, exceptionally brave and unafraid to speak out. Patkar completed her BSc from Ruia College did her MA in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

She became involved with the Narmada River Valley Project while studying for her PhD. Researching on social inequality and social movements, she came to Gujarat and found out about the plight of the tribals and farmers in the Narmada Valley. She abandoned her position as a TISS faculty and her doctoral research and with another social activist, Baba Amte, plunged into the Save the Narmada campaign.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada) was set up in 1986 under her leadership. Patkar and the NBA believe in non-violence. The NBA attempts to publicize the impeding ecological disaster and the plight of the poor in the region through various means. They also believed in fasting as a form of protest. Because of the NBA’s tireless campaigning, the World Bank withdrew support from the project in 1993.

Patkar feels that the Narmada Valley Project would work only for wealthy while depriving the poor. She is a committed campaigner for the cause and participates in numerous forums to educate the world about the atrocities against the helpless tribals and villagers. In 1999, she had to be forcefully removed from a nearly submerged village where she was protesting against the submergence of villages for the project. In March 2006, Patkar participated a 20 day hunger strike to protest against the authorities’ decision to raise the height of the dam. Acclaimed novelist, Arundhati Roy has also joined Patkar in this protest against submergence. While the project is still under way, Patkar and other activists keep on fighting the seemingly unequal battle.

Patkar also leads a powerful network of over 150 mass-based movements across India called the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM). The NAPM is not just involved with the Narmada protests but also in other areas of the country where human rights are being violated. Recently she was arrested by the West Bengal
Police when she came to Singur to show support for the poor peasants opposing the West Bengal Government’s forceful land acquisition policy.

She has won several awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1992 and the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1993. She has won BBC’s Green Ribbon Award for the Best International Political Campaigner and the Human Rights Defender’s Award from Amnesty International.