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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

February 11, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 199




Claire Schaeffer-Duffy Learning lessons from people's movements in India

By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor

Charles Edward of Falls Church, Va., who voted for Sen. John F. Kerry in yesterday's Democratic primary, explained his decision this way, "Anybody but Bush. I'd vote for the devil."

While I'll admit there is a certain desperation to this year's presidential campaign, I'm not ready to follow Edward's example. However, the intensity of feeling in his remarks had me thinking about my own political engagement or lack of it. I confess I gave in to despair. The politics of endless war got me down and I indulged in that fatal question, "What's the point?"

But last month, I went to India and got back my desire to fight the good fight. My inspiration? A nonviolent people's campaign known as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and their charismatic leader Medha Patkar. For the past 17 years, the NBA has fought doggedly to oppose the construction of dams along the Narmada River. They have recently tried to focus public attention on the plight of tribal people displaced by the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Project, (SSP) one of the five mega-dams to be built along the Narmada. The NBA estimates that thousands of villagers have been displaced by the SSP, which now stands at 103 meters, and thousands more will be displaced if the dam reaches its designed height of 130 meters.

Other Today's Takes by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy
Feb. 9, 04 A spy for the people
Dec. 12, 03 What about those weapons of mass destruction?
Dec. 10, 03 On war and human rights
Dec. 8, 03 The archbishop's announcement
For the villagers of the Narmada, to be displaced means to be uprooted from a way of life that is centuries old. It means leaving a fertile valley for a resettlement village where the soil is often poor, or migrating, with cash compensation in hand, to an urban slum. The NBA says that in many instances, those ousted by a dam receive no compensation whatsoever.

In mid-January, 13 adolescents, originally from the Narmada Valley and now living in a resettlement village, attempted suicide.

The stakes are high in this battle. Mega-dams, long abandoned by Western governments, remain a big industry in Asia, benefiting some and adversely affecting others. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy estimates that big dams in India have displaced between 33 million and 55 million people, who are, she writes, "nothing but refugees of an unacknowledged war."

In their fight to be acknowledged, the Narmada villagers, under the guidance of Patkar, who is the soul of the NBA, have remained remarkably nonviolent. Not a single gun has been fired in the Narmada Valley. Not a stick of dynamite thrown. Instead, its been sit-ins; fasts; stints in jail; occupation of dam sites and the hallways of government ministries; satyagraha campaigns; and endlessly tedious arguments with government officials over who does and does not get compensated. There have been setbacks -- the SSP inches upwards. But there have also been victories. In 1991, an NBA fast persuaded the World Bank, original lenders for the dam, to do an independent review of the SSP and it eventually pulled out of the project -- unprecedented in the history of the World Bank.

In late January, the powers that be were supposed to vote on whether or not to raise the SSP another 10 meters. A yes vote was expected. But Medha Patkar and her band of indefatiguable activists met with Chief Ministers from two states and after sit-ins and a fast convinced them to delay the vote another four months until the issues of resettlement were justly resolved. The last I heard they were on their way to New Delhi to dialogue with government officials there.

The NBA campaign has reminded me that hope is a virtue to be practiced everywhere, including the political arena. I have come home willing to be a political animal, to work for campaigns that are people-centered and nonviolent. I urge you readers to do the same.

Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
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