NEW DELHI - The hunger strike led by Indian civil rights leader Medha Patkar got a boost Friday--two days after she was forcibly hospitalized by the Indian government--as student unions, academics, and other organizations joined the protest over the Indian government's failure to properly compensate tens of thousands of farmers displaced by floodwaters from a rising dam.
Patkar, 51, who is the leader of the people's rights group Narmada Bachao Andolan (Campaign to Save the Narmada Valley, or NBA), launched an indefinite fast along with two colleagues, Jamsingh Nargave, 50, and Bhagwatibehen Patidar, 45, on March 29.
Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy joins Narmada Bachao Andolan activists in a traditional dance during a demonstration at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Friday. She has been supporting NBA leader Medha Patkar, who is on fast. Photo by R.V. Moorthy
Although the government took little action at the outset of the hunger strike, it seemed rattled after Patkar's health deteriorated. A strong contingent of police arrested and forcibly took her to the hospital Wednesday, leading to resentment and heightened protests among sympathizers.
Professor of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Kamal Mitra Chenoy, who has been on a hunger strike for the last two days, said: "If the government thought the Narmada agitation could be stopped, it couldn't be more wrong. We joined the fast to show solidarity and support to NBA's struggle."
According to NBA activist Deepti Bhatnagar, "Patkar has continued with the fast at the hospital. She is taking only water, salt and lemon at the hospital. Our agitation will continue till the Narmada valley oustees are rehabilitated properly."
The NBA had met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 25 asking for the rehabilitation of some 35,000 families displaced as a result of the construction of the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam on the river Narmada in central India. When the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) did not respond by March 28 as promised, Patkar and two others went on an indefinite hunger strike the next day.
The government is supposed to provide a minimum of two hectares of cultivable land for farming and a plot for a house to each family that is displaced due to the dam project, according to Indian Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Parikh. For families that owned more land the government is supposed to either provide more land or cash compensation.
A new proposal to raise the height of the dam from its current 113 meters (370 feet) to 121.9 meters (400 feet) is at the heart of the most recent protests and hunger strike. The proposed dam expansion would cause the destruction of the homes and fields of those living in an additional 220 nearby villages, according to an NBA press release.
Though the Indian government sent a three-minister delegation to the Narmada valley, it failed to pacify the protestors. The three ministers who went to the valley are: Union Water Resources Minister Saifudin Soz, Minister for Social Justice Meira Kumar, and Minister in the PMO Prithviraj Chauhan.
Patkar's arrest only brought more people to the site of the agitation, which is very close to the Indian Parliament. Teachers from the University of Delhi and students from three city schools came on Friday morning to express their support for the movement.
Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president Mona Das and vice president Dhananjay also joined the fast with Prof. Chenoy. Das developed stomach problems on day two of their fast.
Das said: "After Medha was handled brutally, we thought that the agitation might fizzle out but as we were in support of the issues and the cause that she has raised, we decided to pitch in. Teachers from the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) also visited us."
National convener the All India Students Association (AISA) Kavita Krishnan said: "This is not merely a struggle about one dam. It is a debate on development that causes the destruction of people's livelihoods."
Krishnan added: "We are told that displacement of people is necessary for development and they will be rehabilitated. But many states in India do not even have fertile land to rehabilitate people. People are being forced to migrate to cities where they live in slums. And then in the name of beautification of cities, their slum dwellings also are destroyed."
Activist Rajendra Ravi from New Delhi-based development organization Lokayan said: "The government is trying to side-step the issue. We wonder what the three-member delegation of ministers to the Narmada valley will find. They do not even plan to spend two days there. We can tell them right here that people have not been rehabilitated and that is what needs to be done."
An activist with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a New Delhi-based organization that monitors dams and rivers on a daily basis, summed up the whole agitation: "The Narmada dam project, which has been in the throes of a controversy ever since it was conceived, is the single biggest issue on development, human displacement and rivers."
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