Medha Patkar, born on December 1, 1954, in Mumbai, Maharashtra, has dedicated her life to championing the rights of marginalised communities in India. She is an iconic figure in the fields of social and political activism, recognised for her relentless pursuit of justice for tribals, dalits, farmers, labourers, and women facing injustice.
Medha Patkar's journey began with a strong foundation in social work and advocacy. She holds an MA in Social Work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), a prestigious institute for social science research in India. Her educational background provided her with the necessary tools to understand the complexities of the socio-economic issues that would later become the focal point of her activism.
Patkar's familial background also played a significant role in shaping her values and aspirations. She is the daughter of Vasant Khanolkar, a freedom fighter and labour union leader, and Indumati Khanolkar, a gazetted officer in the Post and Telegraphs Department. Her family instilled a sense of responsibility toward society and the welfare of its most vulnerable members.
One of the most prominent aspects of Medha Patkar's career as an activist is her role as the founder of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a social movement that emerged in 1985. The NBA's primary objective was to protest against the construction of dams on the Narmada River, particularly the Sardar Sarovar Dam project.
This movement united a diverse group of individuals, including Adivasis, farmers, fishworkers, laborers, and intellectual allies such as environmentalists, human rights activists, scientists, academicians, and artists. Together, they opposed the undemocratic planning, social and environmental costs, and the unjust distribution of benefits associated with these dam projects. The NBA's non-violent struggle has continued for decades, demanding fair rehabilitation for those whose homes would be submerged by the dams.
Patkar and the NBA have consistently questioned the wisdom of large-scale dam projects and the developmental strategy of river linking in India. Over the years, thousands of project-affected families have received land-based rehabilitation thanks to the efforts of NBA.
In addition to her involvement with the NBA, Medha Patkar co-founded the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM). NAPM is an alliance of numerous progressive people's organisations in India. Its mission is to address issues related to socio-economic justice, political justice, and equity. Patkar serves as the national convener of NAPM, facilitating unity and strength for people's movements fighting against oppression and advocating for a just alternative to the current development model.
Patkar's activism extends beyond environmental and tribal issues. In 2005, she initiated the "Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan," a struggle for housing rights in Mumbai. This movement fights for the rights of slum-dwellers and those affected by rehabilitation and redevelopment projects. Through mass actions and community mobilisation, the movement has succeeded in rebuilding communities that were demolished without proper compensation.
Throughout her career, Medha Patkar has been a relentless advocate for the rights of the marginalised and disenfranchised. Her work challenges injustice in various forms, including casteism, communalism, and discrimination. She has been part of numerous teams and panels that have contributed to the formulation of national policies and enactments related to land acquisition, unorganised sector workers, hawkers, slum-dwellers, and forest-dwelling Adivasis.
While her activism has garnered international recognition and awards, including the Right Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environment Award, Patkar has also faced controversy and criticism. Critics have argued that her opposition to certain development projects, like the Narmada Dam, has held up benefits such as power generation, irrigation, and drinking water provision.
Medha Patkar's career is a testament to the power of activism and advocacy in addressing critical issues affecting society. Her unwavering dedication to social justice, environmental sustainability, and the rights of marginalised communities has left an indelible mark on India's history. Her work continues to inspire generations of activists and advocates who believe in the power of individuals to make a difference.