"One man's ego is not greater than millions of lives." - Medha Patkar.
Medha Patkar caught the attention of the authorities as well as the people by serving as the voice for the most vulnerable people. Every time a major development is made by the authorities, there is a section of people who are forced to pay a heavy price for it. When the Sardar Sarovar dam was being built, a lot of Adivasis, Dalits and farmers' livelihood were affected by it. Medha Patkar is one of the activists who raised their concerns before the authorities.
Medha Khanolkar was born in Mumbai, Maharashtra on December 1st, 1954. She was no stranger to the essence of activism because of her parents. Her father Vasant Khanolkar is a freedom fighter and a labour union leader. Her mother Indumati, who worked as a gazetted officer in the Post and Telegraphs Department, was known for fighting for vulnerable women in society.
Due to her interest in social work, Medha pursued a master’s degree in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
She studied economic development and how it impacts society in general as part of her Ph.D.
She worked with voluntary organisations in Mumbai's slums and tribal districts of North-East districts of Gujarat. She left her job as faculty at TISS and Ph.D. to focus on her fieldwork.
The work that brought Patkar to limelight was her fight for the people affected by the construction of Sardar Sarovar Dam. Scientists highlighted back then that the planning of dams was undemocratic. Environmentalists also questioned the unfair distribution of benefits. She founded the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada) in 1985. Narmada Bachao Andolan aims at highlighting issues faced by tribals, labourers, farmers, fishermen, their families, etc who live in and around Narmada valley.
She spoke about how 40,000 families who live along the Narmada valley will be displaced due to the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam and that the government did not have any proper plan for the people. The dam was meant for the production of electricity and she also questioned the developmental strategy of linking rivers in India as a means to address water shortage issues.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan undertook court actions, hunger strikes, social justice rallies and received support from celebrities.
They wanted to build pressure on the World Bank which had given a loan to India to build the dam. After they rallied and called for proper rehabilitation, in 1991, Morse Commission was established to look into the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, the environmental impact and human displacement issues. The Andolan received a court verdict in their favour and the dam construction was stopped and demanded rehabilitation of people.
Narmada Bachao Andolan, since 1992 ran School of Life (Jeevanshalas) with about 5,000 students who have passed out. They also established two micro-hydro projects which got submerged due to the Sardar Sarovar dam.
She is one of the founders of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) which is an alliance formed by many progressive people's groups, which are aimed at socio-economic justice, political justice and equity in society.
As part of the movement, Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan was formed for the Mumbai slum dwellers who were cheated by the government or builders over housing rights.
Through mass action, communities were rebuilt on the same sites and people attained their right to proper shelter, clean water, electricity, sanitation, etc.
She was part of various movements and political activities. She opposed the Kovvada Nuclear project in Andhra Pradesh saying that would be a disaster for ecology.
She registered PIL in the High Court of Mumbai, against property tycoon Niranjan Hiranandani, alleging violations by him in terms of building luxury homes instead of affordable houses. The 2012 judgment directed Hirandani to build 3,144 houses for the low-income groups though the case is still going on. She organised protests to save the Sugar-Cooperative sector in Maharashtra from falling into the hands of politicians. The case against the Girna Sugar factory at Malegaon, Nasik, Maharashtra is pending before the Supreme court of India.
She joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2014 and NAPM supported the AAP's campaign during the Lok Sabha elections.
For her work with Narmada Bachao Andolan, she received the Right Livelihood Award in 1991. BBC England conferred her with the Green Ribbon Award for Best International Political Campaigner. In 1999, Amnesty International conferred her with the Human Rights Defender's Award. In 1999, BBC named her as the person of the year. In 2014, she received the Mother Theresa award for social justice.
Other awards she received include the Deenanath Mangeshkar Award, Kundal Lal Award, Bhimabai Ambedkar Award, and Mahatma Phule Award.
She is regarded as an inspiration and icon for many working the social justice and marginalised people's rights.