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Medha and Meera: A glimpse of the future

By Rajni Bakshi
Last updated on: April 24, 2014 12:36 IST
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AAP candidates from Mumbai Medha Patkar and Meera Sanyal are poised to play a crucial and complementary role. While Patkar gives voice to the suffering of people at the grassroots, Sanyal is articulating the key principles that could build a more just and equitable society or economy, says Rajni Bakshi.

In a sharply polarising election campaign there is one story of contrasts that is rich with more of the promise than the peril of India's future.

Meera Sanyal, formerly a senior executive in a multinational bank, and Medha Patkar, a veteran social activist, are both contesting the Lok Sabha election as candidates of the Aam Aadmi Party from two seats in Mumbai.

It we look beyond the obvious differences in their professional and ideological background -- we might see glimpses of India's role in redefining globalisation.

Sanyal, the daughter of a naval officer, holds an MBA from a school in France and is a silk and chiffon clad member of the South Mumbai elite. Patkar, the daughter of a socialist trade union leader, studied political science in Mumbai and is known for her aesthetic austerity.

Twenty years ago both women were on opposite sides of a famous fight in the early years of India's shift towards globalisation. Sanyal worked for a multinational bank that was handling one of the first foreign direct investment projects -- Enron's power plant at Dabhol in Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra. Patkar led protests against the environmental damage and livelihood dislocation caused by the same project.

For much of the last two decades the worlds that Sanyal and Patkar represent have been perceived to be at war. Patkar's activism in favour of communities threatened by displacement has been seen in the business community as an obstacle to India's rapid industrial growth.

In particular, Patkar has been pilloried by people in Gujarat for her dogged opposition to the Sardar Sarovar project, a large dam that Gujaratis have seen as the water life line of that state.

Even during this election campaign Patkar has been heckled in public and denounced as a 'desh drohi' (betrayer of the country) because her activism is accused of being anti-progress.

However, among beleaguered slum dwellers, tribals and landless peasants Patkar is a legend. It was the Patkar-led Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) which, in the early 1990s, brought together enough data to compel the World Bank to institute the first-ever independent review of one of its projects.

When the review found that people were indeed being displaced without the legally mandated rehabilitation and compensation, the World Bank withdrew from the project.

Among those hurt by India's push for rapid growth and globalisation private international banks, like the one Sanyal headed in India, who are denounced for putting profits above people.

And yet, a slow and barely visible process of change has been unfolding. It was due to dogged resistance of activists like Patkar across the world that some of the world's largest financial institutions signed a 'Who Cares Wins' statement in 2004. Such shifts, pushed as much by professionals within the mainstream, led to the establishment of the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investing, in 2006.

Similarly, the international mining industry has set standards for compliance with human rights and acknowledged the rights of indigenous communities to their lands and resources.

None of this impresses or impacts those Indian business people and political leaders who view such higher human rights standards as holding back expansion of industrial growth.

A vocal section of Indian business has pinned its hopes on a new government at the Centre giving rapid clearances to projects and not being too much of a stickler on human rights issues.

It is in this situation that Patkar and Sanyal are poised to play a crucial and complementary role.

While Patkar gives voice to the suffering of people at the grassroots, Sanyal is articulating the key principles that could build a more just and equitable society or economy. Most notably -- equal opportunity, freedom for every citizen to develop her or his potential through enterprise and hard work, and be protected from discrimination on grounds of gender, religion, caste, community, occupation, belief or political affiliation.

Sanyal's emphasis on individual liberty may not quite match Patkar's vision of society through the prism of community. At first glance Patkar may also hesitate to embrace Sanyal's confidence in an economy built on broad personal ownership.

But they have powerful common cause in wanting, as Sanyal's campaign statement says: 'A level playing field and a stable and fair regulatory environment, that protects the interests of customers, prevents monopolistic practices, curtails crony capitalism and corruption.'

Patkar may be sceptical about the extent of Sanyal's faith in markets. In turn Sanyal may have to make more room for non-market relations that are still prized in many of the communities where Patkar works.

But both seem to agree on some core values, as articulated in Sanyal's campaign statement: 'The rules of play for the market economy must be long-term and ought to be formulated so that it is profitable to recycle, use renewable sources of energy and be economical with natural resources.'

Sanyal's campaign statement also firmly supports devolution of resources, power and authority to local self governing bodies in order to empower citizens to effectively participate in local administration. That is precisely what Patkar and groups she works with have demanded for over 25 years.

As always the devil will be in the details and these will not be easy to work out. But whether or not both Sanyal and Patkar become Members of Parliament they are in a position to help shift the discourse on development, economic growth and globalisation.

A fruitful dialogue between them and their respective associates could help shift India from a location where business is mired in social and environmental conflicts to India as a location for path breaking social-business models that foster a globalisation that puts people above profits.

Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. She is also a Trustee of Citizens for Peace.

Image: Medha Patkar, centre, and Meera Sanyal, right, campaign with AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal, left, in Mumbai. Photograph: Uttam Ghosh/

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