Sunday, 23 March 2014

Will the NAPM-AAP marriage work?

The National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to fight the Indian general elections 2014. The NAPM leader and environmental activist Medha Patkar’s name was announced in the first list of the AAP candidates. She would contest from Mumbai North-East.

This is the first time that the NAPM or any well-known environmental activist group is joining electoral politics. The environmental and social activists took the decision to join the AAP at NAPM’s national meeting in January this year. While some of the NAPM leaders have agreed to be immersed in the AAP’s national election process completely, others will play a more supportive role.

Satellite image of the Sardar Sarovar dam and reservoir on the Narmada river. The NAPM grew out of the environmental movement against the construction of the dam. 

This means that a coalition of 222 environmental and grass-roots groups have aligned themselves to the youngest political party in the country that formed and dismembered the government in Delhi state and has ambitions in national elections.

The marriage also means that if AAP were to become a part of any coalition that forms the government after the national elections then the NAPM would be part of the “State establishment”. This becomes a point for comment since the environmental movements had been fighting the State and the establishment for decades.

There is a certain degree of synergy between the AAP and the NAPM – after all both came into being as a network of protestors. Both have also reached a stage in their growth where they have realised that there is a limitation to the politics of protest, and to be effective there is need to transition into the parliamentary democracy process (though in Delhi, the AAP entered and exited this process).

However, the critical difference is in the constituencies they represent.  While the AAP represents the urban middle class, the NAPM represents communities in the hinterlands such as tribals, artisanal fishermen, labourers, mineworkers, etc. The AAP’s constituents are predominantly in the consuming end of the economic spectrum, whereas those of the NAPM are in the producing end.

Though contesting within a city, Patkar’s constituency has slums and she was active earlier fighting for the rights of the urban poor from these tenements.

The AAP is a political party that, theoretically, was in the making since the launch of the economic liberalisation in 1991. When the markets were liberalised, there was an intense focus on the middle class, especially those in the urban centres, as consumers for goods and services. Higher disposable incomes, a sense of ownership in the corporate world through shares, access to foreign brands in local stores, shopping malls and food courts; for the first time since Independence, the urban middle class felt a sense of self-importance. 

They had decades of accumulated complaints against the politicians and the bureaucracy. They protested against corruption and poor governance, but did not have a political vehicle to give strength to their voice. The AAP gave the urban middle class a political voice.  

This is the political voice that the AAP used to do well in the elections in Delhi, a predominantly urban state. Aware of its limitation, AAP did not try to contest in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh. Now that the AAP has ambitions for the national elections, an alliance with the NAPM can broaden their base.

The NAPM, on the other hand, is an alliance of grass-roots organisations that had come into being to protect the natural resources from the villages from being hijacked for urban and commercial use. The prime mover for the NAPM was the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) that fought against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the 1990s. The National Alliance was established before the 1996 general elections, when NBA wanted to give a pan-India presence to its anti-dam movement by networking with other environmental organisations.

The idea of the NAPM joining the AAP is fraught with contradictions. For instance, while contesting for the Delhi assembly elections, the AAP’s initial promise was to give water supply to all in the state, including free supply of 700 litres per day per household. Obviously, the water comes from outside the city. Also, some communities outside the city that have lost out their natural resources for the establishment of power plants are contributing to the reduction of power costs by half for consumers in Delhi.

One of the strong statements that came from the residents in the Garhwal districts who lost their lands and water resources to the Tehri dam was “why should we suffer and allow our water be taken to New Delhi to be flushed in toilets?” Tehri dam’s height was fixed at 260 metres because of its potential to generate power. This in turn submerged more land.

And this is where the catch would come. Can Delhi’s need for water be met without compromising the needs of village communities outside the state? If Delhi’s interests are protected at the cost of the hinterlands then the NAPM would be seen as moving away from its core beliefs. If the interests of the rural communities are met at the cost of Delhi, the AAP may become unpopular with its primary constituency.

It is interesting that the NAPM that steadfastly stayed away from electoral process is joining it in 2014. Moving into the political process will help the Indian environmental movement. There are two reasons for this. One, they can more effectively follow up on their demands. Two, it will also give them an understanding of the multiple pressures that the executive feels from different sections of the society. Being outside and objecting is different from being inside and ensuring that people’s concerns are built into policy and action.

The marriage with the AAP is also an opportunity for the NAPM to come back into national consciousness. While the economic, political and social processes in the past two decades led to the formation of the AAP, it also led to the marginalisation of movements such as the NAPM. The urban middle class was too busy focusing on its consumption needs to worry about environmental impacts of its actions.

This, however, is only part of the reason that the NAPM got marginalised in the national consciousness. The environmentalists also did themselves in by their shrill and unrelenting positions on many development projects and their refusal to engage in any kind of negotiations.

The NAPM had slipped out of the media radar in the recent years. The Alliance leader Medha Patkar, who was frequently interviewed by the media in the early 1990s, hardly makes a token presence in the present-day TV talk shows, grabbing a few minutes of attention sporadically. Her last appearance of significance was during the protest against the establishment of the Tata Motors plant in Singur, West Bengal, in 2007-08.

As with all good marriages, the coming together of the AAP and the NAPM has benefits for both. The question is will it last?

There can be two prognoses. It could lead to a positive engagement hitherto not seen in the Indian environmental discussions, and thereby reinvigorate the process. Or, in a matter of time the NAPM will come out of its alliance with the AAP and become its critic from outside.

The second is an easy option. The first requires work where issues of convergence have to be strengthened and personal egos kept aside. 

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