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Luddite sisters - India Today

Tavleen Singh ()
June 22, 1998

Title: Luddite sisters
Author: Tavleen Singh
Publication: India Today
Date: June 22, 1998

One of the many negative consequences of our socialist years is
that anyone who appears to speak for the poor is an instant hero
in this land of ours-filled with, despite socialism, mostly poor
people. These self-appointed spokesmen of the poor often block
development, progress and prosperity. But nobody dares point a
finger at them in case this is viewed as pointing a ringer at the

Well, I am pointing fingers this week, one at the country's most
celebrated poverty monger, Medha Patkar, and one at the beauteous
Shabana Azmi. Shabana seems to be more bleeding-hearted liberal
than political activist but ends up being as foolishly
obstructionist as her more militant sister. And in the end as
much an enemy of the poor, as much a poverty monger.

Shabana, our one and only "intellectual" actress, was nominated
to the Rajya Sabha in 199 7 in recognition not just of her
services to Indian cinema but also to the poor. Mainly, these
services have consisted of taking up the cause of the homeless in
Mumbai. She has been known to trot off to some squatters' colony
or other and begin a "fast unto death" to defend the right to

It all usually ends with Shabana breaking her fast with a frail,
wan sip of orange juice-before television cameras. And the
squatters being allowed to continue squatting on whatever piece
of real estate they have chosen to occupy. Usually on Mumbai's
seafront, worth crores of rupees an acre.

This has encouraged Shabana to think of herself as the country's
leading champion of the homeless. It was in this role that she
recently decided to get a petition together against the repeal of
the Urban Land Ceiling Act. She is persuasive as well as pretty
and managed to get more than 60 MPs to sign in favour of one of
the most useless laws ever conceived in India.

If we want to identify one single reason why half the citizens of
Mumbai live in illegal hovels instead of proper apartments, it
would be this law. It came about because our socialist rulers
believed, mistakenly, that the way to provide housing for the
poor was to steal from the rich and build for the poor. In
keeping with this Robin Hood approach to housing, the government
proceeded to acquire (steal?) what it considered "extra" land
>from the rich. Only, it built next to nothing for the poor.
Since the law effectively put an end to the real estate business,
nobody else did either.

Where we need nearly 50 million new houses in our cities, the
government can build only a few thousand a year. Inevitably, our
cities have become little more than expensive slums. Real estate
prices are so prohibitive that even rich movie stars fight to
hang on to the government houses they get when they become MPs.

Incidentally, there are many homeless ministers in Delhi who are
stunned at the speed with which Shabana got official
accommodation. New MPs usually make do with smaller flats. Come
to think of it, why doesn't she plan a petition to abolish all
government housing so that we can use the vacated land for public
good? That would be a seriously constructive move and popular too-
just as it would have been more constructive for her to obtain
permanent pucca housing for her squatter friends rather than
demand they be allowed to continue living in their hovels.

Somehow constructive ideas and poverty-mongering do not appear to
go together. Patkar is currently opposing the Maheshwar Dam, on
the anvil for 30 years. The Madhya Pradesh Government never
seemed to have enough money. So, in 1997, it privatised the dam's

No sooner had work started on the project than Patkar descended
and instigated those villagers who would be displaced. Inspired
by her, they have looted trucks carrying construction material,
vandalised the site and generally done everything to prevent work
moving ahead.

The dam will cause no environmental damage. So this time,
Patkar's ire is due to the apparently inadequate compensation for
the displaced. But whenever the dam's builders have asked Patkar
what she would like done for the 2,000 displaced families, they
claim she has refused to talk.

Patkar is against development. Full stop. She believes all
development is anti-poor. "I have substantive proof," she said in
a recent interview, "that the projects in the Narmada Valley and
others like Enron do not mean development for the nation. The
projects have played havoc with the environment. Multinational,
aerated soft-drink manufacturers are exploiting the market,
flouting basic business conditions. It is mass production and not
production by the masses; it is killing the rural nimbu pani

Whether Patkar wants to live without electricity or not, the
truth is every other Indian wants to; desperately. To cater to
the needs of a billion people by the first decade of the next
century, we need an estimated 60,000 MW of additional electricity
just so that every Indian can light bulbs and work a fan. If we
do not succeed, then it will be the poor who will suffer. With
their generators and their captive power plants, the rich will
manage anyway.

So what Patkar is ensuring is the poor will continue to live
without even basic 21st century amenities. just as her sister-in-
arms, Shabana, is ensuring that they continue to live in hovels.
Are they helping the poor?

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