the poor’s priority

Shabana Azmi talks to Darryl D’Monte

Shabana Azmi – the winner of an unprecedented five National Awards for Best Actress in India, and an indefatigable campaigner for the poor – tells the story of how a Government programme trying to promote literacy in a village in a remote area of Uttar Pradesh ran into fierce opposition from its people. Finally a non-governmental organization (NGO) was called in to try to break the impasse.

‘They gathered all of the women of the village and asked what their biggest problem was. In one voice all the women said “water,”,’ says the actress who is also a nominated member of the upper house of India’s parliament. It turned out that they had to walk miles for water because their handpumps had broken down, and the men of the village would not repair them. With the NGO’s help they not only learnt to repair the pumps themselves but were soon installing them in other villages.

‘The next year,’ adds Shabana Azmi, ‘the villagers came forward to embrace the literacy programme because their needs had first been addressed.’

The importance of water
The actress says that this incident was the first time that she had grasped the importance of water. But, she adds, this was brought home even more forcefully to her when attending a rally in a village in Madhya Pradesh in 1989, part of the campaign against building a dam on the Narmada river.

‘I saw at first hand what displacement is all about,’ she says. ‘Instead of managing water resources for the people, these resources were given away. And the rich alluvial land which belonged to the people was being fenced off for the project.

‘The people in whose name these projects are being planned for the “greater common good,” are being ridden over roughshod. In the last 20 years, however, the debate on alternatives to dams has begun.’

Land tenure
Much of her work has been with the Committee to Protect the Rights of the Homeless in Mumbai, where she lives, through which she champions both land tenure and sanitation in the city’s slums.

‘A slum is a slum not because of tin sheds, not because of the materials with which people have built their houses, but because the environment there has been degraded,’ she explains. ‘there is no infrastructure or civic amenities. The Government’s policy has been to supply houses in slums and expect people to move into them. Instead, it is better to give them tenure over their land, not a free house.’

Sanitation, she says, is the Government’s ‘last priority’. She has herself given money from the $425,000 each MP is allowed to spend each year on public projects in his or her own constituency to build lavatories. But, she adds, this is not enough, any more than was merely providing handpumps in the Uttar Pradesh village. ‘the problem is to maintain them. You have to create the atmosphere within a slum community where systems are in place to maintain toilets’.

Ironically Shabana Azmi was forced three years ago to give up shooting a film called Water, directed by Deepa Mehta – which dealt with the plight of widows who had been abandoned along the Ganges river – after it was disrupted by Hindu fundamentalists. But she says that she has not been able to persuade many of her fellow actors to take up water issues.

Mobilizing concern
‘I don’t think anyone in the film industry has really applied their minds to these,’ she says. ‘they are more concerned with social issues, like health and AIDS, which fall more easily within the purview of actors. I am on a parliamentary standing committee on rural development and I am working to mobilize MPs to show their concern’

Darryl D’Monte is President of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | World Environment Day | Water is life | The water century | Taking it at the flood | Renewing the commitment | Waterless cities | Keeping pollution at bay | People | At a glance | Changing agenda | Nor any drop to drink | Bridging troubled waters | Books & products | Getting there | Sinking fast | Waste not | Water – the poor’s priority | Atomic power

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Freshwater, 1998

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Freshwater wetlands
Mangroves and estuaries