"What if you lose your bid at the courts? Does it close all other avenues of negotiations? Will the state be more aggressive? These questions weigh heavily on a movement deciding on whether or not to litigate. The buffer, of course, is to root litigation within a larger strategy of political struggle."
Joe Athialy works on accountability and transparency issues of national and international financial institutions. He is currently the Executive Director of the Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA). Prior to this, he was associated with the Bank Information Center as its Acting Asia Director and before that with Amnesty International as its Campaigns and Communication Co-ordinator. Joe has been a grassroots social activist and a commentator for many years, and was a part of the anti-dam movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement). He has done pioneering work, engaging with the World Bank Group and other multilateral development banks, at the policy level as well as project monitoring. His work through CFA helped broaden the work on transparency and accountability of national and international banks in India, and demystify the world of finance to a wide range of people, including grassroots activists, other CSOs, students and concerned citizens. Photography and cooking are his hobbies.
As an idealistic young Indian activist in the 1980s, Joe Athialy moved to the Narmada Valley to join the inspiring movement determined to stop the building of a World Bank-financed dam that would displace hundreds of thousands of people. The movement failed to stop the dam, but was successful in forcing the World Bank to put community accountability mechanisms in place. Armed with this precedent, Joe went on to fight the building of a polluting power station in Gujarat. His vivid essay moves from a Narmada village that was flooded, to the US Supreme Court: here he watched the Gujarati villagers score a victory against the World Bank, overturning its immunity from litigation. Joe offers vital lessons: about the importance of rooting litigation within a larger strategy of political struggle, about connecting local bread-and-butter issues to larger global concerns, and about building the resilience needed for the treacle-like pace of litigation. Observing a victory party back in Gujarat after the Supreme Court victory, he salutes the “perseverance” of the lead petitioner: “But nothing, yet, had materially altered in his own life, and his own ability to earn his living on the Gulf of Kutch. I had been working with him for eight years already, but we had only just won the right to begin fighting the World Bank on its own turf! It would be a long time, still, before Mr Jam felt any kind of tangible relief.” What, Joe asks, does “winning” mean in such a context?