Sanat Mehta, who passed away on Thursday after a brief illness, was to Gujarat a friend, philosopher and guide. The erstwhile trade unionist had served as a state minister and MP. He was secular and a democratic socialist. He believed that reason and technology could be
applied to the affairs of men, and fought tenaciously when he saw obscurantism and private greed stopping social good. A firm believer in panchayati raj, he gave muscle to the implementation of local self-government. From Saurashtra, water was an obsession for him. His favourite story was of a mother-in-law telling her newly married daughter-in-law who had drunk a cup of water and threw away the last few drops: “Dheekra dudh dholayay pun pani na dholayay (Beloved daughter, milk can be spilled, but not water)”.
Idealistic to the core, Sanatbhai was intensely practical in pursuing his ideals. In the early 1970s, as finance minister, he asked me to reorganise the public distribution system, including for groundnut oil, in Gujarat, where the great “teliya rajas” could unseat governments. We were able to organise some oil at a subsidised rate for the really poor by eliminating the rich and created a functioning dual market that threatened the monopoly of the miller-traders.
But his crowning glory was Sardar Sarovar. He persuaded me to accept to lead the planning group for the project. One night, at 4am, when I finally gave up trying to force water uphill, he told me that we should go to Palanpur the next day. We went to a village in that desolate desert. There was an old lady there in torn clothes, but very dignified. When told we were planning to dam the Narmada, she insisted she would feed us. As I was eating, she said: “Saheb deem joiyey”. In Bengali, “deem” means an egg, so I thought she wanted a hatchery. No, Sanatbhai told me she wants a dam. We must tell this to the activists. And tell them he did. We fought in Gujarat, in Delhi and, with very limited funds, in the world, in Rio and Washington. And we won. The water flows down the Palanpur Branch, as I write this in a dry year. In 2001, it was easy for the then government to take credit for the water from Sardar Sarovar. It did not have the grace to give credit to the original warriors. Sanatbhai couldn’t care less.
He went on to other things. He took up the cause of the Agariyas, the salt pan workers in the gulf, and got them shoes to save them from cancerous ulcers from standing barefoot in the salt pans. He fought for Lalji Desai when Maruti was to take away the best agricultural lands
in the Chuwhal, the legendary land of 44 villages. A thousand tractors came in defence, and I was there with them. He fought for the cotton farmer, and we would fight for good seeds, whether manufactured at home or abroad. But it was more than that. He was the organiser of the Kapas Kisans Hit Rakshak Sangh. Anil Patel’s rehabilitation of the Adivasi farmer and his passionate pleas for a rational response to religion got his blessings.
As we plodded along, we knew Sanatbhai was there. The word fear doesn’t enter the mind in the land of Gandhi. Year before last, he said to me: “Yogendra, come again to Mahuva, we will go to Morari Bapu and then I will take you to a producer company. Arre bhai, it is for you to dream and create the law for them [he was referring to the Alagh committee on producer companies law], but I make it happen.” So it was with him until his last day.
The writer is professor emeritus, Sardar Patel Institute, Ahmedabad