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'I felt that the valley needed a writer'

Frontline Volume 16 - Issue 17, Aug 14 - 27, 1999
India's National Magazine on indiaserver.com
from the publishers of THE HINDU



Table of Contents

THE NARMADA VALLEY

'I felt that the valley needed a writer'

Arundhati Roy's essay The Greater Common Good and the "Rally for the Valley" campaign that she organised and participated in have given the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) a boost. Although the 39-year-old Booker Prize-winning author insisted during the rally that she was "just a writer", there is no doubt that more is expected of her in the months ahead. Even though cynics said that she was trying to don the mantle of NBA leader Medha Patkar, the rally showed that Arundhati Roy had no such a mbitions. For the people of the valley, she is their didi (elder sister) and Patkar their devi (goddess).

Travelling with other participants in a convoy of six buses, Arundhati Roy was mobbed at the countless stops on the 800-km route that began and ended in Indore. She handled the flower-showers, tilak ceremonies and autograph hunters with amazing calm. Ask ed to speak at almost every halt, she affirmed her solidarity with the people and encouraged them to speak. "We are here to listen to you," she said.

In an interview with Lyla Bavadam she spoke of her experiences during the rally. Excerpts:

The Rally for the Valley has certainly brought the issue of big dams on the Narmada back into the public arena and given the work of the NBA a boost. What is the extent of your commitment to the cause? And what form will your involvement take in the long term?

I don't know how one quantifies the extent of one's commitment (Large, Extra Large, Petite?), neither do I think of the struggle in the valley as a 'cause' because 'cause' is too small a word...Was the Holocaust a 'cause'? As far as I'm concerned, whethe r the protest is about Nuclear Weapons or Big Dams on the Narmada, what one is fighting for is nothing less than a worldview, a way of seeing. Why, even The God of Small Things is a worldview. What all of these works have in common is that they at tempt to analyse power and powerlessness. So, to answer the question of my commitment - all I can say is that I have no other way of seeing - instinctively, emotionally, intellectually, politically. What form will my involvement take in the long term? I don't really know, but I imagine what is most effective is my writing.... My commitment is total, but I have to be effective, otherwise it would be pointless.

What brought the Narmada issue to your notice first?

To be honest, I hadn't been following the struggle in the valley in minute detail. Like most people, I thought that some dams (not 3,200 of them) were being built on the Narmada, that large numbers of people were being displaced and that resettlement was being carried out callously in true government fashion. When the World Bank withdrew in 1993 and the Supreme Court ordered a stay on the construction in 1994, I thought that the struggle had more or less been won. I assumed that the Court was reviewing the whole project. In February this year, when the stay was lifted, my antennae went up. I began to read up on what was happening and grew more and more horrified at what I learned. I learned that rehabilitation was only one of several vital issues. From all that I read, I felt that what was missing was a communication of the entire issue to an interested lay person - I felt that what had been communicated was a fractured picture - displacement, rehabilitation, irrigation issues, the politics of who get s the benefits - all these had somehow got disconnected from each other. The reason for this is quite simple - it's a complex issue and journalists would have had to fight for column space to communicate even a part of the problem. I really felt that the valley needed a writer...and so I wrote The Greater Common Good.

Critics say that you have suddenly developed a social conscience and the Narmada Bachao campaign is a convenient bandwagon to assuage it. How would you react to this?

Maybe they're right. It's such a delightful accusation. Is it a crime to develop suddenly a social conscience? Is there a sort of age limit after which one should avoid developing a social conscience? But maybe the critics you mention should take a look at my earlier work - for instance they could begin by reading The God of Small Things, or going to the School of Architecture and reading my B.Arch thesis. They could read back issues of a magazine called Urban India, published by the Natio nal Institute of Urban Affairs. They could read back issues of Sunday, where I published three essays before I became 'famous'. Back then I was criticised for writing what I wrote because I was a 'failed' writer. Now I'm criticised because I'm a ' successful' writer. As for the Narmada Bachao Andolan being a 'convenient' bandwagon - here is a movement that is one of a kind. Nowhere in the world has there been a more spectacular fight for a river valley. As a writer I have written in support of it - now that can be twisted and made to sound ugly. What can I say? Simply that I support the struggle in the valley. My motives for supporting it are not the issue. The struggle is the issue. The unfolding human and ecological tragedy is the issue.

Gail Omvedt has written an article which amounts to being a critique of your essay. In it she has called your essay "rhetoric" and categorised your statement about the common destructiveness of big dams and bombs as "reckless". She also strongly cond emns opposition to big dams, calling it "eco-romanticism''. Could you comment on this.

I respect Gail Omvedt for presenting a counter-argument graciously instead of dismissing everybody who is against Big Dams with some tasteless invective. Her article is more a critique of the NBA (which she obviously dislikes) than a critique of my essay . I think there are too many facts and figures in The Greater Common Good for it to be dismissed as mere rhetoric...Eco-romanticism? I don't think so. Gail Omvedt subscribes to the classic 'green revolution' school of thought - maximise production in a minimum period of time regardless of the ecological consequences. Long-term sustainability is not even taken into consideration. Thousands of hectares of land are now water-logged and salt-affected thanks to this approach. It's the steroid-user syn drome. If avoiding steroids is romantic then perhaps I am a romantic. Gail should read Silenced Rivers by Patrick McCully. I think it answers her queries comprehensively. It is not reckless to say that Big Dams have proved to be instruments of mas s destruction. From me, she deserves more than just an off-the-cuff answer in someone else's interview. Perhaps I'll get down to writing it. Let me simply say here that I would love to be convinced that Big Dams are the solution to India's problems. She hasn't managed to make me change my mind. I wish, I wish she had come to the valley. How do you compensate a people once you submerge their civilisation? We must stop pretending that rehabilitation is possible. It isn't. In the last 15 years not one vill age in the submergence zone has been rehabilitated according to the orders of the Tribunal. In the last 50 years between 33 million and 40 million people have been uprooted by the reservoirs of Big Dams. Those of us who support these Stalinist schemes mu st at least be honest enough to support them even if there is no rehabilitation. Honest enough to admit that like the terrorised tiger in the Belgrade Zoo during the NATO bombing, we have begun to eat our own limbs.

There was a lot of opposition to the Rally for the Valley from Gujarat and there were also a few instances of local journalists being overly aggressive. Could you describe what happened?

The Gujarat Government flooded Kevadia colony and the dam site with the police. They turned it into an international order. They declared Section 144. They closed the local haat (market) at Kavaat. They prevented all those who had to come through Baroda (Vadodara) from joining the rally. Some newspapers triumphantly declared that the rally had tried to enter Gujarat at night and had been turned back. They claimed this was a moral victory for Gujarat. It's astounding, the lies they managed to spre ad. Earlier BJP and Congress goons had vied to burn my book in Gujarat. They threatened to break up a meeting in Ahmedabad at which I had been invited to speak and therefore the invitation was cancelled. I suppose Rs. 44,000 crores, which is the total es timated project cost, is too much money for any political party to pass up. Imagine the election campaigns that can be funded with that kind of money.

Even in Indore, again and again, certain people from the press who were rumoured to be in the employ of either S. Kumars or the Nigam would come and suddenly switch on a television camera and accuse me of being a foreign agent. The upshot of all this is that the people who are being cheated and denied the right to information are the people of Gujarat. It's interesting that the maximum number of orders by mail for my book, The Greater Common Good, come from Gujarat. I think they are beginning to smell a rat. After all it's their money that's going into creating this old dinosaur of a dam. And very few of them are going to get anything out of it. You cannot fool all the people all the time. Sooner or later the argument is bound to f ilter through and then, truly all hell will break loose.

There were moments in the rally when you were unable to cope with the constant public focus...moments of exhaustion, of repeating the same thing, handling aggressive press persons who were clearly opposed to the rally. Is it going to be difficult to be a public figure for a while at least?

Yes, that's true. I'm not wild about public speaking or facing huge crowds. The most exhausting thing for me however was the unreasonable, manipulative aggression of a few members of the press. They were frightening people - thugs more than journalists. Paid goons. This is a serious problem - the lies, the disinformation - behaviour that almost amounts to blackmail. I don't know how to begin to address this issue because it is such an ugly morass of amorality. But there is something vicious and rotten h appening on that front... Is it going to be difficult to be a public figure? Well, one of the reasons I was involved with the rally was that I hoped that people who came along would make their own independent alliances in the valley - that they would bec ome fighters too. While I may not be able to claim (at least for a while) that I'm not a Public Figure - I'd like, for the future, a scenario in which my writing is public, but my life is private... if you see what I mean. No more rallies and press confe rences.

The reaction of the people to you has been amazing. You were almost idolised by those waiting to receive you. Some had seen and met you before, but the majority had not. How do you explain hundreds of people waiting hours to meet you?

I'm not sure how to explain it... I suppose everyone who came on the rally had their theories. Here's mine - since February (after the Supreme Court lifted its stay) things have been going badly for the people in the valley. They have been cornered and l et down by the nation's institutions, the rains have started, their lands and homes are going to be submerged, they have nowhere to go. For four years there was a lull in the struggle because of the legal stay, suddenly the people needed to rally their f orces once again. They needed to show their strength. To do that they needed an occasion. I was the occasion - just somebody very famous who had come out and said - clearly, unequivocally, unhesitatingly "I'm on your side". I think that's what it was. Bu t also - it wasn't just me. They knew very well that the Rally for the Valley was a group of 500 people, many of them journalists. The valley showed its strength. And how!

Did you know that there were people in the rally who came purely because they were inspired by your essay? Though you keep insisting you are just a writer there seems to be something here that goes beyond good writing or persuasive presentation of fa cts. What is it that is suddenly making you a rallying point for people who had never dreamed that they would travel nearly 1,000 km to join a rally in solidarity with displaced people?

Yes, I did know that some had come because they read my essay... but I still maintain that I'm a writer (though not 'just' a writer). People travelling a 1,000 km to join a rally to show solidarity with people facing submergence and forcible displacemen t is a wonderful thing. It means that there is hope yet, in this brutal, broken world of ours. They didn't come for me - they came for those I wrote about. The power of a writer's writing is far more magical, far more majestic than the power of a writer' s human form. They didn't rally around me. They rallied around what I wrote about - The Narmada and her people.

To what extent have you interacted with Medha Patkar and what does she expect from you?

I haven't spent a great deal of time with her, but enough to know that she is an exceptional woman. What does she expect from me? That's something you should ask her - I imagine what she expects is what everybody in the valley expects - my support as a w riter, as a human being.

What do you mean when you join in the slogan Hum tumhare saath hai (we are with you) - in what way are you with the people?

What I meant quite literally was "I am with you". The whole point of the Rally for the Valley was to make alliances - urban-rural, writer-farmer, musician-fisherman - the idea was that we were all citizens of the earth making common cause of the struggle in the Narmada Valley. I'm very interested in the debate over the politics of dissent - this sneering attempt of many people to delegitimise those who protest - the NBA dismissed as urban activists, Arundhati Roy as an elite writer, the rallyists as for eign agents and so on. They declare that the only legitimate protestors are local people, preferably adivasi and Dalit. Once they've isolated them they squash them like bugs and the fight is over. It's interesting that the very same people unquestioningl y accept a project devised entirely by urban engineers and planners but insist that the critique must be only rural and only local. I think that the great strength of the struggle in the Narmada Valley is that the critique comes from all angles. From adi vasis, from Dalits, from the Patidars of the Nimar plains, from IIT engineers, from writers, from painters, from architects, from film-makers, from all of civil society. It spans the range and that's what gives it its strength and beauty. So when I said "Hum tumhare saath hai" I meant all this.


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