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The Hindu on : An alliance with the Narmada

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, July 11, 1999

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An alliance with the Narmada

Arundhati Roy describes the Narmada valley project as a development paradigm that is destructive, inequitable and which has forced the poor to subsidise the rich. "Uprooting these people is not a form of social engineering. It is garbage disposal." she told GARGI PARSAI in an exclusive interview.

AUTHOR and Booker Prize winner, Arundhati Roy, startled civil society with her impassioned essay, ``The Greater Common Good'', on the Narmada Valley Project which envisages the construction of about 3,000 large and medium dams along the course of the Narmada - it includes the controversial Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) in Gujarat.

Her brilliant, well-researched piece, based on several visits to the valley, has caught the imagination of people, particularly the intelligentsia. Recently, Roy went a step further and dedicated the Rs. 15 lakh Booker Prize money to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) which has been leading a people's movement against the project in the valley for 14 years.

In an interview with GARGI PARSAI, Arundhati Roy saw the project as a symbol of a development paradigm that was destructive, inequitable and which forced the poor to subsidise the rich.

Q: Your essay has generated an unprecedented debate. B. G. Verghese did a damning critique on it. What is your reaction?

A: I think it is great that it has generated a debate. I just hope it is a real debate instead of just invectives and personal mud slinging. Also, I think there can be a real debate only if the Government is prepared to be transparent and release all documents and have them reviewed. Otherwise, one side is keeping its cards close to its chest and just making these wild allegations.

B. G. Verghese's piece is, I think old hat; what he has been saying for a long time. He picks little things like, that these sugar factories will not be permitted and will be discouraged. That is not true. The 14 that exist... there are 12 that have been given permission... among the chief promoters of two, one is Sanat Mehta, who was Chairman of the Sardar Sarovar Nigam Limited, and the other the late Chimanbhai Patel who was Chief Minister of Gujarat). And trying to say the sugar factories are outside the Command Area .... I mean if sugar factories are there, can the sugarcane fields be far behind?

Like when I am talking about this water not getting to Kutch and Saurashtra, he says, ``Let's wait and see''. Is that an argument? He has not even begun to address the question of why the Government says only these many people are displaced in the Sardar Sarovar Project, when one by one by one, I have listed the categories of people that are not counted as project-affected. The people displaced by the canal system, the colonies, the afforestation. What about Soorpaneshwar? So the points he chooses to be silent upon are more eloquent.

And if they were so keen on development... in their idea... for tribal people, what happened in these last 50 years? Why is there not one school, not one hospital, not one road, not one well? Why is development contingent on their having to give up everything of theirs. One is not saying that big dams never produce anything. I am saying that they have usurped the resources of the countryside and taken them to the city to serve a metropolitan elite. That has to stop.

Take a look at the figures. We are the third biggest dam builders in the world. Okay, they say dams have generated electricity. Of course, they have, but over 80 per cent of rural households have no electricity, 350 million live below the poverty line, 250 million people have no drinking water. Whatever food production is there, is distributed in a manner that is completely ..... the inequity is astounding. So what you are talking about is... do we want a society that is more egalitarian or do we believe that this is alright. That the poor must subsidise the rich. That the villages must subsidise the cities.

Q: This critique has been rather personal ...

A: Yeah, but that is standard with me. For some reason everybody gets very, very personal. I am getting used to it. People attack me so emotionally for being emotional.

Q: May be you provoke them into that kind of reaction.

A: May be. But I also think that emotion frightens people. I do write emotionally and I think to live in this society you have to deaden your emotions because even to try to ignore the problem is an effort, you know. So you do not want to be emotional and you want to attack someone who is. And apart from what I think about it, I really do see it as something which is a sign of a sick society. People are so frightened to feel anything because if you open up, the distress comes rushing in.

Q: How did you get into Narmada?

A: Basically, after the whole thing of The God of Small Things, the public story of the book is one of this immense success and money and the Booker Prize and all that. But the private story for me was one of feeling as though one had traded every feeling in that book for some commercial return, which, after a point, becomes very uncomfortable. You do not know why this is happening. And I feel that I really wanted to make an alliance with the world from which my book had come. You know, I did grow up on the banks of a river and I did love a river very much and I actually was in Kerala, in Kozhikode. Some people who live on the banks of the Chaliyar, came and asked me to go to the house of this activist Rehman, who had been fighting this Grasim fibre and rayon factory for so long, and, who had just died. And I did (visit his house).

I came back and read about what was happening there. Suddenly this whole system was conjured up. I somehow felt that this struggle in the Narmada Valley was a symbol of this whole system that is at work, and I wanted to make an alliance with it. I wanted not to play safe. I wanted to say I am on this side and I am not hedging my bets about it. And I know that it is a dangerous thing to do, because you take a lot of flak. But if you are committed, you have to do that. You have to step into the firing line.

For me The God of Small Things, ``The End of Imagination'' and ``The Greater Common Good'' - these are all world views. These are all enquiries into how the world works. Though I knew about the Narmada Valley, I needed to know much more before I made up my mind. So I started reading, meeting people. I really had a pretty good picture of what was going on before I went to the Valley.

On one hand I was exhilarated by the strength of the movement there, on the other hand I was shocked at how little people know of what was going on there and without knowing how quickly they make judgments, and passionate judgment at that. At least I am arguing the case, before I say which side I am on.

At least, I hope that people - whether they are pro or against the dam - will bother to go there and see the price that is being paid. You cannot really comment on this otherwise.

Q: Some people have also remarked that you are upstaging Medha Patkar (of the NBA)?

A: There is no way I could. She and I have different territories. She belongs to that Valley. I do not. I am only saying listen to what she is saying ... I will always be a loner. I will never lead a movement, nor do I ever want to. What people do not understand when they keep asking ``Are you a writer or an activist?'' is that that is what a writer is. Somebody who comments on what is going on in the world. That is my business. That is my brief. I really do admire the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) immensely. Immensely. They are people who have incredible intellectual rigour, as generosity of spirit, as well as political commitment to their cause.

Q: How far do you intend to go on with the Narmada issue?

A: I am doing what I can do best and what I can do best is to write. Everything else is not my strength. There is no way that I go into the Valley and be an NBA activist. I would just not be any good at it. But I will do what I can.

Q: Arundhati, why do you think such mass destruction and displacement of people does not move politicians?

A: I think there is quite a simple explanation for that, which is, that the Valley is strung along the river. So it is never a majority in any one political constituency; it is like a minority or a ribbon minority. It is just a geographical problem, somehow.

Also what politicians do... in the case of Narmada... is that they play. Whenever they are out of power they pretend that they are very concerned. The minute they come to power they have no time.

Q: There is a lot of debate that this ``romanticism'' about tribals preserving their civilisation is a reaction to modern capitalism.

A: See, the point is that it is not somebody's choice. As far as I am concerned, as I said in my essay, I am not some proselytiser for the eternal upholding of tradition. Its just that I am not the proselytiser for bulldozing that guy and saying you get out of your land or else I will flood you. I just think that they should have a choice. It is not upto somebody else to decide that or to flush them out of their homes or their forests. There has to be a level of honesty in this debate, and if you believe that, then stop pretending that this is a form of social engineering. Uprooting these people is not a form of social engineering. It's garbage disposal. That is what you are after. Come out and say it.

Q: There is this major concern about the money spent on the Sardar Sarovar Project, whereas the NBA, and even you say that you are against large dams. So what is the solution?

A: I do not think it's for an individual citizen to say what is the solution. The Government says it has spent Rs. 7,500 crores on SSP, but only one-quarter of the submergence has actually happened. Something like 3,00,000 people can still be saved if the dam does not go up any higher. Eventually the public has to decide. Rs. 7,500 crores is gone. But is it worth throwing good money after bad? Certainly the people who are going to be displaced have to be consulted. The Madhya Pradesh Government has already said ``reopen the tribunal''. But the saddest thing about this is that the people of Gujarat have been mis-led into believing that they are going to get something out of this.

Q: It is not as if they are not going to get anything.

A: No, no. But who is going to get it? Nearly 85 per cent of the State's irrigation budget is going into this. The point is of scale. You say in the publicity and political mobilisation, `oh we are going to displace 2,00,000 people in order to take water to 40 million peoples.'' Actually, when you start looking at it that is not the ratio. You say sugar factories and five-star hotels ... Once again that routine... of the poor subsidising the rich starts. Just the business of constructing a dam is a lot of money for a lot of people. I mean, dams fund elections. The dam is a monument to political corruption. It's not as though just constructing it and leaving it does not benefit some people enormously. Of course, it does.

Q: Why are people not convinced about alternatives such as watershed development, rainwater harvesting, smaller check dams and so on?

A: Because you are so conditioned to these mammoth schemes, huge monuments, of water falling down. What one is saying is there have to be localised alternatives for water and electricity as opposed to large dams. The fact is that until a government is convinced that we need to look for alternatives ... you also need to fund research. After all, solar energy is an amazing thing, but it is very expensive now. But if you put 1/1000th of the amount you put into researching nuclear bombs into a fund to look for alternatives, you would come up with alternatives.

The important thing is this huge thing about people's relationship with the State. I have said,in my essay,that people are broken not just by what the State takes away but by what it gives. This whole thing of coming from up... that needs to change in people's minds... They need to learn to help themselves.

Q: You read about B. G. Verghese saying that the water you drink comes from the Bhakra-Nangal dam?

A: That is the usual argument. What I am saying is: are we in search of a more equitable society? If we are, then let us argue it further. I am not saying that I am a deprived person. Of course, I am completely privileged. I am so privileged that I want to make an alliance with those who are not.

Q: The NBA would have welcomed your moral support. Why did you give away your Booker Prize money?

A: There is a strange answer to that. It bothered me that the huge income tax I have paid in the last two years is being used to uproot people and to do things that I do not believe in. And I just wanted to balance that out. I really did. It was something I felt I should do.

Q: Why this ``Rally for the Valley'' and what do you hope to achieve?

A: All I hope to achieve, to be honest, is that a larger group of people gain a deeper understanding of what is going on there.

Q: Are you going to take up other such issues. The Grasim one, for instance?

A: I am not going around mopping up causes. It's just that I ... there is a link between my book, ``The End of Imagination'' and ``The Greater Common Good''. And that link is really a fascination with how power works. A kind need to dissect the system and look at it inwards and see the machine at work. As a writer, that is what fascinates me. To lay it open. It is that, which thrills me artistically.

Q: So what is coming up after The God of...?

A: I do not know. I never want to know what lies in the future. I am really happy to turn the corner when the corner comes.

Q: You dedicated your royalties from the sale of ``The End of Imagination'' to this anti-bomb campaign and now from the sale of ``The Greater Common Good'' to the NBA. Are you looking for a cause?

A: I do not need to. I am not looking for a cause. I am somebody who is not looking for anything, in the sense that I have more than I need.

Q: In terms of?

A: Everything. People ask me if I am under great pressure for my second book. I say why? I am, in a personal individual sense, very relaxed, because I am not going anywhere. It is great to be able to do something and let it go. I look forward to being a little irresponsible in the future. Right now, I am too affected by what is happening in the valley to be that.

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