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More powerful by far - [16/06/99] - The Hindustan Times
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Updated 00:15 IST [Late CityWednesday, June 16, 1999, New Delhi
 

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Opinion 
 

More powerful by far
(Chanchal Sarkar)

When novelists snatch a furlough from weaving stories and turn to journalism, investigative and descriptive, then the product can be very combustible indeed. We’ve seen Naipaul, Norman, Mailer, Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor, Amitava Ghose and several others.

The latest, a sparkling latest, is Arundhati Roy in her cover essay for Frontline on dams and the Indian displaced called The Greater Common Good. The people she fiercely protects as she writes are the 50 million villagers who have been displaced by big dams of which, incredibly, there are 3,600 in India and a thousand more under construction. But her theme of themes is democracy in India or rather, the mockery of it as served up by politicians, bureaucrats, courts, the repressive police, the international aid agencies exporting dam builders and their contract technology which are now obsolete in the First World, consistent lying and deception by governments and a consistent hiding of facts and figures.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan has sought to lay bare the truth about the Narmada and tried to rally the millions whose homes and villages have been washed away or are slated for it. But it doesn’t seem as if the people of India are interested in what Medha Patkar and her colleagues have to say or do or about how desperately brave their fight is. If half a million refugees are displaced in Kosovo the First World rushes to their help, for 50 million refugees shoved rudely out of their homes there are few sympathisers. As Arundhati Roy has written, India doesn’t live in the villages; it dies in the villages. And these village people have never been consulted about the submerging of their homes. That is Indian Democracy.

The effort by someone like her with facts and arguments armoured by a splendid style is enormously valuable. She has caught out the government that it has no figures of how many people have been displaced. It never answers the questions why, after spending 80,000 crores of rupees on the irrigation sector 1/5th of India’s population (200m) has no safe drinking water, and 2/3rd (600m) no basic sanitation. Of our 3,600 big dams the government has not evaluated the performance of even one.

Arundhati Roy describes the displaced people with their villages submerged, pulled away by police from the wooden stakes to which they clung, determined to drown with their homes. Some people have had to move three or four times for “rehabilitation”, ending up in the ‘shithole’ of Jabalpur slums. People are given a tiny compensation some of which has been paid after 10 or 12 years. Many are given no compensation at all. People are separated from their neighbours and friends and even kin.

At the top is the question, do dams serve any purpose nowadays and, in any case, do they help to destroy and mess around with such a gigantic phenomenon of nature like the Narmada?

Arundhati Roy’s essay should be translated into as many Indian languages as possible. She ought to undertake more such investigations because they can, by the searchlight of awareness, enable people in this country to realise the poverty of people, the skulduggery of governments and the policy of robbing the poor for the elite classes.


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