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Arundhati Roy Delivers the Third Annual Eqbal Ahmad Lecture, Hampshire College,
The ladies have feelings, so...
February 15, 2001
SHALL WE LEAVE IT TO THE EXPERTS?
By Arundhati Roy
India lives in several centuries at the same time. Somehow we manage to progress
and regress simultaneously. As a nation we age by pushing outwards from the
middle - adding a few centuries on to either end of our extraordinary c.v. We
greaten like the maturing head of a hammer-headed shark with eyes looking in,
diametrically opposite directions. I have no doubt that even here in North
America you have heard that Germany is considering changing its immigration laws
in order to import Indian software engineers. I have even less doubt that you've
heard of the Naga Sadhu at the Kumbh Mela who towed the District Commissioner's
car with his penis while the Commissioner sat in it solemnly with his wife and
As Indian citizens we subsist on a regular diet of caste massacres and nuclear
tests, mosque breakings and fashion shows, church burnings and expanding
cellphone networks, bonded labour and the digital revolution, female foeticide
and the Nasdaq crash, husbands who continue to bum their wives for dowry, and our
delectable stockpile of Miss Worlds. I don't mean to put a simplistic, value
judgement on this peculiar form of "progress" by suggesting that Modem is Good and
Traditional is Bad - or vice-versa. What's hard to reconcile oneself to, both
personally and politically, is the schizophrenic nature of it. That applies not
just to the ancient/modem conundrum, but to the utter illogic of What appears to
be the current national enterprise .... in the lane behind my house I walk past
road-gangs of emaciated laborers digging a trench to lay fibre-optic cables to
speed up our digital evolution. In the bitter winter cold, they work by the
light of a few candles.
It's as though the people of India have been rounded up and loaded onto two
convoys of trucks (a huge big one and a tiny little one) that have set off in
resolutely opposite directions. The tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering
destination somewhere near the top of the world. The other convoy just melts into
the darkness and disappears. A cursory survey that tallies the caste, class and
religion of who gets to be on which convoy would make a good Lazy Person's
Concise Guide to the History of India. For some of us, life in India is like
being suspended between two of the trucks, one in each convoy, and, as they move
apart, being neatly dismembered, not bodily, but emotionally and intellectually.
Of course India is a microcosm of the world. Of course versions of what happens
there happens everywhere. Of course, if you're willing to look, the parallels are
easy to find. The difference in India is only in the scale, the magnitude and the
sheer proximity of the disparity. In India your face is slammed right up against
it. To address it, to deal with it, to not deal with it, to try and understand
it, to insist on not understanding it, to simply survive it - on a daily, hourly
basis - is a fine art in itself. Either an art, or a form of insular,
inward-looking insanity. Or both.
To be a writer - a supposedly "famous" writer - in a country where four hundred
million people are illiterate is a dubious honour. To be a writer in a country
that gave the world Mahatma Gandhi, that invented the concept of non-violent
resistance, and then, half a century later, followed that up with nuclear tests,
is a ferocious burden. (Though no more ferocious a burden, it has to be said,
than being a writer in a country that has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the
earth several times over). To be a writer in a country where something akin to an
undeclared civil war is being waged upon its subjects in the name of
"development," is an onerous responsibility. When it comes to writers and
writing, I use words like "onerous" and "responsibility" with a heavy heart and
not a small degree of sadness.
This is what I'm here to talk to you - to think aloud with you - about. What is
the role of writers and artists in society? Do they have a definable role? Can it
be fixed, described, characterized in any definite way? Should it be?
Personally, I can think of few things more terrifying than if writers and artists
were charged with an immutable charter of duties and responsibilities that they
had to live and work by. Imagine if there was this little black book- a sort of
Approved Guide to Good Writing that said: All writers shall be politically
conscious and sexually moral or All writers should believe in god, globalization
and thejoys offamily life.... Rule One for a writer, as far as I'm concerned, is
There are No Rules, and, Rule Two (since Rule One was made to be broken) is There
Are No Excuses for Bad Art. Painters, writers, singers, actors, dancers,
filmmakers, musicians - they are meant to fly, to push at the frontiers, to worry
the edges of the human imagination, to conjure beauty from the most unexpected
things, to find magic in places where others never thought to look. If you limit
the trajectory of their flight, if you weight their wings with society's existing
notions of morality and responsibility, if you truss them up with pre-conceived
values, you sabotage their endeavor.
A good or great writer may refuse to accept any responsibility or morality that
the society he or she lives in wishes to impose upon them. Yet, the best and
greatest of them know that if they abuse this hard-won freedom, it will only lead
to bad art. There is an intricate web of morality, rigour and responsibility that
art, that writing itself, imposes upon a writer. It's singular, it's individual,
but nevertheless, it's there. At its best, it's an exquisite bond between the
artist and the medium, at its acceptable end a sort of sensible co-operation. At
its worst, it's a relationship of disrespect and exploitation.
The absence of external rules complicates things. There's a very thin line that
separates the strong, true, bright bird of the imagination from the synthetic,
noisy bauble. Where is that line? How do you recognize it? How do you know you've
crossed it? At the risk of sounding esoteric and arcane, I'm tempted to say that
you just know. The fact is that nobody - no reader, no reviewer, agent,
publisher, colleague, friend or enemy - can tell for sure. A writer just has to
ask herself that question and answer it as honestly as possible. The thing about
this "line" is that once you learn to recognize it, once you see it, it's
impossible to ignore. You have no choice but to live with it, to follow it
through. You have to bear with all its complexities, contradictions and demands.
And that's not always easy. It doesn't always lead to compliments and standing
ovations. It can lead you to the strangest, wildest, places - in the midst of a
bloody military coup for instance, you could find yourself fascinated by the
mating rituals of a purple sunbird, or the secret life of captive goldfish, or an
old aunt's descent into madness. And nobody can tell you that there isn't truth
and art and beauty in that. Or, on the contrary, like me, you could, in the midst
of putative peace, be unfortunate enough to stumble on a silent war. The trouble
is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping
quiet, saying nothing becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no
innocence. Either way, you're accountable.
Today, perhaps more so than in any other era in history, the writer's right to
free speech is guarded and defended by the civil societies and state
establishments of the most powerful countries in the world. Any overt attempt to
silence or muffle a voice is met with furious opposition. The writer is embraced
and protected. This is a wonderful thing. The writer, the actor, the musician,
the filmmaker - they have become the radiant jewels in the crown of modem
civilization. I imagine the artist is finally as free as he or she will ever be.
Never before have so many writers had their books published. (And now of course
we have the Internet.) Never before have we been more commercially viable. We
live and prosper in the heart of the market place. True, for every so-called
"success" there are hundreds who "fail," true there are a myriad art forms, both
folk and classical, myriad languages, myriad cultural and artistic traditions
that are being crushed and cast aside in the stampede to the big bumper sale in
Wonderland. Still, there have never been more writers, more singers, more actors,
more painters who have become influential, wealthy superstars. And they, the
successful ones, spawn a million imitators, they become the torch-bearers, their
work becomes the bench-mark for what art is, or ought to be.
Nowadays in India the scene is almost farcical. Following the recent commercial
success of some Indian authors, Western publishers are desperately prospecting
for the next big Indo-Anglian work of fiction. They're doing everything, short of
interviewing English-speaking Indians for the post of "writer." Ambitious
middle-class parents who, a few years ago, would only settle for a future in
Engineering, Medicine or Management for their children, now hopefully send them
to creativewriting schools. People like myself, are constantly petitioned by
computer companies, watch-manufacturers, even media magnates to endorse their
products. A boutique owner in Bombay once asked me if he could "display" my book
(as though it was an accessory, a bracelet, or a pair of earrings) while he
filmed me shopping for clothes! Jhumpa Lahiri the American writer of Indian
origin who won the Pulitzer Prize came to India recently to have a traditional
Bengali wedding. The wedding was reported on the front page of national
Now where does all this lead us? Is it just harmless nonsense that's best
ignored? How does all this ardent wooing affect our art? What kind of lenses does
it put in our spectacles? How far does it remove us from the world around us?
There is very real danger that this neoteric seduction can shut us up far more
effectively than violence and repression ever could. We have free speech. Maybe.
But do we have Really Free Speech? If what we have to say doesn't "sell," will we
still say it? Can we? Or is everybody looking for Things That Sell to say? Could
writers end up playing the role of palace entertainers? Or the subtle 2 1 st
century version of court eunuchs attending to the pleasures of our incumbent
CEOs? You know - naughty, but nice. Risque' perhaps, but not risky.
It has been nearly four years now since my first, and so far only, novel The God
of Small Things was published. In the early days, I used to be described -
introduced - as the author of an almost freakishly "successful" (if I may use so
vulgar a term) first book. Nowadays I'm introduced as something of a freak
myself. I am, apparently, what is known in twentyfirst century vernacular, as a
"writer-activist." (Like a sofa-bed).
Why am I called a "writer-activist" and why - even when it's used approvingly,
admiringly - does that term make me flinch? I'm called a writer-activist because
after writing The God of Small Things I wrote three political essays. The End of
Imagination about India's nuclear tests, The Greater Common Good about Big Dams
and the "development" debate, and Power Politics: The Reincarnation I !of
Rumpelstiltskin about the privatization and corporatization of essential
infrastructure like water and electricity. Apart from the building of the temple
in Ayodhya, these are currently the top priorities of the Indian Government.
Now, I've been wondering, why it should be that the person who wrote The God of
Small Things is called a writer, and the person who wrote the political essays is
called an activist? True, The God of Small Things is a work of fiction, but it's
no less political than any of the essays. True, the essays are works of
nonfiction, but since when did writers forgo the right to write nonfiction?
My thesis - my humble theory, as we say in India - is that I've been saddled with
this double-barreled appellation, this awful professional label, not because my
work is political, but because in my essays, which are about very contentious
issues, I take sides. I take a position. I have a point of view. What's worse, I
make it clear that I think it's right and moral to take that position and what's
even worse, I use everything in my power to flagrantly solicit support for that
position. Now for a writer of the 2 1 st century, that's considered a pretty
uncool, unsophisticated thing to do. It skates uncomfortably close to the
territory occupied by political party ideologues - a breed of people that the
world has learned (quite rightly) to mistrust. I'm aware of this. I'm all for
being circumspect. I'm all for discretion, prudence, tentativeness, subtlety,
ambiguity, complexity...I love the unanswered question, the unresolved story, the
unclimbed mountain, the tender shard of an incomplete dream. Most of the time.
But... is it mandatory for a writer to be ambiguous about everything ? Is it not
true that there have been fearful episodes in human history when prudence and
discretion would have just been euphemisms for pusillanimity? When caution was
actually cowardice? When sophistication was disguised decadence? When
circumspection was really a kind of espousal? Isn't it true, or at least
theoretically possible, that there are times in the life of a people or a nation
when the political climate demands that we - even the most sophisticated of us -
overtly take sides? I believe that such times are upon us. And I believe that in
the coming years intellectuals and artists in India will be called upon to take
sides. And this time, unlike during the struggle for Independence, we won't have
the luxury of fighting an "enemy," we'll be fighting ourselves.
We will be forced to ask ourselves some very uncomfortable questions about our
values and traditions, our vision for the future, our responsibilities as
citizens, the legitimacy of our "democratic institutions," the role of the state,
the police, the army, the judiciary and the intellectual community. Fifty years
after independence, India is still struggling with the legacy of colonialism.
Still flinching from the "cultural insult." As citizens we're still caught up in
the business of "disproving" the white world's definition of us. Intellectually
and emotionally, we have just begun to grapple with communal and caste politics
that threaten to tear our society apart. But, in the meanwhile, something new
looms on our horizon. Something that's almost too colossal for human
comprehension to contain. To even try and understand it, to hold the whole of it
in your imagination, is to situate yourself at the edge of sanity. To offer
yourself up for ridicule. It's not war, it's not genocide, it's not ethnic
cleansing, it's not a famine or an epidemic. On the face of it, it's just
business. It lacks the drama, the biblical magnificence of war or genocide or
famine. It's dull in comparison. It makes bad TV. It has to do with boring things
like jobs, money, water supply, electricity, irrigation. But it also has to do
with a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has few parallels in
history. You may have guessed by now that I'm talking about the modem version of
What is globalization? Who is it for? What is it going to do to a country like
India in which social inequality has been institutionalized by the caste system
for centuries. A country in which 700 million people live in rural areas. In
which 80% of the landholdings are small farms. In which 400 million people are
Is the corporatization and globalization of agriculture, water-supply,
electricity and essential commodities going to pull India out of the stagnant
morass of poverty, illiteracy and religious bigotry? Is the dismantling and
auctioning off of elaborate public sector infrastructure that has been developed
with public money over the last fifty years really the way forward? Is
globalization going to close the gap between the privileged and the
under-privileged, between the upper-castes and the lower-castes, between the
educated and the illiterate? Or is it going to give those who already have a
centuries-old head start a friendly helping hand? Is globalization about "the
eradication of world poverty" or is it a mutant variety of colonialism,
remote-controlled and digitally operated? These are huge, contentious questions.
The answers vary depending on whether they come from the villages and fields of
rural India, from the slums and shanty towns of urban India, from the living
rooms of the burgeoning middleclass or from the boardrooms of the big business
Today, India produces more milk, more sugar, more foodgrain than ever before.
This year government warehouses are overflowing with 42 million tonnes of
foodgrain. That's almost a quarter of the total annual foodgrain produce. Farmers
with too much grain on their hands were driven to despair. In regions that
wielded enough political clout the government went on a "distress buying" spree,
buying more grain than it could possibly store or use. While the grain rots in
government warehouses, 350 million Indian citizens live below the poverty line
and do not have the means to eat a square meal a day. And yet, last March, just
before President Clinton's visit to India, the Indian government lifted import
restrictions on 1,400 commodities including milk, grain, sugar, cotton, tea,
coffee, rubber, and palm oil . This, despite the fact that there was a glut of
these products in the market. From the 1st of April - April fool's day - this
year, according to the terms of its agreement with the WTO, the Indian government
will have to drop its quantitative import restrictions. The Indian market is
already flooded with cheaper imports, Though India is technically free to export
its agricultural produce, in practice, most of it cannot be exported because it
doesn't meet the First World's "environmental standards." (You don't eat bruised
mangoes, or bananas with mosquito bites, or rice with a few weevils in it.
Whereas we don't mind the odd mosquito and the occasional weevil.) Developed
countries like the US, whose hugely subsidized farm industry engages only two to
three percent of the total population are using the WTO to pressurize countries
like India to drop agricultural subsidies in order to make the market
"competitive." Huge, mechanized corporate enterprises working thousands of acres
of farmland, want to compete with impoverished, subsistence farmers who own a
couple of hectares of land. In effect, India's rural economy which supports 700
million people, is being garrotted. Farmers who produce too much are in
distress, farmers who produce too little are in distress, landless agricultural
labour is out of work as big estates and farms lay off their workers, They're all
flocking to the cities in search of employment.
"Trade not Aid" is the rallying cry of the headmen of the new Global
Village headquartered in the shining offices of the World Trade Organization.
That was how colonialism stepped onto our shores a few centuries ago. We all
remember the East India Company. This time around, the colonizer doesn't even
need a token white presence in the colonies. The CEO's and their men don't need
to go to the trouble of tramping through the tropics risking malaria, diahorrea,
sunstroke and an early death. They don't have to maintain an army, or a police
force, or out insurrections and mutinies. They can have their colonies and
conscience. "Creating a good investment climate" is the new euphemism for third
world repression. It is entirely the responsibility of the
In India, in order to clear the way for "development projects," the government is
in the process of amending the present Land Acquisition Act (which, ironically
was drafted by the British in the 19th century), and making it more draconian
than it already is. State Governments are preparing to ratify "Anti-terrorist"
laws in which those who oppose development projects are included in the
definition of terrorists. They can be held without trial for three years. They
can have their lands and cattle seized.
Recently, globalization has come in for some criticism. What happened in Seattle
will go down in history. Each time the WTO or the World Economic Forum wants to
have a meeting they have to barricade themselves with thousands of heavily armed
police. Still, all its admirers, from Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, A.B. Vajpayee
(the Indian prime-minister) to the cheering brokers in the stalls, all of them
continue to say the same lofty things. If we have the right institutions of
governance in place - effective courts, good laws, honest politicians,
participative democracy, a transparent administration that respects human rights
and gives people a say in decisions that affect their lives - then the
globalisation project will work for the poor as well. They call this
"globalization with a human face."
The point is, if all this was in place, almost anything would succeed: socialism,
capitalism, you name it. Everything works in Paradise, a Communist State as well
as a Military Dictatorship! But in an imperfect world, is it globalisation that's
going to bring us all this bounty? Is that what's happening in India now that
it's is on the fast track to the free market? Does any one thing on that lofty
list apply to life in India today?
Are state institutions transparent? Have people had a say, have they even been
informed - let alone consulted - about decisions that vitally affect their lives?
And are Mr Clinton, (or now, Mr Bush) and Prime Minister Vajpayee doing
everything in their power to see that the "right institutions of governance" are
in place? Or are they involved in exactly the opposite enterprise? Do they mean
something else altogether, when they talk of the "right institutions of
On the 18th of October 2000, in one of the most extraordinary legal decisions in
Independent India, the Supreme Court permitted the construction of the Sardar
Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river to proceed. The court did this despite
indisputable evidence placed before it that the Sardar Sarovar Project did not
have the mandatory environmental clearance from the central government. Despite
the fact that no comprehensive studies had ever been done on the social and
ecological impact of the dam. Despite the fact that in the last fifteen years not
one single village had been resettled according to the projects own guidelines,
and that there was no possibility of rehabilitating the 400,000 people who would
be displaced by the project. In effect, the Supreme Court virtually endorsed the
violation of Indian citizens right to life and livelihood.
Big Dams in India have displaced not hundreds, not thousands, but millions - more
than 30 million people in the last fifty years. Sixty percent of them are Dalit
and Adivasi, the poorest of the poor. Yet India is the only country in the world
that refused permission to the World Commission on dams to hold a public hearing.
The Government of Gujarat, the State in which the Sardar Sarovar Dam is being
built, threatened members of the commission with arrest. The World Commission on
Dams report was released by Nelson Mandela in November (2000). Last week (Feb
2001), the Indian government formally rejected the report. Does this sound Re a
transparent, accountable, participative democracy?
Recently, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of 77,000 "polluting and
non-conforming" industrial units in Delhi. The order will put two and a hatf
million people out of work. What are these "industrial units?" Who are these
people? They're the millions who have migrated from their villages, some
voluntarily, others involuntarily, in search of work. They're the people who
aren't supposed to exist, the "non-citizens" who survive in the folds and
wrinkles, the cracks and fissures of the "official" city. They exist just outside
the net of "official" urban infrastructure. Close to forty percent of Delhi's
population of 12 million - about 5 million people - live in slums and
unauthorized colonies. Most of them are not serviced by municipal services - no
electricity, no water, no sewage systems. About fifty thousand people are
homeless and sleep on the streets. The "noncitizens" are employed in what
economists rather stuffily call the "informal sector"- the fragile but vibrant,
parallel economy - that both shocks and delights the imagination. They work as
hawkers, rickshaw-pullers, garbage re-cyclers, car battery re-chargers, street
tailors, transistor knob makers, button-hole stitchers, paper bag makers, dyers,
printers, barbers. These are the "industrial units" that have been targeted by
the Supreme Court. (Fortunately I haven't yet had that knock on my door, though
I'm as nonconforming a unit as the rest of them.)
The trains that leave Delhi these days carry thousands of people who simply
cannot survive in the city. They're returning to the villages they fled in the
first place. Millions of others, because they're "illegal," have become easy meat
for the rapacious, bribe-seeking police and predatory government officials. They
haven't yet been driven out of the city but now must live in perpetual fear and
anticipation of that happening.
In India the times are full of talk of the "free market," of reforms,
deregulation and the dismantling of the "license-raj" - all in the name of
encouraging entrepreneurship and discouraging corruption. Yet when the State,
supported by the judiciary curbs freedom and obliterates a flourishing market,
when it breaks the backs of two and a half million imaginative, resourceful,
small-scale entrepreneurs, and delivers millions of others as fodder to the
doorstep of the corruption industry, few comment on the irony.
No doubt it's true that the informal sector is polluting and, according to a
colonial understanding of urban land-use, "non-conforming." But then we don't
live in a clean, perfect world. What about the fact that 67% of Delhi's pollution
comes from motor vehicles? Is it conceivable that the Supreme Court will come up
with a car-sealing act? The courts and the government have shown no great
enthusiasm for closing down big factories run by major industrialists that have
polluted rivers, denuded forests, depleted and poisoned ground water and
destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people who depend on these
resources for a living. The Grasim factory in Kerala, the Orient Paper Mill in
Madhya Pradesh, the "sunrise belt" industries in Gujarat. The uranium mines in
Jadugoda, the aluminum plants in Orissa. And hundreds of others. This our
in-house version of First World bullying in the global-warming debate: i.e. We
pollute, you pay.
But the fishbowl of the globalization project, its truly star turn, is the story
of the Houston based natural gas company, Enron and its adventures in India. The
Enron project is the first, most high-profile, "fast-track" private
multi-national power project in India. ItŐs the biggest contract ever signed in
the history of India. This story has bit parts for everybody, from George Bush,
Jr., downwards. What's happening to the power sector in California is child's play
compared to this.
In 1993 Enron signed the first Power Purchase Agreement with the State Government
of Maharashtra for a 695 MW power plant. Enron made no secret of the fact that in
order to secure the deal it had paid out 20 million dollars to "educate" the
politicians and bureaucrats involved in the deal. The right-wing opposition
parties, the BJP and the Shiv Sena, set up a howl of "swadeshi" (nationalist)
protest, and filed legal proceedings in the Bombay High Court against Enron and
the Congress-ruled State Government. They alleged malfeasance and corruption at
the highest level. A year later, when state elections were announced, it was the
only campaign issue of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.
In February 1995, this combine won the elections. True to their word, they
scrapped the project. The US government began to lean on the Maharashtra
Government. The general gist of the threat was that reneging on the contract
would jeopardize the "investment climate" in India and chase away potential
investors. In November 1995, after the legendary meeting between Enron's CEO the
mini-skirted Rebecca Mark and the Bal Thackeray the malevolent Shiv Sena chief,
the Government of Maharashtra announced a "re-negotiation" committee. In August
1996, it signed a fresh contract with Enron, counter-guaranteed by the central
government, on terms that would astound the most hardboiled cynic.
The impugned contract had involved annual payments to Enron of 430 million US
dollars for phase 1 (695 MW) of the project, with phase II (2,015 MW) being
optional. The "re-negotiated" Power Purchase Agreement makes Phase 2 of the
project mandatory and legally binds the Maharashtra State Electricity Board
(MSEB) to pay Enron a sum of 30 billion US dollars! There is, of course, no
record of what mathematical formula 'was used to compute the new costs of
"re-educating" the new government. Nor any trace of how much trickled-up or down
or sideways and to whom. In yet another extraordinary decision, in April 1997,
the Supreme Court of India refused to entertain an appeal against Enron.
Today, four years later, everything that critics of the project predicted has
come true with an eerie vengeance. The Enron plant produces the most expensive
electricity in India. It costs twice as much as its nearest competitor and seven
times as much as the cheapest electricity available in Maharashtra. In May 2000,
the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Committee (MERC) ruled that temporarily,
until as long as was absolutely necessary, no power should be bought from Enron.
It was based on a calculation that it would be cheaper to just pay Enron the
mandatory fixed charges for the maintenance and administration of the plant that
they are contractually obliged to pay, than to actually buy any of its exorbitant
power. The fixed charges alone work out to 220 million US dollars a year for
Phase I of the project. Phase 11 will be nearly twice the size. According to the
Maharashtra State Electricity Board's calculations, from January 2002, even if it
buys 90% of Enron's output, it's losses will amount to 1,200 million Us dollars a
year. That's more than 60% of India' entire Annual Rural Development Budget.
In contravention of the MERC ruling, the State Electricity Board is cutting back
on production from its own cheaper plants in order to buy from Enron. 1,400 small
industrial unit s have closed down because they couldn't afford Enron's
In January the Maharashtra Government (the Congress Party is back in power),
announced that did not have the money to pay Enron's bills. But Enron has
enormous political clout. It was one of the biggest contributors to President
Bush's election campaign. President George Bush, Jr., has helped Enron with its
global business from as far back as 1988. The current US ambassador Richard
Celeste took it upon himself to publicly chastise the Maharashtra Chief Minister
for even considering dishonouring the contract. On the 6th of February, only ten
days after the earthquake in the neighbouring state of Gujarat, at a time when
the country was still reeling from the disaster, the newspapers reported that
Enron had decided to invoke the counter-guarantee. And that if the government did
not have the money, it would have to auction the government properties it has
named as collateral security in its contract. According to the press, the
governor's house and the parliament building could be auctioned away. Nobody
knows which buildings are listed in the contract. For now, the secret is safe
with Rebecca Mark, who has left Enron and is rumoured to have disappeared from
the face of corporate America for a price. Of course ... A quick update - the
latest news is that the Minister for Power has assured Enron that the government
will come up with the cash for the current installment of outstanding payments.
So our government buildings are safe for a few months more.
(Now that the trade barriers are down, I wonder if the Indian people could place
an import order? In the interests of transparency and accountability, we'd like
to requisition one Rebecca Mark, and one Warren Anderson. He was the former CEO
of Union Carbide, the company responsible for the MIC gas leak in Bhopal in 1984.
It killed 16,000 people and maimed hundreds of thousands. He's still hiding after
all these years.)
In business circles, the Enron contract is called "the sweetheart deal." A
euphemism for rape without redress. The Indian press has reported the Enron
scandal meticulously and relentlessly. It's globalization's pilot project, so
it's page one news. In India, for most people the story of Enron is the story of
the globalization project. The final outcome whatever it's going to be, will have
serious lessons in it for everybody. Yet none of the votaries of "globalization
with a human" face have thought to intervene or offer an opinion - not Clinton,
not Bush, not Vajpayee. None of them have come out and said that this is not the
kind of 'investment climate' that the globalization project is looking for.
Why not? Why are they keeping so quiet? Could it be because it's exactly the kind
of "investment climate" that is sought to be created. There are plenty of Enrons
on the anvil. As we speak, the whole state of Andhra Pradesh is convulsed with
protests against the privatization of its power sector. Three months ago five
people were shot - killed - by the police during a public demonstration. The fact
is that all of India is being readied to be signed away in a "sweetheart deal."
It's up for sale. It's under the hammer.
In circumstances like these, the term "writer-activist" as a professional
description of what I do, makes me flinch doubly. First because it is
strategically positioned to diminish both writers and activists. It seeks to
reduce the scope, the range, the sweep of what a writer is and can be. It
suggests somehow that the writer by definition is too effete a being to come up
with the clarity, the explicitness, the reasoning, the passion, the grit, the
audacity and if necessary the vulgarity to publicly take a political position.
And, conversely, it suggests that the activist occupies the coarser, cruder end
of the intellectual spectrum. That the activist is by profession a
"position-taker" and therefore lacks complexity and intellectual sophistication
and is instead fueled by a crude, simple-minded, one-sided understanding of
things. But the more fundamental problem I have with the term is that
"professionalising" the whole business of protest, putting a label on it, has the
effect of containing the 'problem' and suggesting that it's up to the
professionals - activists and writer-activists - to deal with. But the fact is
that what's happening in India today is not a "problem," the issues that some of
us are raising are not 'causes'. They are huge political and social upheavals
that are convulsing the nation. One is not involved by virtue of being a writer
or activist. One is involved because one is a human being. Writing about it just
happens to be the most effective thing I can do. I think it's vital to
"de-professionalize" the public debate on matters that vitally affect the lives
of ordinary people. It's time to snatch our futures back from the "experts." Time
to ask in ordinary language, the public question and to demand in ordinary
language the public answer.
Frankly, however trenchantly, however angrily, however combatively one puts
forward one's case, at the end of the day, I'm only a citizen, one of many, who
is demanding public information, asking for a public explanation. I have no axe
to grind. I have no professional stakes to protect. I'm prepared to be persuaded.
I'm prepared to change my mind. But instead of an argument, or an explanation, or
a disputing of facts, one gets insults, invective and the Expert's Anthem "You
don't understand and it's too complicated to explain." The sub-text of course,
is: Don't worry your little head about it. Go and play with your toys. Leave the
real world to us.
It's the old brahmanical instinct: Colonize knowledge, build four walls around it
and use it to your advantage. (It would be interesting, as an exercise, to find
out how many "experts" - scholars, professionals, consultants - in India are
actually brahmins and upper castes.) The Manusmriti - the vedic hindu code of
conduct - says that if a Dalit overhears a sloka or any part of a sacred text, he
must have molten lead poured into his ear. It isn't a coincidence that while
India is poised to take her place at the forefront of the Information Revolution,
four hundred million of her citizens are illiterate.
If you're one of the lucky people with a berth booked on the small convoy, then
"Leaving it to the Experts" is, or can be, a mutually beneficial proposition for
both the expert and yourself. It's a convenient way of shrugging off your own
role in the circuitry. And it creates a huge professional market for all kinds of
"expertise." There's a whole ugly universe waiting to be explored there. This is
not at all to suggest that all consultants are racketeers or that expertise is
unnecessary - but you've heard the saying - There's a lot of money in poverty.
There are plenty of ethical questions to be asked of those who make a living off
their expertise in poverty and despair.
For instance, at what point does a scholar stop being a scholar and become a
parasite who feeds off despair and dispossession? Does the source of your funding
compromise your scholarship? We know after all, that World Bank studies are the
most quoted studies in the world. Is the World Bank a dispassionate observer of
the global situation? Are the studies it funds entirely devoid of self-interest?
Take for example, the international dam industry. It's worth 20 billion dollars a
year. It's bursting with experts and consultants. Given the number of studies,
reports, books, Phd's, grants, loans, consultancies, EIA's - it's odd, wouldn't
you say that there is no really reliable estimate of how many people have been
displaced by Big Dams in India? That there is no estimate for exactly what the
contribution of Big Dams is to the overall food production in India? That there
has not been an official audit, a comprehensive, honest, thoughtful, post-project
evaluation of a single Big Dam to see whether or not it has achieved what it set
out to achieve. Whether or not the costs were justified, or even what the costs
actually were? What are the experts up to?
If you manage to ignore the invective, shut out the din of the Experts Anthem and
keep your eye on the ball you'll find that a lot of dubious politics lurks inside
the stables of "expertise." Probe further, and it all precipitates in a bilious
rush of abuse, intimidation and blind anger. The intellectual equivalent of a
police baton charge. The advantage of provoking this kind of unconstrained,
spontaneous rage is that it allows you to get a good look at the instincts of
some of these normally ponderous, cautious, supposedly 'neutral' people, the
pillars of democracy - judges, planners, academics. It becomes very clear that
it's not really a question of experts vs laypersons or of knowledge vs ignorance.
It's the pitting of one value system against another, one kind of political
instinct against another. It's interesting to watch so many supposedly "rational"
people turn into irrational, instinctive political beings. To see how they find
reasons to support their views, and how, if those reasons are argued away, they
continue to cling to their views anyway. Perhaps for this alone, provocation is
important. In a crisis it helps to clarify who's on which side.
A wonderful illustration of this, is the Supreme Court's reaction to my essay The
Greater Common Good which was published in May 1999. In July and August the
monsoon waters rose in the Narmada, and submerged villages. While villagers stood
in their homes for days together in chest deep water to protest against the dam,
while their crops were submerged, and while the NBA - Narmada Bachao Andolan -
the peoples' movement in the Narmada valley, pointed out (citing specific
instances) that government officials had committed perjury by signing false
affidavits claiming that resettlement had been carried out when it hadn't, the
three judge bench in the Supreme Court, met over three sessions. The only subject
they discussed was whether or not the dignity of the court had been undermined.
To assist them in their deliberations, they appointed what is called an amicus
curiae (Friend of the Court) to advise them about whether or not they should
initiate criminal proceedings against the NBA and me for contempt of court. The
thing to keep in mind is that while the NBA was the petitioner, I was (and
hopefully, still am) an independent citizen. The three judge bench ranted and
raved, they threw my book around, they referred to me as "that woman." (I began
to think of myself as the hooker who won the Booker).
On the 15th of October, 1999 they issued an elaborate order. Here's an extract:
... Judicial process and institution cannot be permitted to be scandalised or
subjected to contumacious violation in such a blatant manner in which it has been
done by her (me)... vicious stultification and vulgar debunking cannot be
permitted to pollute the stream ofjustice ... we are unhappy at the way in which
the leaders of NBA and Ms Arundhati Roy have attempted to undermine the dignity
of the Court. We expected better behaviour from them ... After giving this matter
thoughtful consideration ... we are not inclined to initiate contempt proceedings
against the petitioners, its leaders or Arundhati Roy .... after the 22nd of July
1999... nothing has come to our notice which may show that Ms Arundhati Roy has
continued with the objectionable writings insofar as the judiciary is concerned.
She may have by now realised her mistake...
What's dissent without a few good insults?
Anyway, eventually, as you can see, they let me off. And I continued with my
Objectionable Writings, I hope in the course of this lecture I've managed to
inspire at least some of the students in this audience to embark on careers as
Vicious Stultificators and Vulgar Debunkers. We could do with a few more of
On the whole, in India, the prognosis is, to put it mildly - Not Good. And yet,
travelling around the country, one cannot help but marvel at the fantastic range
and depth and wisdom of the hundreds of peoples' resistance movements all over
the country. They're being beaten down, but they simply refuse to lie down and
die. Their political ideologies and battle-strategies span the range. We have the
maverick Malayali professor who petitions the President every day against the
communalization of history texts, Sunderlal Bahugana who risks his life on
indefinite hungerstrikes protesting the Tehri Dam, the adivasis in Jadugoda
protesting uranium mining on their lands, the Koel Karo Sanghathan resisting a
mega-dam project in Jharkhand, the awe-inspiring Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, the
relentlessly dogged Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the Beej Bachao Andolan in
Tehri-Garhwal fighting to save bio-diversity of seeds, and of course, the Narmada
Bachao Andolan, the extraordinary peoples' movement in the Narmada Valley.
India's redemption lies in the inherent anarchy and factiousness of its people,
and in the legendary inefficiency of the Indian State. Even our heel-clicking,
boot-stamping Hindu fascists are indisciplined to the point of being chaotic.
They can't bring themselves to agree with each other for more than five minutes
at a time. Corporatizing India is like trying to impose an iron grid on a heaving
ocean and forcing it to behave. My guess is that India will not behave. It
cannot. It's too old and too clever to be made to jump through the hoops all over
again. It's too diverse, too grand too ferine and eventually I hope, too
democratic, to be lobotomized into believing in one single idea, which is,
eventually, what globalization really is: Life is Profit.
What is happening to the world, lies, at the moment, just outside the realm of
common human understanding. It is the writers, the poets, the artists, the
singers, the filmmakers who can make the connections, who can find ways of
bringing it into the realm of common understanding. Who can translate cash-flow
charts and scintillating boardroom speeches into real stories about real people
with real lives. Stories about what it's like to lose your home, your land, your
job, your dignity, your past and your future to an invisible force. To someone or
something you can't see. You can't hate. You can't even imagine.
It's a new space that's been offered to us today. A new kind of challenge. It
offers opportunities for a new kind of art. An art which can make the impalpable
palpable, make the intangible tangible and the invisible visible. An art which
can draw out the incorporeal adversary and make it real. Bring it to book.
Cynics say that real life is a choice between the failed revolution and the
shabby deal. I don't know... maybe they're right. But even they should know that
there's no limit to just how shabby that shabby deal can be. What we need to
search for and find, what we need to hone and perfect into a magnificent, shining
thing, is a new kind of politics. Not the politics of governance, but the
politics of resistance. The politics of opposition.
The politics of forcing accountability. The politics of slowing things down. The
politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain destruction. In
the present circumstances, I'd say that the only thing worth globalizing, is
dissent. It's India's best export.
Arundhati Roy, 2001
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