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'Im like a virus in
the system'

Arundhati Roy

Obviously enjoying her disguise from the world in the form of a new, short haircut,
Arundhati Roy, intrepid eco-activist, talks to Damandeep Singh about her involvement with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and what it has taught her

Arundhati, you participated in the NBA
satyagraha this year too. What do you think was achieved by the protest?
You know, for the past 15 years, the NBA has been saying the same things. And one of the most difficult parts of their work is to keep the fight in focus, and keep the spirit alive. Some years, like last year, the Supreme Court lifted the stay (on the construction of the dam) temporarily and that led to a huge rush of anger, and then things happened spontaneously.

This year, there wasn't much rain, there wasn't any construction work on the dam. But, actually, that's a more difficult thing for a struggle that goes on for so long to deal with, because you don't have a peg to hang something on. Everybody is looking for new kicks or new excitements, but that's not the way it is. It's the same river, it's the same dam, the same flooding every year. I just feel that what they do is wonderful; to keep it alive year after year after year, and all of us need to support them all the time. In fact, what they've achieved was more the achievement of the Gujarat police than the NBA, for behaving in such an absurd manner.

All of us were going there for a
jan sunvayi (people's hearing) to listen to people who had come and gathered in the valley in Domkhedi. For the police to try and stop free citizens from crossing the river and going to that place was such an absurd thing to do. They stopped Justice Rajinder Sachhar, they stopped a whole lot of other people, they tried to stop me. Of course, they didn't manage to. But they were the ones who created the cheap thrills, you know, the Gujarat police. It was like some bad, B-grade television serial.

The police was watching the NBA office, they had tapped the phones, they had arrested them on the night that I arrived, in fact. I think they were expecting me to arrive by air and stay in some fancy hotel, which I didn't do

So how did you escape? You went in disguise?
No, well, my haircut. My haircut fulfilled its plan.

So, it was for this that you had your hair cut?
No, it was generally to be able to be on the streets, and not be Arundhati Roy. It's very difficult (to get to the valley). You go to Baroda, then you have to go to Hapeshwar and cross the river.

The police was watching the NBA office, they had tapped the phones, they had arrested them on the night that I arrived, in fact. I think they were expecting me to arrive by air and stay in some fancy hotel, which I didn't do. Everyone else, and they were respectable people, decided that they would go to Hapeshwar and court arrest there. In fact, the police stopped them in Baroda itself. But me, being less respectable, I decided that I've come there to go to Domkhedi, not to be arrested. So I, basically, from Baroda drove back at night, all night, into Madhya Pradesh and, from there, came back down the river. So, the police had arrested everybody in Baroda, then they allowed the press in hoping that they would cover a sort of flop event. But, then, I showed up by boat.

There is a general belief that this is the endgame for the NBA. There have been these years of agitations and now with the Supreme Court judgement awaited, what will happen? Is there anything else that can be done?

If you go to the valley and speak to the adivasis, you will see. You know, because justice is so far away from them, because the government is so far away, because the newspapers are so far away, these institutions actually inspire more awe in us than them. You know, for them, it's just some distant thing. If it works, great, but if it doesn't, that doesn't mean they're going to stop the fight.

That's just one sort of powerful urban institution in their minds, distant from their lives as everything else, you know. So, I don't think that this awe that the urban, educated person has, translates to the same thing. Because what can they do? I mean, do they have an option? They don't have an option, they have to fight. You and I have an option, you know. Tomorrow, I can dump it and say: Look it's good, but now I'm out of here. But they don't have an option, so, you know, obviously it's going to carry on either way.

The Supreme Court hasn't come out with its judgement, but if you heard the way things proceeded in the court, it was absolutely scandalous. I think the reason the judgement is taking so long is because there's such huge pressure. The kind of evidence that they unearthed about permissions (granted) and things; it was so ridiculous, that I don't see how they can give permission for the height (of the dam) to be raised. I mean, if they don't, there will be an outcry, if they do, then this.

Big dams are under a spotlight. On November 15, this WCD (World Commission on Dams, set up jointly by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union) report is going to be releassed. I don't think it's going to be anything unbelievably radical, but it's certainly not going to paper over all the problems that exist. I mean, the India Country Study that was done for the WCD, it's an absolutely meaningless thing. I mean, that 56 million people displaced by the dams, that so far dams contributed to only 10 per cent of the rise in (foodgrain production). So, you know, it's not just the NBA fighting the Sardar Sarovar, fighting the Maheshwar dam. It's also responsible for having raised these questions. That's their victory, really.

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