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How Uncle Sam turns Indian
gold into straw

Illustrations by Mishta Roy

Arundhati Roy's explosive new essay on the
relentless march of globalisation and what it
means for the people of the Third World

The reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin

Remember him? The gnome who could turn straw into gold? Well he's back now, but you wouldn't recognise him. To begin with, he's not an individual gnome anymore. I'm not sure how best to describe him. Let's just say he's metamorphosed into an accretion, a cabal, an assemblage, a malevolent, incorporeal, transnational multi-gnome. Rumpelstiltskin is a notion (gnotion), a piece of deviant, insidious, white logic that will eventually self-annihilate. But for now he's more than okay. He's cock of the walk. King of All That Really Counts (Cash). He's decimated the competition, killed all the other kings, the other kinds of kings. He's persuaded us that he's all we have left. Our only salvation.

What kind of potentate is Rumpelstiltskin? Powerful, pitiless and armed to the teeth. He's a kind of king the world has never known before. His realm is raw capital, his conquests emerging markets, his prayers profits, his borders limitless, his weapons nuclear. To even try and imagine him, to hold the whole of him in your field of vision, is to situate yourself at the very edge of sanity, to offer yourself up for ridicule. King Rumpel reveals only part of himself at a time. He has a bank-account heart. He has television eyes and a newspaper nose in which you see only what he wants you to see and read only what he wants you to read. (See what I mean about the edge of sanity?) There's more: a Surround Sound stereo mouth which amplifies his voice and filters out the sound of the rest of the world so that you can't hear it even when it's shouting (or starving, or dying) and King Rumpel is only whispering, rolling his r's in his North American way.

In Delhi's dirty sky, vindicated nuclear hawks banked and whistled: Dekho ji dekho! Bill is here because we have the Bomb. Those Indian citizens with even a modicum of self-respect were so ashamed they
stayed in bed
for days

Listen carefully, this is most of the rest of his story. (It hasn't ended yet, but it will. It must.) It ranges across seas and continents, sometimes majestic and universal, sometimes confining and local. Now and then I'll peg it down with disparate bits of history and geography that could mar the gentle art of storytelling. So please bear with me.

In March this year (2000 AD), the President of the United States (His Excellency the most exalted plenipotentiary of Rumpeldom) visited India. He brought his own bed, the feather pillow he hugs at night and a merry band of businessmen. He was courted and fawned over by the genuflecting representatives
of this ancient civilisation with a fervour that can only be described as indecent. Whole cities were superficially spruced up. The poor were herded away, hidden from the presidential gaze. Streets were soaped and scrubbed and festooned with balloons and welcome banners. In Delhi's dirty sky, vindicated nuclear hawks banked and whistled: Dekho ji dekho! Bill is here because we have the Bomb. Those Indian citizens with even a modicum of self-respect were so ashamed they stayed in bed for days. Some of us had puzzled furrows on our brows. Since everybody behaved like a craven, happy slave when Master visited, we wondered why we hadn't gone the whole distance. Why hadn't we just crawled under Master's nuclear umbrella in the first place? Then we could spend our pocket money on other things (instead of bombs) and still be all safe and slavey. No?

Just before The Visit, the Government of India lifted import restrictions on 1,400 commodities including milk, grain, sugar and cotton (even though this year there was a glut of sugar and cotton in the market, even though 42.5 million tonnes of grain was rotting in government storehouses). During The Visit, contracts worth about US $3 (some say 4) billion were signed.

For reasons of my own, I was particularly interested in a Memorandum of Intent signed between the Ogden Energy Group, a company that specialises in operating garbage incinerators in the US, and the S.Kumars, an Indian textile company that manufactures what it calls 'suiting blends'. Now what might garbage incineration and suiting blends possibly have in common? Suit-incineration? Guess again. Garbage-blends? Nope.

A big hydel dam on the river Narmada in central India. Neither Ogden nor the S.Kumars has ever built or operated a large dam before.

The 400 MW Shri Maheshwar Hydel Project being promoted by the S.Kumars is part of the Narmada Valley Development Project, which boasts of being the most ambitious river valley project in the world. It envisages building 3,200 dams (30 big dams, 135 medium dams and the rest small) that will reconstitute the Narmada and her 41 tributaries into a series of step reservoirs - an immense staircase of enslaved water. It will alter the ecology of an entire river basin, affect the lives of 25 million people who live in the valley, submerge 4,000 sq km of old growth, deciduous forest, hundreds of temples, as well as archaeological sites dating back to the lower Palaeolithic age.

The dams that have been built on the river so far are all government projects. The Maheshwar Dam is slated to be India's first major
private hydel power project.

What is interesting about it is not only that it's part of the most bitterly opposed river valley project in India, but also that it is a strand in the skein of a mammoth global enterprise. Understanding what is happening in Maheshwar, decoding the nature of the deals that are being struck between two of the world's great democracies, will go a long way towards gaining a rudimentary grasp of what is being done to us, while we, poor fools, stand by the clap and cheer and hasten things along. (When I say 'us', I mean people, human beings. Not countries, not governments.)

Personally, I took the first step towards arriving at this understanding when, over a few days in March this year (2000 AD), I lived through a writer's bad dream. I witnessed the ritualistic slaughter of Language as I know and understand it. Let me explain.

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