Arundhati Roy in conversation with Venu Govindu
Oct 29, 2000 at the NBA dharna in Bhopal.

VG : Arundhati, I'd like to start with your reactions to the pronouncements from the Bench at the Supreme Court on the 18th ?

AR : I think that one cannot emphasise enough that there wasn't one but two verdicts and without going into the fact that one was the majority judgement and therefore the operative one, what's quite amazing about reading the two together is that at the level of the Supreme Court which ought to be discussing points of law, you are having a disagreement on facts, which smells bad. One judge says and quotes note after note after note (he's not inventing this, he's not a fiction writer yaar). He's quoting Government documents which say very clearly that the Sardar Sarovar Project was not cleared after studies were done, but were infact cleared with a number of conditions. And those conditions have not been met, 13 years later! So, logically the clearance has lapsed and the project should go back for a review which is what Justice Bharucha said and let's be clear this is not what the NBA is saying. Justice Bharucha is not a radical, revolutionary. There are things in his judgment that I don't agree with, he said that canal-affected should not be considered as project affected and so on. But just about this, he quotes a very interesting clause in a letter which says that the Government knows that studies have not been done and that whatever information there is, is inadequate. But it says that they don't see any point in doing the studies which will take 3 years unless they know for sure that the project is going to go ahead. And if they know that the project is going to go ahead, then what's the point of doing the study!

So, what we are in is a situation where this dam was planned with surely some cost-benefit analysis and now its come down to the stage where people are saying, Oh, 200,000 people will have to pay the price to bring drinking water to 4 million people or some absurd figure like that. When you actually look at the facts, at the time this dam was planned they said 6,000 families will be affected. Today that number has gone up to 41,000 families. Not today actually, that was in 1994. Today we don't know what that number is. And that's only the officially displaced, we are not talking about all the other people who are actually going to be displaced. And for what reason is this dam being built? For there is no provision, there is no drinking water plan, none of that is part of the cost-benefit analysis. We know that even if this dam were to perform at 100% (which has never happened in the history of big dams anywhere in the world), even then only 1.8% of the cultivable area of Kutch and 9% of Saurashtra gets water. Which means that there is really no overlap between the command areas of the dam and the areas that are drought-ridden. So, what happens is that one judge says that this dam should go back for review and the other two have come up with a judgement which defies logic. It is based on opinion. Anyone on the street can have an opinion. In fact everyone on the street does have an opinion about big dams with absolutely no information. And what the Chief Justice of India and Justice Kirpal have done is outrageous because they stopped the Andolan from saying anything in Court about big dams and then they have, I don't know how many pages, full of opinions about how big dams function. And they said that an environmental clearance is just an administrative requirement.

I think we still haven't recognised the full impact of this judgement. First of all, it is a judgement directly concerning the lives of 400,000 Indian citizens. There has been enough evidence in the Court including an affidavit from the Madhya Pradesh Government (where 80% of the oustees live) that there is no land to rehabilitate them. There's been written, documented evidence which the Court accepts saying that people who have already been displaced by the dam at its current height have not been rehabilitated and yet they have ordered the construction to go ahead. In other words, they have ordered the violation of human rights, they have ordered the violation of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award, and then they said that the project should be implemented according to the Tribunal Award when for 13 years, the Tribunal Award has been violated in all sorts of ways.

But these are the details. The larger impact is that it is the Supreme Court putting its might behind the destruction of people's movements all over India. And this is something that I find unacceptable. I have been called by people and told that I should tone down my reaction, that as a citizen of India that I should respect the Supreme Court. I want to know what about the Supreme Court I should respect. Should I respect the building or should I respect the wisdom that comes from the Court? If I am expected to respect that, it had better be wise. I'm not somebody that is prone to worshipping something that walks past me because someone tells me to. I want to see evidence of that. In this case, I see none. In fact, I see something that ought to be investigated. I see judges that ought to be accountable for what they have said and done. Because, if we are as citizens going to accept that this is allright, that there is no justice beyond this, and if the Supreme Court says that you have no right to your property, to your lands, to the place that you have lived in and we respect that, then let us come out and say that we think that big dams ought to be built whether or not people are rehabilitated. Let us start with some honesty. And the honest fact is that this kind of thing happens in banana republics. And of course, on top of everything else, the Court says that the Prime Minister will take the final decision. Again, it is like if we cannott decide in 6 years, if all the various bodies we have set up have not been functioning, then ask Daddy. I don't accept this.

I know that what the Narmada Bachao Andolan has been fighting is a far more complicated fight than the Freedom Struggle, in a way. The enemy in the case of the Freedom Struggle was so easy to identify. There's the white man, get him! (They didn't have to explain to people why they should be free, it is an instinct!) Whereas here, you have to break the unshakeable faith that the middle-class has in these dams. Because just like the dam is a means of appropriating all the waters in this country, centralising them, allowing them to be grabbed by the rich and powerful, dams are devices that protect the interests of the urban middle and upper-classes. So, is the Supreme Court.

VG : We are at a very interesting juncture. To my mind in the 15 years of struggle, one of the most significant contributions of the Andolan has been to whittle down all the arguments and clarify them. The whole development debate has been brought into sharp relief. And on the other hand, there has been this perception amongst the middle-class in India of an environmentally active judiciary. And a lot of people have that perception. These two ideas don't jive any more. So, what do you think is the portent of this judgement, what are the implications in the larger terms of development ? You refered to the usurpation of resources by certain technologies, what I call the theology of development where you have a self-fulfilling prophecy of development of a sort, which has a whole historical precedent to back it up which goes back to 500 years of colonisation. But to bring it back to the current scenario where there are so many spontaneous movements all over the country, where people are struggling to claim their legitimate place under the sun, what do you think are the implications of this whole issue ?

AR : See, I don't think that the judicial system is environmentally active. The judicial system is so rooted in the urban world. You see any judge (I don't mean to say this about any particular judge) and you see generations of pinkness of not ever having stood in the sun. Not for one generation, but for several generations. An inability to understand what this movement is about. For an urban person, to understand what uprootment is, it is difficult. Because they just think it is like moving from one city to the other or from one colony to the other. It is not that. So I don't think it's a coincidence that for somebody like me who may seem extremely urbane but infact I grew up on the banks of a river in a village, it is easy for me to understand what's happening. And it is easy for me to understand how hard it is for them to understand, 'cause I know them too. This "environmentally active judiciary" is a bit of a myth. And also, it has a lot do with judical corruption, with people closing down industries and then opening them a little later for no reason that anyone knows. A lot of its very urban - urban environmental judicial activism.

VG : Including the very egregious judgement recently of trying to clear the slums in Delhi.

AR : Right, and why are there slums in Delhi ? Who are the people in the slums ? Once they have been uprooted, it's never going to end. That's why its important for the Andolan to understand its enemy as well. It is important to understand who it is up against. Because there isn't any space left, the Supreme Court judgement is involved in closing off the exits. It's one big door that's been slammed in everybodys face.

On the other hand, I can also see it as a positive thing. That we have been like patients on a drip for 6 years, thinking that these people are going to do something. There were cynics like me who last year was almost hauled for having said - the particular sentence that they were angry with me about, let me see if I can remember it - something about how the state will use every institution at its command, the army, the police, the bureaucracy, the courts to stiffle dissent. I've argued that the state is not a bungling state that everyone likes to make it out to be but actually pretty efficient in the way it appropriates resources. And the court was angry with me for saying that. I wish it hadn't but it has illustrated my point in a way that leaves no room for doubt. But, in a way perhaps it's good to be clear what we are up against. It's good to have these doors slammed in our face as harshly and as brutally as has been done, because we have to understand what's happening in the world. It is not cute you know. And partly the whole process of centralisation that has taken place in India, the next step on from centralisation is privatisation. You've appropriated everything, now you can just hand it over.

VG : As is manifesting in the power sector right now.

AR : Exactly, it is good to know what you are up against. At the same time, as I keep saying, the only thing worth globalising now is dissent. And dissent is building too. And we ought not to be under any false illusion of what we are up against.

VG : So, at this point where essentially every one of the "traditional institutions of governance", if you will, have slammed their doors in the face of the people. What do you think are going to be the next steps ? Where do you think the movements are headed in general ? Not just the Andolan, per se...

AR : I not somebody who has a great deal of experience of mobilising people or opinion or working on the ground, you know. A writer is a lonely worker, so I don't think I am really equipped to comment on that. But I see civil disobedience at its most civil and the most uncivil (the whole spectrum) as the only way out.

VG : One of the common threads one finds in all your writings, right from "The God Of Small Things" is your involvement with the river and your love for the landscape that goes with it. Do you feel that it is sort of central to your being ?

AR : I'm a slightly complicated person. I don't know whether you want to get into this, you can if you like. I grew up as I said, on the banks of a river in a village. There was nothing more that I wanted than to get out of there because for me as a woman, I wasn't willing to accept what that place had in store for me. I love cities too, I love what freedom the city gave me. I love the escape, the power it gave me as a woman. The anonymity and all that. So I'm not your rural, pastoral evangelist necessarily. I love both and I see the need for both. But I think that they can co-exist with a lesser degree of violence. There's always some conflict. But I'd be dishonest if I said that I would go back to being a simple rural woman, there's no way.

VG : But on the other hand in this whole debate on development, there are people who look upon urbanisation and globalisation as a solution for the issues of caste and class that exist in rural India. Gail Omvedt has been a prominent advocate...

AR : I think you should just try and check how many brahmins there are as Supreme Court judges, how many brahmins there are who run political parties. I think that's nonsense. I am not saying that. I am not someone who believes that everything is wonderful in a village. I'm somebody who has seen the seamy side too. I'm no innocent, that's all I'm saying. And personally, I'm who I am because I chose to refuse to do a lot of things that would have been expected of me there. And I continue to be such a person. But at the same time, like I say - the solution to greed is less greed. I also think that much as I admire Gandhi, I also think he terrorised people into thinking that the only other way was to wear a loincloth and eat goat curd. I don't think so. Theoretically, in our heads, we must understand that it is possible to have fun, to be beautiful, to love music, to live life to its fullest, not necessarily to renounce all the wonderful things. But the wonderful things are not gadgets, there are wonderful things that come if you can be a little less greedy, to do with a little less than what you have. You don't have to be a saint, you don't have to go around with a halo around your head. You can be as naughty as you like. Actually, it would be a better world. At least you'd be able to breathe the air.

VG : For that you'd need to get out of Indian cities though...

AR : But the point is that, at the moment the choice is between breathing the black air in a city and not breathing at all if you are a woman in a village that oppresses you in ways an Indian village can. So there are ways through that, but I don't think that's part of this whole debate!