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For the Greater Common Good: The Pen as a Tool for Activism
An Interview with Author Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy, the Booker-prize winning author of The God Of Small Things, has become heavily involved in the campaign against the Narmada Dam in India. Her essay, "The Greater Common Good," was a damning indictment of large dams—of the Narmada projects in particular—that was burnt in public by supporters of the Narmada dam. Here she talks about why the campaign represents the story of modern India and what is now happening in the Narmada Valley. She was interviewed at her home in Delhi by Franny Armstrong for Spanner Films.

So, to people who know nothing about you except that you’re a writer, could you explain your involvement in the campaign against the Narmada Dam?

My involvement is the involvement of a writer. That’s what I do. But really what happened was that one has always sort of supported the movement privately without knowing all the facts. You can support it intellectually and emotionally in a very simple way. When the [Indian] Supreme Court lifted the stay on the building of the dam, that was when my antenna went up because one had thought over the last five years that the struggle was more or less being won. The World Bank had withdrawn, the Supreme Court had ordered a stay; one assumed that they were actually reviewing the whole project and then suddenly they lifted the stay and I began to read up and find out. The more I read, the more horrified I was not just at what was happening but at how little I knew and everybody else knew about what was happening.

I realized you have to embark on almost a research project to actually understand all the issues because there are so many issues and each expert has sort of hijacked one department until the whole picture is completely fractured. I felt that somehow given the space the mainstream media has now for such things, the [Narmada] Valley needed a writer, it needed somebody to say, "Look this is what is going on, this is how rehabilitation connects to displacement, this is how the World Bank loan connects to the fact that there is irrigation but no drainage, this is the ecology, these are the economics and this is what the national picture is."
I was struck about what you said in your book, about being a writer and always looking for a story...

I think I’m a genetically programmed writer and you understand instinctively when you’re moving towards an epic. So as a writer I was drawn towards [the dam] without initially knowing all the facts; instinctively I knew this was the heart of politics. This was the story of modern India. And journeying towards it was really the way I was drawn in—the way a vulture is drawn towards a kill. You can’t move away because it mesmerizes you.

So why do you care so much about what’s happening in the Narmada Valley?

How can I explain that? One is not removed from it. If you look at the work I’ve done all my life, from the time that I wrote my architectural thesis—which was on post-colonial urban development in Delhi—one has constantly been writing about the issues of power and powerlessness. It became particularly difficult for me after The God of Small Things, because initially there was the excitement of the success of the book—and the fact that I sat and wrote for five years—and in the time of two years five million people had read it. After a while the commercial profits started rolling in, and to live in this country and to be the recipient of this money pouring down, and every day waking up and opening my eyes—because that’s what writers do, they open their eyes whether they want to or they don’t—I began to feel as if somehow every little feeling I had, or every feeling in The God of Small Things, had been exchanged for silver coin. I felt as though I was turning into a little silver statue with a silver heart, and I knew the only way to stay alive was to share it somehow and to go back to where The God of Small Things came from, and so, in a sense, it’s Estebahn and Rahil [the novel’s main characters] fighting for their river.

A lot of the opposition to the dam stems from the fact that the people were never consulted by the government.
Well, there are two ways of looking at this debate. One is an extremely complex one where you open up all the fronts and argue on all the fronts, which is what I’ve done in "The Greater Common Good." On the other hand it’s very simple, which is take the Sardar Sarovar [in the Narmada Valley] which is one of the 3200 dams being built. What is the philosophy behind it, forget the economics, what is the philosophy behind it? That you displace, annihilate, submerge the civilization of 500,000 people in order to take, or pretend to take, water and irrigation to millions of people. That is what we’re told is the greater common good.

But the same people who propose a project like this, if you were to tell them, "alright, now we’re gong to freeze the bank accounts of 500,000 of the richest Indians and redistribute their money to millions of poorer people," what would the psychological impact of that be? There’s a breaking of the volition of a people involved here, where the state has the power to say "we’re going to take this river from you and give it to you. We’re going to reroute the natural course of this river, and we’re going to do it without consulting you, without a single study, without any assessment of what’s going on. And everyone just stands up and says: yes, but we need electricity." And this breaking of a people is something that as a writer one has to believe is the most basic thing in governance.

Could you explain the development and costs of the dam and what the alternatives are?

In India big dams are the alternate religion, if you like, and any argument against them is blocked with a kind of irrational passion which I’ve only understood lately. Big dams are the kind of temples of modern development, as Nehru said, the temples of modern India, although he retracted that statement.

Let’s actually look at what big dams have done. First of all, in the last 50 years the rough calculation is that they’ve displaced between 33 and 40 million people. There is no rehabilitation policy; there’s no record of what has happened to these people, which is chilling.

So you are saying that we need these big dams to produce food, to produce electricity to produce running water and you put a price on this. You tell us how much water in our taps costs, how much electricity in our houses costs, but you don’t take into account the actual price. So on what basis are you doing this? Now, [the dams] have produced electricity, of course they have. But 85 percent of rural households have no electricity; 250 million people have no access to water. The amount of people that live below the poverty line [in India now] is more than the population of India was in 1947.

So you have to ask then—"development for whom?" Who owns the river, who owns the forest, who owns the fish? And then you see that the people who have benefited from this development are people like me. People who have not just colonized the natural resources but colonized everything, including the media, including the debate, including the argument. Everything. So there is this noise happening in one quarter and this absolute silence and darkness elsewhere. And once you see that, you begin to question everything.

It isn’t as if people who question this form of development are people who are saying we don’t need new electricity; or that we don’t want irrigation, only that there are better and more democratic means of achieving it. And truly the fact is if you just take the existing infrastructure, the existing dams, the existing transmitters, just maintaining them would probably double the amount of electricity that’s generated. But refusing to even consider an alternative because nobody that you know personally is paying the price—it’s always someone else—as long as that remains, there will never be the will to look for an alternative.

What happened to your book in Gujurat [the state where the Narmada Valley is]?

"The Greater Common Good," which was the essay that I wrote, was published as a book. It was translated into Hindi, Merathi and Gujurat; and, of course, it came out in English. And soon after it came out, it was burnt by the Youth Congress and by activists of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist party that governs India], both of them vying to prove their loyalty to the Sardar Sarovar project. I keep saying, "you can’t burn an argument." Ideas do not need visas. You can’t keep it out. And what is really interesting is the people that are supposedly going to benefit from this project are, we are told, the people of Gujurat. But in the book I’ve argued how this very small sector of powerful political people, the sugar lobby and big industry is going to benefit so it’s not really the people of Gujurat. The political lobby is very keen that the argument doesn’t get out, so they burnt the book, which is of course the surest way of making sure the argument reaches where it’s supposed to reach. I’m sure it will filter through sooner or later.

What’s happening right now in the Narmada Valley?

There was the Rally for the Valley, the point of which, we hoped, was that people from all over India, many people from all over the world would come to the Valley, travel through it just to increase the contact points. I feel that there is magic in the Narmada Valley and I wanted as many people to come and experience it for themselves. I think what happened was magical. It was an historic occasion where poets and fishermen and musicians and writers and farmers and dreamers and doers and everybody met. It was spectacular, this journey through the Valley. There were flowers in one’s hair and nose and eyes and clothes. It was beautiful.

The government were worried. They didn’t know how to handle this and there was a lot of misinformation in the press. What happened was that it was the monsoon season, but in that part of the river—the Valley—the monsoon had failed and has failed so far. It was raining upstream so they were compounding the water in the dams upstream. So they waited for the Rally to leave and then they released the water so almost two days after we left, the waters started rising in the Sardovar submergence zone—but it was a completely political flood.

So the water rose and the people in [the villages of] Domkhedi and Jalsindhi who said that they would not move did not move [their slogan became ‘not moving but drowning’]. About 50 people stood in chest-deep water. I was not there. I heard about it, but by the time I arrived the waters had begun to recede, arrests had been made. But what I found really chilling about the whole thing was that here was a situation that had been created—where half of the crops had been flooded, half were drying through lack of rain. And this is such an artificial situation. It was really chilling to see that.

What do you personally think of the idea ‘not moving but drowning’? Do you think it is going too far?

I don’t know what to think. There are times in which you have no business to express your opinion. And I feel that for a state to have created a situation in which people have to even consider an option like this is so brutal. What are they expected to do? [That] is what I want to know. On the one hand they are a people who are impoverished. If they move towards violence they will be pulverized. Then there is nowhere for them to go, the waters are rising and all of us are having academic discussions about whether this is right or wrong. And I don’t know what to say except that this is a form of remote-controlled brutality, which ought not to be happening.

For 15 years this struggle has taken place in the most mature, peaceful manner. But you’re closing off the exits. What kind of situation are you going to create there? So far the people at the helm of the movement have controlled it, have shepherded the movement in the direction of non-violence, which is admirable. But what happens when they are completely with their backs to the wall? When they have nowhere to go? Who can predict.

If Medha Patkar [the leading anti-dam activist in India] dies, what effect do you think that will have on the movement?

Medha Patkar has declared that if the dam goes any higher she will drown in the rising water. I don’t feel that it’s my place to say anything about it. I know that already some people in Gujurat have said that if she drowns they will feed a hundred Brahmins so she’ll never be reborn. The kind of callousness, the kind of polarization that has taken place is so chilling. I personally feel that she’s too valuable a person for us to lose in this way. And yet, who is to say anything to her? For 14 years she’s fought and fought and fought.

This interview is reprinted with kind permission from Franny Armstrong, Spanner Films and oneworld.org. For information contact:
http://www.spanner.org/ or films@spanner.org

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