Is A Fury Building Up
By Arundhati Roy
& Shoma Chaudhuri
29 April, 2006
In this interview, Arundhati
Roy updates her essay on the Narmada issue, The
Greater Common Good, published in 1999 in Frontline. It
was conducted by Shoma Chaudhuri over a period of several days in person
and on email.
The media has been
playing the Supreme Court verdict as a victory for all sides. How do
you read it? What does this verdict really mean?
It may well be a victory
for the Gujarat Government but it’s by no means a victory for
the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The Prime Minister has washed his hands
off an unequivocal report by members of his own Cabinet. The Minister
for Water Resources, Saifuddin Soz, had the rare courage to put down
on paper what he actually found – the fact that rehabilitation
in Madhya Pradesh has been disastrous. It’s true that on a one-day
visit, Ministers cannot possibly come away with an exhaustive survey,
but you don’t need to spend more than a day in the Narmada valley
to see that there is a massive problem on the ground. There is a huge
disjuncture between the paperwork and the reality on the ground. What
will be submitted to the court – what has always been submitted
to the court – is more paperwork.
Two years ago, when I went
to Harsud which was being submerged by the Narmada Sagar Dam, I also
went to so-called New Harsud, which the government claimed was a fully
functioning new city. There was absolutely nothing there – no
houses, no water, no toilets, no sewage. Just a few neon street lights
and a huge expanse of land. But officials produced photographs taken
at night with star filters making it look like Paris!
At the last hearing on the
17th of April, the logical thing for the Supreme Court to do would have
been to say “Stop construction of the dam. We know there’s
a problem, let’s assess the problem before we go ahead.”
Instead it did the opposite and the problem has been magnified. Every
metre the dam goes up, an additional 1500 families come under the threat
of submergence. This interim order is inconsistent with its own October
2000 and March 2005 Narmada judgments as well as the Narmada Water Dispute
Tribunal Award, which state in no uncertain terms that displaced people
must be resettled six months before submergence.
Water for Gujarat
is obviously an urgent issue. How do we reconcile these polarities?
The urgency is a bit of a
red herring. Gujarat has managed to irrigate only 10 per cent of the
land it could have irrigated and provide only a fraction of the drinking
water that it could have provided at the current dam height. This is
because the canals and delivery systems are not in place. In other words,
it has not been able to use the water at even the current dam height.
This is an old story with the Narmada Dams. The Bargi dam completed
in 1990, at huge cost to the public exchequer and to tens of thousands
of displaced people, today irrigates less land than it submerged because
canals haven’t been built. In the case of the Sardar Sarovar,
in fact raising the dam height immediately is just hubris. It has no
practical urgency. The fair thing to do would be to stop the construction
of the dam and ask the Gujarat government to construct the canals to
use the water it already has. That will buy time to do a decent job
If we could go back
to the beginning of your involvement, why were you drawn to the Narmada
issue? Why has this become such a powerful symbol?
Because I believe that it
contains a microcosm of the universe. I think it contains a profound
argument about everything – power, powerlessness, deceit, greed,
politics, ethics, rights and entitlements. For example, is it right
to divert rivers and grow water-intensive crops like sugar cane and
wheat in a desert ecology? Look at the disaster the Indira Gandhi canal
is wreaking in Rajasthan. To me, understanding the Narmada issue is
the key to understanding how the world works. The beauty of the argument
is that it isn’t human-centric. It’s also about things that
most political ideologies leave out. Vital issues – rivers, estuaries,
earth, mountains, deserts, crops, forests, fish. And about human things
that most environmental ideologies leave out. It touches a raw nerve,
so you have people who know very little about it, people who admit that
they know very little and don’t care to find out, coming out with
The battle in the Narmada
Valley has raised radical questions about the top-heavy model of development
India has opted for. But it also raises very specific questions about
specific dams. And to my mind, though much of the noise now is centered
on the issue of displacement and resettlement, the really vital questions
that have not been answered are the ones that question the benefits
of dams. Huge irrigation schemes that end up causing water logging,
salinisation and eventual desertification have historically been among
the major reasons for the collapse of societies, beginning with the
Mesopotamian civilisation. I recommend Jared Diamond’s wonderful
book Collapse to all those who wish to take a slightly longer, and less
panicked, view of ‘development’. India already has thousands
of acres of waterlogged land. We’ve already destroyed most of
our rivers. We have unsustainable cropping patterns and a huge crisis
in our agricultural economy. Even vast parts of the command area of
our favourite dam – the Bhakra is water-logged and in deep trouble.
So the real issue is not how ordinary farmers in Gujarat will benefit
from the Sardar Sarovar, but how they will eventually suffer because
Could you elaborate?
I have written at length
about it in my essay The Greater Common Good – but let me just
raise a few simple points here. The Sardar Sarovar was built on the
promise that it was going to take water to the drought-prone areas of
Kutch and Saurashtra. That’s the emotive, frenzied, political
point that is made all the time. Because of the huge propaganda machine
around it, year after year this dam has soaked up almost 95 per cent
of Gujarat’s irrigation budget at the expense of other, more effective,
more local schemes. Gujarat has among the largest number of high dams
of any state in India and continues to such an acute water problem!
If you look at the Gujarat Government’s own plans for the Sardar
Sarovar, you’ll see that Kutch and Saurashtra lie at the end of
the canal. Even if everything goes brilliantly, supernaturally, if the
big cities, big industry, golf courses, sugar mills and water parks
do not siphon water off before hand, if the river has as much water
as the project engineers says it has (which it doesn't), and if it can
achieve an irrigation efficiency of 60 per cent (when no dam in India
has achieved more than 40 per cent), even then, the project is designed
to irrigate only 2 per cent of the cultivable area of Kutch and 9 per
cent of Saurashtra. The loot of canal water has already begun.
Recently, the real stakeholders
were indiscreet enough to put their photographs in the huge, full-page
advertisements that appeared in all the national dailies supporting
the dam – religious leaders, politicians, and big industrialists.
Where were the farmers? The people of Kutch and Saurashtra? A group
of people in Kutch have filed a petition in the Supreme Court complaining
that the Gujarat Government has reduced even that small allocation of
water to Kutch and Saurashtra, in contravention of the Narmada Water
Disputes Tribunal Award. The tragedy is that if they would only use
more local, effective, rainwater harvesting schemes, for less than 10
per cent of the cost of the Sardar Sarovar, every single village in
Kutch and Saurashtra could have drinking water. The Sardar Sarovar has
never made sense, ecologically or economically.
But in politics there’s
nothing as effective as a potential dam which promises paradise–
it will soothe your sorrows, it will bring you breakfast in bed. The
Sardar Sarovar has been the subject of frenzied political campaigning
for every political party in Gujarat. And it’s all propaganda.
Look at the recent spectacle we witnessed. Narendra Modi claiming to
speak on behalf of poor farmers and the corporate cartel, sitting on
a symbolic hunger-strike, a Gandhian satyagraha – and simultaneously
issuing threats of violence. Incredibly, he went unchallenged by a single
person in the UPA government. That’s how deep the mainstream political
I see your point
about forcing a riverine ecology on a desert, and the political lobbies
at work. But what about electricity?
Recently, a group of international
engineers has challenged the claims made by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada
Nigam about power generation. So has Himanshu Thakker, an engineer who
has studied the Sardar Sarovar in some detail. I would like to make
Having an installed capacity
of 1450 megawatts means that the power generating machinery that has
been installed is capable of producing 1450 megawatts of power. What
is actually produced depends on actual water flows – which we
know is much lower than the Sardar Sarovar Project was designed for.
Second, in a multi-purpose
dam like the Sardar Sarovar, for the most part you can either use the
water for irrigation – or for power generation. In fact, as more
and more water is used for irrigation, calculations show that the electricity
from the riverbed powerhouse will be virtually zero. So to claim its
benefits on both fronts simultaneously is dishonest.
Third, in power distribution,
India has amongst the highest transmission and distribution losses in
the world. Across the country, avoidable losses add up to more power
than is generated by dozens of big dams. So before we go building more
big dams and destroying communities, forests, rivers and ecosystems,
maybe we could do something about how much electricity and water we
waste and misuse. It would make a serious, radical difference. Minimising
waste would be revolutionary.
The NBA has been
protesting for several years. Why do you think the protest reached such
white heat this time?
Obviously because of the
profile and commitment of Medha Patkar and the reputation of the NBA
and the fact that the indefinite fast took place in Delhi. But I think
it’s also because displacement is becoming an urgent issue for
millions – both in cities and in villages. The situation is out
of control. Every single development project – whether it’s
an IT Park in Bangalore or a steel plant in Kalinganagar or the Pollavaram
dam – the first move is to take land from the poor. People are
being displaced at gunpoint. Cities like Delhi and Bombay are become
cities of bulldozers and police. The spectre of the shooting of adivasis
in Kalinganagar in January – some of whose bodies were returned
by the police mutilated, with their arms and breasts chopped off –
all this hung over the protest at Jantar Mantar. There is a fury building
up across the country.
The whole argument against
big dams has been submerged by the rising waters of the reservoir and
narrowed down to the issue of rehabilitation. But even this vital, though
narrow issue of rehabilitation which should be pretty straightforward,
contains a universe of its own – of deceit, lies and utter callousness.
To pay lip service to rehabilitation is easy – even Narendra Modi
does that. The real issue, as the Soz report points out, is that there
is a world of difference between what’s on paper and what’s
on the ground.
Could you draw a
thumbnail sketch of what you mean by that? Talk about the issue of displacement
One of the major tricks that
is played on the poor and on the public understanding of what’s
going on in these `development’ projects is that large numbers
of the displaced do not even count as officially ‘Project Affected’.
Very few of the tribals whose land was acquired for the steel factory
in Kalinganagar counted as ‘Project Affected’. Most were
called ‘encroachers’, uprooted and told to buzz off. Those
who did qualify were given Rs 35,000 for land that was sold for Rs 3.5
lakh and whose market value was even higher. So you take from the poor,
subsidise the rich, and then call it the Free Market.
In the case of the Sardar
Sarovar, the tens of thousands who will be displaced by canal construction
in Gujarat are not counted as Project Affected. Those displaced by the
sprawling Kevadia colony at the dam site and the compensatory ‘afforestation’
project don’t count. Thousands of fisherfolk who lose their livelihood
downstream of the dam don’t count. Only those who are displaced
by the reservoir count – and even there there’s a problem.
In Madhya Pradesh the poorest of the poor, the landless, mostly Dalits
and Adivasis who depend on the river for their livelihood – those
who depend on seasonal cultivation on the riverbed, fisher-folk, sand-miner
– are not counted as Project Affected. The whole discourse of
land for land leaves these people out.
There’s another problem:
when communities are uprooted and given illegal cash compensation, the
cash is given only to the men. Many have no idea how to deal with cash,
and drink it away or go on spending sprees. Automatically the women
are disempowered. Just because it is being made to appear as though
it’s all inevitable, as though there’s no solution, should
we forget that there ever was a problem? Should we leave the poorest
and most vulnerable out of the ‘cost benefit’ analysis –
and allow the myth of big dams to go on and on unchallenged?
As for those who are lucky
enough to be counted as Project Affected, we know now they are being
displaced without rehabilitation in utter violation of the Narmada Water
Disputes Tribunal Award and the Supreme Court’s own verdicts,
all of which specify that displaced families must be given land for
land. The Madhya Pradesh government is trying to force people to accept
what it calls SRP – Special Rehabilitation Package – which
is cash compensation. That’s illegal. The technique is to show
hundreds of families the same plot of uncultivable land, and when they
refuse to take it, force cash compensation on them.
The Sardar Sarovar rehabilitation
policy was cynically used to create middle-class consensus and make
the NBA sound unreasonable. And now that the dam is more or less built,
we have public figures like B.G. Verghese who campaigned for the dam
and tom-tommed the promise of rehabilitation now openly saying land
for land is not possible but that construction should still continue.
A columnist went so far as to say that rejecting cash compensation amounted
to high treason! We are currently being promised that the Saradar Sarovar
R&R policy will be used by the River-Linking scheme – more
disastrous than hundreds of Sardar Sarovars – in which lakhs,
perhaps millions of people will be displaced. It’s an excellent
plan to have a noble-sounding policy on paper. It confuses the opposition.
The NBA and you are
often seen to be intrinsically anti-development. As people who are opposed
to the forces sweeping across the globe. How do you react to that?
With acute boredom. Of course
we’re opposed to the forces sweeping across the world! Of course
we’re opposed to this kind of development! We spend our waking
hours pointing out that it’s not development, it’s destruction.
Its not democratic, it’s not equitable, it’s not sustainable.
We’re anti-destruction. That’s what we keep repeating in
everything we say and do. Whether we’re effective in our opposition,
whether we’re doomed, whether we’ll win or lose is a different
Given the relentlessness
of the onslaught of globalisation, would you say your views paint you
into a small corner?
I'd say our views paint us
out of the small corner – the small, rich, glittering, influential
corner. The corner with ‘the voice’. The corner that owns
the guns and bombs and money and the media. I’d say our views
cast us onto a vast, choppy, dark dangerous ocean where most of the
world’s people float precariously. And from having drifted there
a while, I’d say the mood is turning ugly. Go to Kalinganagar,
Raygada, Chhattisgarh – you’ll see there’s something
akin to civil war brewing there. The adivasis of Kalinganagar have blocked
the main highway to Paradip Port since January. There are districts
in Chattisgarh which the Maoists control and the administration can’t
reach. I’m not saying that there will be a beautiful political
revolution when the poor take over the State, I’m saying we could,
as a society be convulsed with all kinds of violence. Criminal, lumpen,
political, mercenary – the kind that has broken across so much
of Africa. So it really is in the enlightened self-interest of those
jitter-bugging in the glittering corner to sit up and pay heed.
Another strong criticism
of you and the NBA is that you oppose a particular worldview, but present
no alternative vision. Is there an alternative vision? Is it important
to have one?
There is an alternative vision.
But it isn’t some grand Stalinist scheme that can be articulated
in three sentences – no more than the ‘model’ of this
existing world can be described in three sentences. You asked this question
about an alternative very sweetly. It is usually asked in a sneering,
combative way. Let me explain the way I look at it. The world we live
in right now is an enormous accretion of an almost infinite number of
decisions that have been made: economic decisions, ecological decisions,
social, political, pedagogical, ideological. For each of those decisions
that was made, there was an alternative. For every high dam that is
being built there is an alternative. Maybe no dam, maybe a less high
dam. For every corporate contract that is signed there is an alternative.
There is an alternative to the Indo-US nuclear deal, there is an alternative
to the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agricultural Research, there
is an alternative to GM foods. There is an alternative to the Armed
Forces Special Powers Act. There is an alternative to the draconian
Land Acquisition Act. The fundamental issue is that `a country is not
a corporation,’ as Paul Krugman says. It cannot be run like one.
All policy cannot be guided by commercial interests and motivated by
profit. Citizens are not employees to be hired and fired, governments
are not employers. Newspapers and TV Channels are not supposed to be
boardroom bulletins. Corporations like Monsanto and Walmart are not
supposed to shape India’s policies. But signing over resources
like forests and rivers and minerals to giant corporations in the name
of ‘efficiency’ and GDP growth, only increases the efficiency
of terrible exploitation of the majority and the indecent accumulation
of wealth by a minority – leading to the yawning divide between
the rich and the poor and the kind of social conflict we’re seeing.
The keystone of the alternative
world would be that nothing can justify the violation of the fundamental
rights of citizens. That comes first. The growth rate comes second.
Otherwise democracy has no meaning. You cannot resort to algebra: You
cannot say I’m taking away the livelihood of 200,000 to enhance
the livelihood of 2 million. Imagine what would happen if the government
were to take the wealth of 200,000 of India’s richest people and
redistribute it amongst 2 million of India’s poorest? We would
hear a lot about socialist appropriation and the death of democracy.
Why should taking from the rich be called appropriation and taking from
the poor be called development? This kind of development, as I’ve
been saying again and again – is really pushing India to the edge
of civil war – spearheaded by the Maoists who now control huge
swathes of land in India which they have declared ‘liberated’.
There is a huge consolidation
of these Maoist groups. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says that they’ve
become India’s biggest internal security threat. What’s
your view on this?
Iam sure the Maoists view
the PM’s statement as a compliment. In a recent article in the
Indian Express. Ajit Doval a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau
argued that doctrinally Maoists must be treated as terrorists. Poverty
is being conflated with terrorism. The Indian Government has learned
nothing. It has tried the military solution in Kashmir, in Manipur,
in Nagaland. It has got nowhere. Now it’s ready to turn its army
on its own people, like a maddened tiger eating its own limbs. Though
here in the big cities we call ourselves a democracy, in the countryside,
all kinds of illiberal ordinances have been passed, thousands have been
imprisoned, civil liberties are a distant dream. Villages are being
evacuated and turned into police camps. The Chattisgarh government is
fueling the situation by arming poor villagers to fight the Maoists.
I don’t know why they can’t seem to understand that there
can be no military solution to poverty. Or maybe I’m being stupid
– maybe they’re trying to eliminate the poor, not poverty.
On top of everything else
that has happened over the years, now multinational companies have turned
their greedy eyes on the wealth of natural resources in these states.
Mountains, rivers and forests are being plundered – it’s
like the gold rush. And presiding over it are our own economic hit-men
in the country’s top jobs. These men are staunch disciples of
the Washington Consensus. They have no imagination outside of it. They’re
at the helm of a no-holds-barred looting spree.
Who would have thought ten
years ago that Kathmandu would be under siege? Who knows, ten years
down the line, it might be Delhi that’s under siege. Things are
certainly moving in that direction. Something has to give. We cannot
go on living this lie. And now that we’ve seen how contemptuously
the government has treated a non-violent movement like the NBA, which
of us can in good faith tell people how to fight their battles? Because
whatever their strategies, they’re up against the same behemoth.
Kanu Sanyal, one
of the founders of the Naxalbari uprising, has distanced himself from
much of the movement today saying that it has become extortionist, without
ideology, predatory on the very poor it seeks to protect?
I'm sure Mahatma Gandhi would
say the same of the Congress Party today. Every armed struggle will
have its share of thugs and extortionists, along for the ride only for
personal gain. That cadre exists in the North East, among the militants
in Kashmir, and I’m sure among the Maoists too. It also exists
in the armed forces – every occupying army has its share of looters
and rapists. But the Maoists phenomenon has arisen because people have
had the doors of the liberal, democratic institutions slammed in their
faces. To dismiss them all as extortionists and free-loaders is not
just deeply apolitical, it’s extremely unjust.
After all, the so-called
non-violent world that claims to disagree with the current government
policies and has broken out in a rash of NGOs peddling everything from
peace to birth control also has its share of freeloaders and racketeers.
The highly paid ‘development jet set’ who earns its living
off poverty and conflict and misery. Many of them are as counterproductive
to the cause of justice as the free-loaders and extortionists on the
edge of armed struggles.
The real problem, as we’ve
seen, is that whether a struggle is violent or not, the government’s
reaction is instinctively repressive. The military solution has not
worked in Kashmir or Manipur or Nagaland. It will not work in mainland
India. It may not be that the masses will rise in disciplined revolutionary
fervour. It may be that we will become a society convulsed with violence,
political, criminal, and mercenary. But the fact remains that the problem
is social injustice, the solution is social justice. Not bullets, not
bulldozers, not prisons.