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 damsof the Narmada projects
in particularthat was burnt in public by supporters of the Narmada
dam. Here she talks about why the campaign represents the story of
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 youre a writer, could you explain your involvement in the
campaign against the Narmada Dam?
My involvement is the involvement of a writer. Thats what I do.
But really what happened was that one has always sort of supported
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
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 The World Bank had withdrawn,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
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
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
I was struck about what you said in your book, about being a writer
and always looking for a story...
I think Im a genetically programmed writer and you understand
instinctively when youre 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 inthe way a vulture is drawn towards a kill. You cant
move away because it mesmerizes you.
So why do you care so much about whats
happening in the Narmada Valley?
How can I explain that? One is not removed from it. If you look at
the work Ive done all my life, from the time that I wrote my architectural
thesiswhich was on post-colonial urban development in Delhione
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 bookand
the fact that I sat and wrote for five yearsand 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 eyesbecause thats what writers do, they open their eyes
whether they want to or they dontI 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,
its Estebahn and Rahil [the novels 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 Ive done in "The Greater Common Good."
On the other hand its 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 were told is the greater
But the same people who propose a project like this, if you were to
tell them, "alright, now were 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? Theres a breaking of the volition of a people involved here,
where the state has the power to say "were going to take
this river from you and give it to you. Were going to reroute
the natural course of this river, and were going to do it without
consulting you, without a single study, without any assessment of whats
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
only understood lately. Big dams are the kind of temples of modern
development, as Nehru said, the temples of modern India, although he
Lets actually look at what big dams have done. First of all, in
the last 50 years the rough calculation is that theyve displaced
between 33 and 40 million people. There is no rehabilitation policy;
theres no record of what has happened to these people, which
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 dont take into account the actual price.
So on what basis are you doing this? Now, [the dams] have produced
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
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
you begin to question everything.
It isnt as if people who question this form of development are
people who are saying we dont need new electricity; or that we
dont 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 thats generated.
But refusing to even consider an alternative because nobody that you
know personally is paying the priceits always someone elseas
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
"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 cant burn an argument." Ideas do
not need visas. You cant 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 Ive argued
how this very small sector of powerful political people, the sugar lobby
and big industry is going to benefit so its not really the people
of Gujurat. The political lobby is very keen that the argument doesnt
get out, so they burnt the book, which is of course the surest way of
making sure the argument reaches where its supposed to reach.
Im sure it will filter through sooner or later.
Whats 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 ones hair and nose and eyes and clothes. It was beautiful.
The government were worried. They didnt 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 riverthe
Valleythe 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 zonebut 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 createdwhere 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 dont 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 dont
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 youre 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
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 dont feel that its 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 shell
never be reborn. The kind of callousness, the kind of polarization that
has taken place is so chilling. I personally feel that shes too
valuable a person for us to lose in this way. And yet, who is to say
anything to her? For 14 years shes fought and fought and fought.
This interview is reprinted with kind permission from Franny Armstrong,
Spanner Films and oneworld.org. For information contact: www.spanner.org
or email@example.com; and www.oneworld.org.