A Fury Building Up Across India


29 April 2006The Hindu / Znet

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.

Chaudhuri: 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?

Roy: 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.

Chaudhuri: 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 of rehabilitation.

Chaudhuri: 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 passionate opinions.

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 of it.

Chaudhuri: That's controversial. 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 consensus is.

Chaudhuri: 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 three points.

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.

Chaudhuri: 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.

Chaudhuri: Could you draw a thumbnail sketch of what you mean by that? Talk about the issue of displacement and rehabilitation.

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.

Chaudhuri: 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 matter.

Chaudhuri: 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.

Chaudhuri: 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'.

Chaudhuri: 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?

I am 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.

Chaudhuri: 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.