Arundhati Roy
      © Jo Selsing

Arundhati Roy, the Booker-prize winning author of 'The God Of Small Things', has become heavily involved in the campaign against the Narmada Dam. Her essay, 'The Greater Common Good', was a damning indictment of big dams and the Narmada projects in particular and 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.

Franny Armstrong: 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?

Arundhati Roy: 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. But in fact when the Supreme Court lifted the stay on the building that was when my antenna went up because one had thought over the last 5 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 The World Bank had withdrawn, the Supreme Court had ordered a stay, one assumed that they were actually reviewing the whole project and then suddenly they lifted the stay and I began to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 and 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.

And I realised 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 and I felt that somehow given the space the mainstream media has now for such things the 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. And so really got involved because I felt the valley needed a writer.

FA: I was struck about what you said in your book about being a writer, and always looking for a story...

Arundhati Roy: 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 it 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 said, you're drawn to story the way a vulture is drawn towards a kill. You can't move away because it mesmerises you.

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

Arundhati Roy: how can I explain that? One is not removed from it. If you look at what 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. And it became particularly difficult for me after 'The God of Small Things' because, you know, initially there was the excitement of this completely normal success of a book and the fact that you sat and wrote something for 5 years and in the time of 2 years 5 million people read it. But after a while the commercial profits started rolling in. And to live in this country and to be somehow the recipient of this money pouring down on you and every day waking up and opening your eyes, because that's what writers do, they open their eyes whether they want to or they don't, they have to open their eyes and 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, and 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 out back to where They God of Small Things came from and so in a sense it's Estebahn and Rahil fighting for their river.

FA: A lot of the opposition to the dam stems from the fact that the people were never consulted by the government.

Arundhati Roy: Well, there are 2 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 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 civilisation 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 say's yes, but we need electricity. And this breaking a people is something that as a writer one has to believe is the most basic thing in governance.

family home flooded
The village of Nimghavan, which stands to be submerged by the Narmada Dam © Aravinda Pillalamarri

FA: Could you explain about the development and costs of the dam and what the alternatives are.

Arundhati Roy: 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. But big dams are the kind of temples of modern development as Nehru said, the temples of modern India, although he retracted that statement.

But if you 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, they have produced electricity, of course they have. But 85% of rural households have no electricity; 250 million people have no access to water. The amount of people that live below the poverty line 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 colonised the natural resources but colonised everything, including the media, including the debate, including the argument. Everything. So there is this noise happening in 1 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 and 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.

FA: Could you say what happened to your book in Gujurat?

Arundhati Roy: The Greater Common Good, which was the essay that I wrote, which was then published as a book. It was translated into Hindi, Merati, 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 both of them vying to prove their loyalty to the Sardar Sarovar project. And it was interesting, as 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, big industry is gong 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. and I'm sure it will filter through sooner or later.

FA: What's happening right now in the Narmada Valley?

Arundhati Roy: There was the Rally for the Valley that all of us went on. The point of which, we hoped, 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, wanted as many people to come and experience is for themselves.

And I think what happened was magical. It was a 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.

Though the government were worried. They didn't know how to handle this, there was a lot of misinformation in the press. What happened was that the water, it's the monsoon 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 2 days after we left the waters started rising in the Sardovar submergence zone - but it was a completely political flood.

family home flooded
Medha Patkar and others standing firm while a family home is flooded by the dam project, Narmada, India, Sardar Sarovar dam. ©Franny Armstrong

So the water rose. The people in Domkhedi and Jalsindhi who said that they would not move did not move. About 50 people stood in chest deep water. Iwas 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 crops, half had been flooded, half were drying through lack of rain. And this is such an artificial situation. It was really chilling to see that.

And now we don't know what's going to happen because either the monsoon comes, the water rises and they lose their homes. Or the monsoon doesn't come in which case it will be hard for them. That is the situation there right now.

FA: What do you personally think of the idea, not moving but drowning. Do you think it is going too far?

Arundhati Roy:I don't know what to think. I feel 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 and option like this is so brutal. What are they expected to do 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 pulverised. Then there is nowhere for them to go, the waters are rising and all of us are having academic discussion 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.

FA: If Medha dies - what effect do you think that will have on the movement?

Arundhati Roy: 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 polarisation that has taken place is so chilling. And 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...

- Narmada campaign page
- The Friends of the River Narmada