September 18, 2003: Arundhati Roy discusses India’s dams with host Mishal Husain.
Mishal Husain: Arundhati Roy, welcome to WIDE ANGLE.
Arundhati Roy: Thank you.
Mishal Husain: Now you’ve come to be very much identified with the issues that we’ve seen in the film. Why was it that you chose to get involved?
Arundhati Roy: Because I think that the story of the Narmada Valley is the story of modern India — and not just modern India, but the story of the powerful against the powerless and the whole world, really. And it isn’t a story that works itself into the conventional divisions of the left and the right and the working class and the bourgeoisie and so on. It’s a story that somehow is so complex that it involves the river, the ecology, the caste system in India, the class system, too. [ItÕs] sort of a peg, or a keyhole, to use to open a very big lock, you know? I thought this was that story. And in 1999, when the Supreme Court lifted its stay on the construction of the dam after six and a half years, that decision was what pushed me into the valley. Because suddenly it appeared that this fight that we thought had been won — the Bank had been pushed out, [which was] unprecedented in the history of the bank, and the six year stay given by the Supreme Court seemed to point in the direction of a victory — and, suddenly, it was all reversed.
Mishal Husain: The history of dams in India is a very long one. I mean, this is a well-established way that India’s pursued development.
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely. Dams are the temples of secular India and almost worshipped. I keep saying they are huge, wet cement flags that wave in our minds. They’re the symbol of nationalism to many. And if there were an Olympics in dams, India would have a bronze. It’s the third largest dam builder in the world; and perhaps the most committed because we have built 3,300 dams in the 50 years after independence. And today another 650 [are] under construction. Forty percent of all the big dams being built in the world are being built in India. And so there’s this, until recently, unshaken faith in these completely obsolete things. But hopefully, the faith has been shaken a little. I don’t know.
Mishal Husain: But they’ve been a source of pride for successive Indian governments– a symbol of achievement?
Arundhati Roy: Well, certainly it started off that way. I think it would be unfair to say that in the late ’40s and ’50s, when Nehru was the champion of big dams, that it was a cynical enterprise because they really believed that these were going to be the solution to the famines and hunger in India. But the point is that 50 years down the line, they have proved otherwise. We have 3,300 big dams, but the drought prone and flood prone areas in the country have actually increased. And from being a dream, they’ve become a very cynical corrupt enterprise; a way of letting governments lay their hands on huge sums of money; a way of centralizing resources; a way of snatching rivers away from the poor and giving them to the rich. And so in a sense they’ve become monuments to corruption.
Mishal Husain: But, obviously, there have been benefits because successive governments don’t build over 3,000 dams unless at least some of the benefits are tangible.
Arundhati Roy: You can argue that about anything. Colonialism didn’t have benefits. Surely, it did. The issue is not that they don’t have benefits. The issue is: who does it benefit and how sustainable are those benefits? And you see when a dam is built, forgetting about the issue of displacement, even ecologically, it takes many years for the destruction to set in. So in a place like Punjab, which was the cradle of the Green Revolution and really the heart, the rice bowl of India, today all those lands are getting waterlogged, salinized. They don’t know what to do with the salt water. And that destruction, once it sets in, can’t be reversed.
Mishal Husain: Let’s just talk for a moment about the area that we saw in the film, the Narmada Valley, an area you now know quite well. Describe to us what it’s like from your perspective.
Arundhati Roy: You mean aesthetically? Well, I guess, if you go soon after the monsoon, it’s beautiful. It’s like Scotland… misty and green and lush and idyllic in some way. And in the plains, perhaps the richest soil in Asia, where every kind of crop can grow. And so when you’re there, you keep thinking the ideal had all been flooded, and you keep thinking of all that under water: all that life, all that culture, uninterrupted civilizations from, I don’t know, the Paleolithic Age or something. All those temples, everything just gone, and for what? The argument is always posited as though you can either have irrigation and electricity because of dams or you can go back to the Stone Age, whereas that isn’t what the NBA is saying. [They are] simply saying that there are better, more efficient, more sustainable ways of irrigation and producing electricity than these big dams.
Mishal Husain: But what would you say to the argument that everyone has to start somewhere and the government is trying to do something pro-actively to meet these really pressing needs that India has? I mean, water is such a precious resource and India’s demand for it is going to double in the next 20 years or so.
Arundhati Roy: Precisely. And that’s why the dams are the wrong thing. Just take the case of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. You know, of course it’s been projected as the solution to the problem of Gujarat drought regions of Kutch and Sarashtra. If you actually look at the government’s own plans, it’s going to irrigate 1.6 percent of Kutch’s agricultural land and 9 percent of Sarastra. The rest of it is going to already water rich areas where the big farmers grow sugar and so on. And what it has done over the years? This huge project? It has soaked up almost Gujarat’s entire irrigation budget. And with that amount of money, using more local water harvesting schemes, you could have brought water to every single drought prone village in Gujarat.
Mishal Husain: Do you think exactly the same potential benefits could have been met in other ways?
Arundhati Roy: Not exactly the same. Ten times more. And the question is never asked about why are those areas drought prone? Why are they becoming increasingly more drought prone? Because of this completely random exploitation of ground water or because of the destruction of the mangrove forest as an ingress of salt water from the sea. There’s no question asked about why environmentally destructive projects have been allowed to proceed. And you take the case of Gujarat. I think it has the second largest number of big dams in India, and still it’s drought prone.
Mishal Husain: Why then would the Indian government spend all of this money? After all, India is bearing the entire cost of this huge project alone after international donors pulled out. Why would it spend all this money if the benefits are as questionable as you say they are?
Arundhati Roy: Because for one, a potential dam is more important politically than an actual dam. So when the Sardar Sarovar is coming up, in the election campaigns in Gujarat –of course until this Hindu fundamentalism became the chief issue — the benefits of this dam are trumpeted. It’s complete propaganda. But theyÕre told, it can serve you breakfast in bed, it will solve your daughter’s wedding. The campaign makes it sound like some magical thing. Eventually when the dam is built, as the Bargi Dam was built, the benefits are never what they say they are. So a lot of it has to do with propaganda and people’s unquestioning belief in big dams, which have never been questioned before. Why are they so terrified of the argument? They don’t let it be made. The World Commission of Dams was threatened with arrest when it was going into Gujarat because they don’t want to question it. They don’t want to say maybe there’s a different way of doing it.
Mishal Husain: But these are tried and tested. I mean, for instance, the United States is water sufficient largely because of some dams over the years. The Hoover Dam is the most notable example. I mean, these are tried and tested ways that countries have become sufficient in water. This particular project might be flawed, but are you against the principle of dams, per se?
Arundhati Roy: Yes, I am, actually, after much thought. And in America, if you ask Bruce Babbitt, they’re blowing up big dams. They’re decommissioning them. In California, there are huge problems because of dams. I’m against big dams, per se, because I think that they are economically unfeasible. They’re ecologically unsustainable. And they’re hugely undemocratic. And even if you look at America and look at India, they’re two very different kinds of countries, you know? Of course when they built big dams in America, they dunked the American Indian into reservoirs. In India, you’re talking about a kind of model of development that has displaced between 35 and 50 million people. On what basis can it be justified? WeÕre been talking about what big dams have done for India. In fact, there’s not a single study done by the government that says that big dams are the reason that India is now food self-sufficient.
Mishal Husain: No, but the government and– there are other analyses that have been produced — is that this particular dam will displace about 250,000 people. Now obviously that’s a huge number, but the potential benefits will reach 40 million. Somewhere that arithmetic also works.
Arundhati Roy: It doesn’t, does it? I mean, isn’t that a flawed argument when, firstly, the number of people it’s going to displace is 400,000 because there’s a very clever way in which they decide who is officially counted as project affected and who is not. And then if you posit the fact that it’s going to benefit 40 million, first of all, if you read the essay I’ve written, you’ll see how arbitrary that figure has been arrived at –A. B — who are those 40 million people? It’s absolutely untrue that this is going to be the case. But secondly, the assumption is that either you displace these 400,000 people and you bring water to 40 million or nothing. But what we’re saying is that there are more sustainable ways of bringing water to those 40 million people.
Mishal Husain: How would you do it? How would you meet India’s water needs?
Arundhati Roy: If you go to Gujarat today, you’ll see that in Gujarat, there are villages who now know that this rhetoric about the Sardar Sarovar and Narmada water’s coming is simply untrue. And you see the fantastic ways in which local water harvesting schemes have really been producing two and three crops a year in areas which we’ve been told are drought prone.
Mishal Husain: Can that really keep up with the projected increased demands? There’s the fact that the demand for water is going to double in India in 20 years.
Arundhati Roy: Well, today India produces, I think, 50 times more electricity than it did in 1947. So this is marked as a symbol of progress. But 65 percent of rural households don’t have electricity. So by saying that the demand is going to double, so therefore we need to produce more and more electricity, or because the demand for water is going to double, we need to build more and more big dams — doesn’t address the issue of how do you use properly the projects that have already been done. How do you minimize transmission and distribution? How do you conserve the kinds of uses of water that you already have? None of this is being addressed. And often, you have one reason to justify these projects and then the benefits go to somebody else altogether, either the sugar farmers or to the big cities. Whereas when you actually make the projection for why you need this project, the reasons you give are something else altogether.
Mishal Husain: One of the things we saw in the film were some of the drought stricken villages in Gujarat which are completely dependent on water arriving by tanker, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t. Now wouldn’t life in those villages be transformed by even a limited water supply from a project like Narmada? In Kutch, when some of the water from the Narmada Valley started to rise, people were celebrating.
Arundhati Roy: They were celebrating. And the point is that if you look at that particular thing, people ask me, “So, you said the water would never go to Kutch, but it has gone to Kutch.” If a particular government decides to make a political point of something, you can take red wine by pipe to Kutch if you like, but is that sustainable? Make a huge project like this and then when the dam is empty and the hype that it’s supposed to be at where water would reach Kutch if you like, but is that sustainable? If they do it for one month or two months, make it to the papers and then forget about it, that’s a kind of charade that was carried out this year by the Modi government. But the point is what are you going to do with the rest of the 99.4 percent of agricultural land in Kutch? Water from the Narmada is not going to go there.
Mishal Husain: But they’re going to do something …
Arundhati Roy: No. What I’m saying is that you need to have sustainable local schemes. If you look at what was happening– not this year because there’s a huge monsoon this year, but last year and the year before, you have, say, three villages next to each other which are drought prone; one village where there’s been local people getting together, using their initiative to do a rainwater harvesting scheme. And in that village, life is completely different from the next one and the next one, which are waiting for the government to do something for them.
Mishal Husain: But can schemes like that really cope with the very extreme conditions that exist in so many parts of India, where people are alternatively in different seasons coping with drought and then with flooding? That’s something that a dam could address. That kind of control.
Arundhati Roy: No. That’s something that, in fact, dams and embankments have made worse. If you look at a state like Bihar, you know, where traditionally the Gunga overflows during the monsoon and it floods huge areas. And then the water comes back and you have these plains of silt which are temporarily cultivated by farmers. So the government decided that oh, we need to prevent this flooding. And so they’re going to build embankments along the river. And those embankments have created hell for people because what happens is that the water floods over, but it can’t come back in because of the embankments. So the flood is permanent, you know, and the bottom of the river bed rises because the silt can’t go out. It’s only the water that goes out. So the floods are not even fertile. The silt is very fertile. And so you have these mass areas where people are just marooned all the year round. So the point is that you must try something. If it doesn’t work, then be flexible enough to change instead of just pushing something that has created so much pain, that is so degrading to the environment. I mean, if you look at what is happening in the Punjab now, it’s shocking. It’s shocking.
Mishal Husain: Let’s just talk for a moment about displacement, something that’s a key issue of what’s happening in the Narmada Valley. Something that Luharia and his family are facing. It’s heartbreaking to see people leaving their homes which they’ve lived in for centuries. But if you face reality, this is something which is not unique to the developing world. It happens in the West all the time when roads are built. there has been genocide.
Mishal Husain: But there’s always a price for progress.
Arundhati Roy: Well, but it’s negotiable, you know? You’re not saying that because Luharia has to move his hut from here to there, we mustn’t have the dam. That’s only one of the arguments. And you’re not talking about one or two people. You’re not talking about even 400,000 people. YouÕre talking about 35 million people. So you’re talking about a kind of internal displacement that is on a massive scale. And therefore, you must look at alternatives.
Mishal Husain: Isn’t this a reality, something that one just has to face in the world that we live in?
Arundhati Roy: Yes, but what kind of an argument is that? That’s like you can say, oh, but for years in the history of the world,
Mishal Husain: If the compensation scheme, if the resettlement was better, would you feel differently about the dam and the displacement?
Arundhati Roy: Well, as I’ve said on many a time, displacement as far as I’m concerned is only one of the issues. Even if all the displaced people were given air-conditioned houses in the poshest colony in Delhi, I would still say the dams are inherently flawed and a very bad idea because of what they do to the ecosystem, the fact that they slowly made the command area completely unsustainable. So when I was telling you why I got interested in them, it was because of this — not just one issue. You see the displacement has become a political issue because it’s a motive issue. But the fact is that this is a very, very bad idea for 100 different reasons.
Mishal Husain: But on the human level, when one looks at the human cost versus the human benefits and one looks at the numbers, as we’ve done, if the deal that was being offered to Luharia and other people in his community was better, would you feel a little less against the dam?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t know how to answer that because, you know, as I said, it’s not something that I think is a good idea. The middle class in India often ask this question to you theoretically and you say, “But you know, the point is that it hasn’t happened. It isn’t possible. There isn’t the land. This community cannot be resettled as a community.” So what can I say to that? Theoretically, if everybody had been resettled as a community and if everything was perfect, and there was a God in heaven, everything would be okay. But they are playful questions, because ultimately like yesterday, you know, someone was asking me, “But you know, colonialism wasn’t entirely bad.” Of course there are benefits. There are, you know. But at the end, you balance things up and you decide whether to say yes or no and you decide which side you’re on. And as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think that big dams are a good idea at all, not even for the demands of a developing country because I think they destroy rivers in ways which eventually are totally unsustainable for a growing population like this.
Mishal Husain: Do you think that Luharia’s community, the Adivasis community, is easier to displace, easier to move around, or to play around with their lives?
Arundhati Roy: Of course. Traditionally the Adivasis have been pushed, pushed, pushed, pushed, pushed until they found their places up in the hills. And they are the poorest and the poorest are the most vulnerable always at all times. put it crudely. And they are fishermen, sand miners and people who don’t really count as project affected because they don’t have land. But they depend on the river for their livelihoods. So, in actual fact, of the 400,000 people who have been displaced, I think 57 percent are Dalits and Adivasis who are the poorest communities in India. And on the other side of the dam, the people who are displaced by the canals, the fishermen and so on, don’t count as project affected at all. Many of them are also fisher folk an
Mishal Husain: Who are the people who are most affected by the building of the dam?
Arundhati Roy: Do you mean the Sardar Sarovar?
Mishal Husain: Yes, in the Narmada Valley.
Arundhati Roy: Well, the hilly parts that have been submerged, inhabited by Adivasis communities. And in the plains, it is more upper crust farmers, big farmers actually. And also Dalits who are known as the untouchable castes to d Adivasis who have been pushed out of forests to make wildlife sanctuaries and so on.
Mishal Husain: So, both of these groups, would traditionally be those who are not that well represented in India?
Arundhati Roy: Yes, the Adivasis and Dalits who are traditionally the victims of big dams are a very powerless and poor community.
Mishal Husain: Would you say that– that makes it easier to displace them?
Arundhati Roy: Of course it does. I mean they are the easiest to push around. So, as I keep saying, it’s almost as if you have an expense account. Somebody else pays the bills. And so it’s much easier justify. And in India, the fact is that there are no sort of vertical social bolts that connect Adivasis and Dalits to, let’s say, the communities that will be deciding to make or design projects like this. So, there’s no social connection. They just slough off into the sea. It doesn’t really matter. You don’t really know them. They don’t have names or faces or anything.
Mishal Husain: And yet the government would say it’s very committed to resettling them. They’re being offered compensation. They’re being offered land elsewhere. Do you not accept any of those arguments?
Arundhati Roy: Well, you’ll have to go and see the re-settlement colonies. You have to see the fact that when the Supreme Court gave its final judgment in 2000, the Madhya Pradesh government itself said that it had no land to give. Not a single acre of agricultural land has been given to a displaced person in Madhya Pradesh where 80 percent of the displaced people are. And it’s against the decision of the Narmada tribunal that you should give cash compensation. It’s illegal, because the deal is land for land. And here you have an affidavit by the Madhya Pradesh government in court saying we have no land. It was a decision by the tribunal that communities should be resettled as communities. Nineteen of the villages in Gujarat have been scattered in 175 locations.
Mishal Husain: What would you consider then a fair deal for the Adivasi, for Luharia’s community?
Arundhati Roy: Well, it’s interesting that in November 2000 the World Commission in Dansk came out with a report which suggested a set of guidelines for the building of dams which included policies on re-settlement, land for land, consulting affected people and so on. And I said, look, what if we were to say that let’s take these guidelines and let’s implement them in projects that are half-finished, in projects that have been finished. Let’s just say resettle those who have already been displaced before you start building another dam. Wouldn’t you think that was a reasonable proposition? It was shouted down as being absurd and radical and all over on this learning curve. So, we’re always on a learning curve. And it’s already a theoretical question, what will be the fair deal. Do you think if resettlement were possible, it would be good? The fact is that if resettlement is possible, then why not resettle the millions of people who’ve already been displaced before we move ahead? Let’s try it. Let’s implement that much before we move on. But, no, it’s always this theoretical question, which is painful after a while to even begin to answer, because it just hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked for years, and people have been destroyed by it. So at least let’s put that right before we start the next thing.
Mishal Husain: What would you say to the argument that India doesn’t have the luxury of being a welfare state. It’s a developing country. And that the government has to make choices which are very hard and are painful.
Arundhati Roy: Okay, tell me something. Supposing theoretically you have a project which is supposed to benefit 40 million people and is only displacing 400,000 people. Why is it so hard, if really you’re gonna benefit 40 million to accommodation these 400,000? Why? Why is it difficult? Mathematically, it should be so easy, should it not? You just could just say instead of 40 million, you are benefiting 40 million and 400,000. Why is it? Because it’s not true. It doesn’t happen like that. Take the case of the Bargi Dam. You know? They built it. Ten years ago it was ready. It irrigates 5 percent of the land they said it would irrigate. It displaced — instead of 70,000 people — 114,000 who were just driven from their homes. It cost, I think, ten times more than it said it would. Each of one of these projects according to the World Commission on Dams costs almost double what they say it will cost, and even then the costs are not really factored in. You know. So, it’s a sort of industry that’s based on half-truths and lies and broken promises and it just motors ahead.
Mishal Husain: Well, what do you think the future holds for Luharia? At the end of the film, we see him moving his house to a higher point in his village. Do you think he’s going to be forced to give up eventually?
Arundhati Roy: Well, look, the villages that have been submerged ahead of Jalsindhi like Manubali and all these places, people have been forced to give up. People have been slowly ground down and broken. People do live in the slums in Jabalpur and Punjab and Delhi now. And so, today, to me, the debate in all this connects up to a very much bigger question in the world which is that here you have a movement, 15 years of the most spectacular non-violent resistance movement in a country like India. The NBA has used every single democratic institution it could. It has put forward the most reasoned, moderate arguments that you can find, and it’s been just thrown aside like garbage, even by an institution like the Supreme Court of India, even in the face of evidence that you cannot argue with. So, I keep saying this that if we don’t respect non-violence, then violence becomes the only option for people. If governments do not show themselves to respect reasoned, non-violent resistance then by default they respect violence.
Mishal Husain: But don’t you have to respect the rule of law? I mean this is something the Supreme Court, the highest court in India, has now ruled upon?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t accept that kind of institutional rule of law unquestioning. That’s another story of course. But what is Luharia going to do? What is Luharia and the other millions like him going to do or think or say? In a democracy you must have the ability to keep questioning. And when that stops and when you come up against a wall, then societies break up. Societies dissolve into things. It’s not that everybody’s going to rise up in some kind of noble insurrection. But already in India around the Narmada Valley, insurgents have taken over masses of land. The government can’t go in. All over Bihar, all over Madhya Pradesh. This is what is happening, because you don’t respect the dignity of the ordinary citizen. At the end of the day supposing we keep on talking about is it all right for 400,000 people to pay for the benefit of 40 million. You tell me. If the government today were to say, “Okay, we’re going to freeze the bank accounts of 400,000 of India’s richest industrialists and richest people and take that money and re-distribute it to the poor,” what will happen? There’d be, “Oh, democracy has broken down.” “This is you know a terrible thing.” “Anarchy–” So, it’s all about who’s being pushed around.
Mishal Husain: The dam is clearly a reality. It’s height is growing all the time. How do you face failure? You’re part of a movement which ultimately has failed.
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely. It’s a terrible, terrible question that one has to ask oneself all the time. And as I say, the big, deep question is it’s not just that the dam is going up, but it’s the failure of non-violence that bothers me. It’s the failure of being able to use that as a weapon that bothers me and disturbs me, because I don’t know what to think then. I don’t know what to say. What do you say to Luharia? What do you say to people who have struggled for 15 years? And it is a failure that we must accept, and it is a failure that we must think deeply about. And this is not to say that the movement hasn’t had successes — which is that it has questioned and shaken the foundation of the belief in this religion of big dams. People are asking questions, which is a big thing, because they were pristine before. They are not now. Remember that there are 3000 dams being built on the Narmada — we’re talking about one of them. The next dam up, the Mihishwa Dam, which was also a struggle by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) the first privatized dam in India, construction has stopped, because of a movement which took a different shape and a different form. And so far construction on that dam has stopped. So it’s not all kind of unmitigated defeat. But certainly, it throws up big questions on the nature of resistance, on the nature of democracy, on the role that institutions in democracies play, on the role that the media plays and in the ways in which questions and the debate is posited in the mainstream.
Mishal Husain: How do you feel about the fact though that in India your arguments haven’t met with as much support as they have in parts of the West? That somehow you haven’t managed to convince many Indians. People say that your arguments are emotional, and that they don’t accept the pressing needs and the challenges that India has to face.
Arundhati Roy: Well, my arguments are emotional, but those emotions are based on fact. And I refuse to accept that there’s a sort of duality between fact and emotion. If we were to lose the ability to be emotional, if we were to lose the ability to be angry, to be outraged, we would be robots. And I refuse that. And partly, the reason that they say the arguments are emotional is because they don’t want to face the facts. And there isn’t a single fact about big dams, about irrigation efficiencies, about salinization, drainage, displacement, any technical argument that isn’t in the argument that the MBA has made or that I have made. So our emotions and our outrage are based on an unrelenting collection of facts and technology and politics. Obviously, it’s easier for the West to accept this argument than for India, because in India it comes up right up against the establishment, right up against the powers that want this. So, obviously, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out. And the fact is that it has questioned the basis of development. And today, forgetting just the Narmada issue, dispossession is taking place on a barbaric scale, because the major priorities I think in government are the privatization of electricity and water. And so the name of that debate is suddenly going to leap-frog into the center of a big movement that’s taking place all across India in a very, very serious way.
Mishal Husain: Do you think that development is something then that’s optional?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t understand.
Mishal Husain: Do you think that these villages basically should be left as they are and that development and progress in the way that we understand it, whether it’s schools or hospitals or better housing or whatever is something that isn’t necessarily a good thing?
Arundhati Roy: No, no. I think — You know what? Again, I think this is a kind of spin that often the government wants to put on people who are protesting a particular type of development to say, “Oh, you’re anti-development, or you’re neo-Ludites.” Of course, that’s not the case. The case is development for whom? Who pays? Who profits and where do you begin? Everybody can’t have the life of a normal, average American person in India, they can’t. So, it’s about egalitarianism. It’s about sharing things more equally. It’s about access to natural resources. It’s about those things. About the model of development. I’d say quite simply if I were asked to put my position on the table that what we’re fighting for is to decrease or eliminate the distance between those that make decisions and those that have to suffer them. Because eventually it doesn’t matter how beautiful the language is in your resettlement policy. The fact is that the more beautiful it is the more sure we are that it’s not going to be implemented. So how do you reduce that distance between the powerful and the powerless?
Mishal Husain: But don’t the people in the drought-stricken villages, some of which we saw, have an equal right to their way of life being preserved in those villages which now have no water as Luharia does to his way of living?
Arundhati Roy: Yes, they do. And so they should be fighting the processes that create that drought in their villages, which is contractors clear-felling mangrove forests which is the chaotic exploitation of ground water. The fact that there are rivers so much closer to Kutch and Sarashtra than the Narmada and their waters have been dammed and taken elsewhere. So Luharia must pay the price for that? And the other thing is you take a state like Rajasthan, it is a desert state. It is a state which has a civilization that has been used to living in that ecology. Suddenly you take the India/Gandhi Canal there and say, “Now, you can grow rice.” You’re destroying something there, and then saying, you have an equal right to grow rice in Rajasthan as the people in Kerala have to go grow rice there. Is that true? We have learned to live within our ecologies and within our eco-systems. So it’s not just that the Indian government built big dams, but also destroyed traditional water-housing systems.
Mishal Husain: But in that way, you sound as if you are anti-development and that you want the status quo in all these places to remain?
Arundhati Roy: No, I don’t. But I’m just saying that when it comes to the poorest people, when it comes to Luharia, you’re prepared to say that Luharia must pay the price for people in Kutch to have water. But you’re not prepared to say that Bilash should give up all his money and distribute it for water-housing systems in Kutch or that Reliance should clean its bank account and distribute it to the drought-prone areas in Sarashtra…
Mishal Husain: The big industrialists.
Arundhati Roy: Yes, you’re not prepared to say that. But when it comes to the poorest people, yes, of course, they must pay the price for the greater common good, you know?
Mishal Husain: Some of the critics of the movement that you’re a part of have said that activists like yourself have forgotten the famine that India suffered in the 40s and the problems that India had in food security and that dams are a way to safeguard India’s future and to make sure that it never suffers like that again.
Arundhati Roy: Well, you know, I would buy that argument, if I could find a single study that supported it. And I would have thought that given that it was such a controversial subject and there’s been such a big movement, there will be something to back that up. But in fact, there isn’t a study that tells you that it is indeed big dams that have made India food self-sufficient. How much of that food comes from the mechanical exploitation of ground water, use of hybrid seeds, of chemical fertilizers? The only study that I know of was done by someone called Himanshu Patkar and presented to the World Commission on Dams. And it worked out that 12 percent of India’s food grain production came from irrigation from big dams — and 90 percent of the beg dams in India are irrigation dams. And oddly enough, the Ministry of Food and Civil Supply says that 10 percent of India’s stock of food grain is eaten every year by rats, which is a non-statistic. So, the point is if this were not true or if this were contested, I would imagine that it’s the government’s responsibility to at least make that case. And even still, we’re still talking about the fact that there are other alternative forms of irrigation. Like, say, in the Punjab, there was a canal system put in by the British well before the Bakra Dam was built. And you don’t know what the Bakra contributed and what those canals contributed and of course the fact that the whole lot is water-logged or getting water-logged now.
Mishal Husain: If we look at the reality of this situation of Luharia and his community, clearly there are big issues with the quality of lands that they would receive in compensation. What do you think of cash compensation? Is that something that you think could be adequate?
Arundhati Roy: Well, look, the issue of land for land is something that even the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal specified in its rehabilitation policy — that you must give them land for land. Now the point is if you’re not going to give them land for land, then the government is trying to distribute cash to some people, especially in order to break the movement, to some and not to others and so on. And obviously now if the choice is between giving nothing and getting cash, it’s better to get cash. But it isn’t right. It isn’t fair. And especially in the case of the Adivasi community, we must remember that the Adivasis, it’s not like the women own the land. So, what happens is that the cash compensation is given to the men. The women are left with nothing. These are not communities that live in a market economy. Within a year, that money is drunk away in some squatter settlement in the edge of some big city. And it’s over. So, is that a fair deal? I don’t know. Maybe it’s better to drink yourself into oblivion for a year than not. I don’t know.
Mishal Husain: But the government’s argument would be if that money is going to be misspent, that’s not the government’s fault.
Arundhati Roy: Yes, it isn’t. But you know the point is that it is the government’s policy to give land for land primarily is because this is not a community that traditionally deals with money. And on what basis are you giving that money to the men or to the head of the family? It’s a way of destroying a community. Now, the government can argue what it wants. They know that this is the way and this is what will happen. So, for us to sit and discuss whether it’s fair or not is irrelevant in a way. I mean presumably it’s better that they get some money than they just get kicked out with nothing at all. But you know it’s illegal. The point is that the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal is on power par with the Supreme Court, and it is illegal, what is being done.
Mishal Husain: Now, you rose to fame as a writer of fiction, as a novelist. And today, you speak out on a range of political issues. How does that balance feel to you? The difference between being an artist and now in effect being a political figure?
Arundhati Roy: Oh, precarious and difficult. I’ve often said that the fiction dances out of me, and the political writing is wrenched out by what I think is a world in turmoil right now and a world where something in me seeks to intervene urgently and the noise in my head doesn’t stop. But I hope that it won’t be a permanent condition.
Mishal Husain: Clearly, you have immense power when you choose to become involved with issues and in terms of the attention they then receive. Are there responsibilities that go along with that?
Arundhati Roy: Well, I guess the responsibility is to know what you’re doing. The responsibility is to understand that I’m not an actress or a football star that’s endorsing a cause. I’m a player. I’m making the argument. And I better know it — otherwise it would be damaging, if I didn’t. If I was going there as a bleeding heart endorsing some cause that I didn’t fully understand, I could do more harm than good. So, I suppose that is a kind of responsibility. And beyond that, does art have a responsibility, an inherent responsibility. But part of it is to remain a free-thinker, to remain somebody who says what they believe in and who’s prepared to conceded a point if you think that it should be conceded and to stick to your guns if you think you should do that.
Mishal Husain: And why this cause?
Arundhati Roy: Which one?
Mishal Husain: This Narmada cause.
Arundhati Roy: Like I said, I think it is the key to understanding the modern world in all its complexity. So I think to me it– it formed the bedrock of understanding much of the tumultuous politics of the world today.
Mishal Husain: Someone say that you have a slightly romanticized vision of the issue, of keeping all of that intact.
Arundhati Roy: The one thing that I can’t be accused of is having a romanticized notion of village life. Because I grew up in a village and I’m fully aware of the brutality of village life in India. I dreamed of escaping. I prayed every day that I wouldn’t be stuck there. So that I am in no doubt about. And you know, if I have romanticized anything it’s the anonymity of a big city. For an Indian woman certainly it provides shelter. No, I have nothing against romance. I believe that we must hold on to the right to dream and to be romantic. But an Indian village is not something that I would romanticize that easily.
Mishal Husain: Is it not possible then that the next generation, say Luharia’s children, might have a better life if they do end up in an urban area.
Arundhati Roy: They might. They might not. But that has nothing to do with putting a gun to his head and saying, “We’re going to drown you.” Nobody drowned me out of my village. There’s a difference between forced displacement and migration.
Mishal Husain: Are you going to stay involved with the cause of the Narmada Valley?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t look at these things as something as huge as this as a cause. For me, it’s a kind of politics. It’s a way of seeing the world. And when I go to the valley, I often say, look, it’s not my land or my farm that’s being drowned. But if a farmer has land, a writer has a world view, and that’s what’s being submerged. So, it’s not a cause or a badge that I wear on my coat. Obviously, it’s a kind of politics. It’s a kind of way of seeing. And you know it was a way of seeing that evolved from long ago and will continue to evolve and mature, I hope, as one goes on. So it’s not like you pick this cause up and then chuck it and pick another one and then chuck it. It’s not like that. It informs everything that one does and the way one thinks. And it informs everything about me.
Mishal Husain: Arundhati, thanks very much for joining us.
Arundhati Roy: You’re welcome.