> AR Interviews
For the Greater Common Good: The Pen as a Tool
An Interview with Author
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 dams—of the Narmada projects in particular—that 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.
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?
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.
When the [Indian] Supreme Court lifted the stay on the building of the
dam, that was when 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Bank had withdrawn, the Supreme Court had ordered a stay; one assumed that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 and 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.
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. 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 picture is."
I was struck about
what you said in your book, about being a writer and always looking for a
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 [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 in—the way a vulture is drawn towards a kill. You can’t move away
because it mesmerizes you.
So why do you
care so much about what’s happening in the Narmada Valley?
can I explain that? One is not removed from it. If you look at the 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. It
became particularly difficult for me after The God of Small Things,
because initially there was the excitement of the success of the book—and
the fact that I sat and wrote for five years—and 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
eyes—because that’s what writers do, they open their eyes whether they
want to or they don’t—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. 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, it’s Estebahn and Rahil [the
novel’s 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 I’ve done in "The
Greater Common Good." On the other hand it’s 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 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 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
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 which I’ve only understood lately. Big
dams are the kind of temples of modern development, as Nehru said, the
temples of modern India, although he retracted that statement.
Let’s 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.
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, [the dams] have produced electricity, 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 see
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 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 an 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.
What happened to your book in Gujurat [the
state where the Narmada Valley is]?
"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 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 and big industry is going 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. I’m sure it will
filter through sooner or later.
What’s 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 one’s hair and nose and eyes and
clothes. It was beautiful.
The government were worried. They
didn’t 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 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 two days after we left, the waters started rising in the
Sardovar submergence zone—but 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
created—where 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?
don’t 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 don’t know what to say except that
this is a form of remote-controlled brutality, which ought not to be
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.
If Medha Patkar [the leading anti-dam activist
in India] dies, what effect do you think that will have on the
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 polarization that has taken
place is so chilling. 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.
This interview is
reprinted with kind permission from Franny Armstrong, Spanner Films and
oneworld.org. For information contact: