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India has 3,600 big dams—they have devoured 50 million people already. Silently. Now it's the turn of the Narmada.

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Daily Mail
Jun 28, 1999
The Fact of the Matter

I’m grateful to Vikas S. Kasliwal, the director of S. Kumars, for having the grace to challenge me on fact instead of taking the usual route to personal abuse. However, I’m afraid my facts are right and his are wrong. He says the Maheshwar dam will affect only 13 villages and not 60. May I quote from the task force report of the Maheshwar hydel project of which the Madhya Pradesh government was a member? "...the experience of the Bargi project reveals that the submergence anticipated by the government is an underestimate and that the reality will be far more destructive. In all 61 villages will be affected by the Maheshwar project...” As for his depiction of the NBA movement as one that supports bonded labour and slavery (while the S. Kumars are working for the upliftment of Dalits), what can I say? Read the report of enquiry of the National Commission for Women, read the fact-finding report on human rights violations conducted by the India Centre for Human Rights and Law and four other organisations. Read the report by Heffa Schucking—on the basis of which one of the German funders pulled out of the project. Watch film footage of how public protest is put down. Better still, visit the submergence areas of the Maheshwar dam. Meet the people, the Kahars, the Kevats, the Adivasis, the Patidars. Listen to what they have to say. You’ll find that Mr Kasliwal has a full-blown civil disobedience movement on his hands. If I were him, I’d rein in my advertising and keep a very, very low profile.

Arundhati Roy, New Delhi
Jun 21, 1999
The Art of Activism

“The dam-building industry in the First World is in trouble and out of work”, Arundhati writes in The Greater Common Good (May 24). “So it’s exported to the Third World (as) Development Aid.” Indeed. All too often we find the benefits of such structures are overstated and costs underrated. In ’93, I visited the Sardar Sarovar area, hosted by adivasis fighting for their cultural/social survival. I’ve read countless reports, articles and statistics on such projects. Yet it was only Arundhati’s brilliant essay that brought alive its complexity. It took the debate from expert circles into the public domain— where it belongs. It’s inspiring to see activism becoming art.

Peter Bosshard, Zurich

Criticism of Arundhati’s essay often bordered on the absurd; typically they got personal. Vivek Maheshwari asks her to avoid ACs. Jaideep Shergill tells her to return her Booker. Siddhartha-on-e-mail, wherever-on-earth you live, says she’s written fiction—without pointing out one concoction. Rohan D’Souza says large dams must be fought in bad English! What a bunch of whimperers. Fact is, the Narmada doesn’t have adequate water nor the sarkari treasury enough money to build this witless dam. But there’s no shortage of false promises in the Gujarat politician’s repertoire. Perhaps when the ‘Living to Party’ set— who you so creatively juxtaposed with Arundhati’s essay—starts coughing up taxes to pay for Sardar Sarovar, they might just join the NBA!

Bittu Sahgal, Mumbai

All of us at the Narmada Valley feel obliged to you for printing the essay of the decade. Arundhati, combining rational analysis with emotional appeal, has helped us reach out to the hearts of the unaware and unconvinced. Sensitising them to natural resources, human communities living on them and the uneven costs of development. The strength of her essay is not the meticulous statistics but the vivid description of the horrifying tale of uprootment of tribal and rural peoples. The submergence of the tribal region— land, water, forest, houses and Gods—this monsoon is to be faced as a challenge on behalf of the looted and marginalized all over. The satyagraha beginning June 20 is mass-action that the Outlook readership should be able to respond to.

Medha Patkar, Baroda

Jun 21, 1999
Priming a Prima Donna

I read Arundhati’s superbly written essay with interest, especially the bit on Maheshwar dam. Being part of the team on this project, I’m more than taken aback by the nature and extent of canards in the piece. If she had contacted us, we may have been able to provide her with some facts that may have altered her perceptions. Assuming she had an open mind to start with. For one, she would’ve learnt that only 22 villages are to be submerged (13 fully, 9 partially), and not 60 as she claims. She may have learnt that the ‘Dalits’ in the ‘PAPs’ (even in Jalud) are anxiously waiting for the project to be completed—the R&R scheme is leading to a substantial improvement in their lives. She could’ve learnt, perhaps to her chagrin, that the NBA movement is one of the landed vs the landless; the patidars vs Harijans; about how to ensure that cheap bonded labour continues to be available to absentee farmers; about banana growers and the reth (sand) mafia’s illegal, oppressive presence in the area. She could’ve seen the NBA’s refusal to get involved in rehabilitation efforts. Had she taken a shy at facts, she may have been able to see the reality of NBA, which is meant to support the region’s rich and to condemn poor to generations of slavery. The most obnoxious bit is her ‘blessing’ to the Maheshwar project and our Group. I fail to see how we have offended her personally, so much that she wishes bulldozers to run over us! Without even meeting us! How has she been conned into misusing her considerable literary skills? “Nothing can justify this.”

Vikas S. Kasliwal, Director, S. Kumars, Delhi
Jun 14, 1999
Damsel in Distress

Many thanks for publishing Arundhati’s passionately accurate broadside against the myth of big dams. I can’t imagine any US newsmagazine giving equivalent space for such searing political polemic. She’s blended rigorous research and veracity with well-founded outrage. As the author of an overview of the politics and history of dams—Silenced Rivers—I’ve done more than my fair share of reading on the subject and perceive this not only to be the finest essay I’ve read on dams, but probably the finest on the politics of development. Sadly, her story of the war of the dammers against the dammed isn’t unique to India—it happened in the US and it’s now happening across Asia, Latin America and Africa. The Greater Common Good (May 24) will inspire all those people battling what she calls the “mass destruction” of big dams.

Patrick McCully, California, USA

Arundhati’s piece is like the peace of God; it passes all understanding. After reading her monotonous exercise in mental masturbation, I’ve sadly concluded that you’re an editor who separates the wheat from the chaff—then prints the chaff.

Sunil Shibad, Mumbai

I read and re-read Arundhati’s exposé of the farce that’s development and cried tears of rage and anger. We need more of such exposés to desecrate the holiness that shrouds development and progress, at the cost of 50 million lives. It may be that the Iron Triangle will not read this article. Or having read it, will tend to dismiss it as emotional propaganda funded by foreigners. But to all those who’ve been protesting against the destruction that’s passed on as progress, it will be a major morale-booster. Protest. That’s all we can do. Thanks Arundhati. Thanks Outlook. The article should now be published as a separate booklet and widely circulated.

Amit Mitra, New Delhi

Why don’t you ask Arundhati to write on India’s chances in the World Cup since she can write on almost anything? I wonder why you couldn’t get someone more authoritative to write on dams. Or have you signed a contract with Arundhati to write cover stories when you’ve run out on ideas?

Vikram Vasu, on e-mail

As an engineer, I expected Outlook to publish both sides of the dam story. Instead, it chose to highlight only Ms Roy’s verbose, sentimental mush. A cursory look at the archives of the erstwhile Madras, Bombay and UP Presidencies would show what the British Corps of Engineers had done to develop irrigation systems. This was followed, in the early years of Independence, by our large dams—Bhakra, Tungabhadra, Hirakud, Damodar Valley, etc. If we have a buffer of 20 million tonnes of food and an annual production of 200 million tonnes, it’s because of these efforts. Of course, there are technical problems and they’re tackled as and when they arise. Rehabilitation is a political matter, not an engineering one! Would Dame Roy delve in these archives? Using her present pre-eminence, she shouldn’t voice the propaganda of the Green Negativists.

Dr S. Divakaran, Chennai

All-round planning goes behind approving a dam project. But activists negatively stall their implementation rather than concentrate on resettlement of the affected, which is also a part of planning. In India, however, protest seems to be aimed at hindering development already under way. Is it because such anti-development is backed by foreign lobbies and funds? The activists seem to ignore the prosperity Bhakra, Beas and the Pong have brought. Today’s anti-dam activists, if they really care, should play a positive role in assisting development agencies in planned rehabilitation. Every development needs some sacrifice. Nehru had rightly asked for these development centres to be respected as temples and not be desecrated!

T.A. Deodas, New Delhi

Arundhati’s call to arms left out engineers—rather pointedly. Count me in, there are environment-friendly engineers out here, Ms Roy.

Samrat Choudhury, Baroda

Well done Outlook. You speak for our times. Again. As Arundhati says this is the big one. And if you’ve any fishing sense you know where fisherman like to catch the big ones. At the River. So get there those who care. I’ll be there dancing Kathakali (I’m a Kathakali dancer) in the moonlight. So will all the Gods. Of the river. Of the forest. Why stay stuck to the city? Come to the valley.

Arjun Raina, on e-mail

Jun 07, 1999
Damned if they Do, Damned if they Don’t

What Arundhati Roy has brought out in The Greater Common Good (May 24) is just one aspect of the injustice meted out in the name of public good. Defence projects, N-plants, new industrial estates, mining licences, even still-born projects which haven’t taken off since the land-acquisition stage; all are excuses for widespread landgrabbing that’s held together by three features of our legal system: virtual immunity to ‘public servants’ from prosecution for excesses committed while on duty; the Land Acquisition Act and other laws that empower even minor official; and the constitutional amendment which made the right to own property a directive principle from a fundamental right, shutting out the most efficacious legal remedy—a writ petition—for land dispute redressal.

Rajesh Haldipur, on e-mail

Apropos the part where Arundhati talks of the adversity or non-performance of big dams, she should read Mate Narmade..., a book in Marathi written by Dr Dattaprasad Dabholkar, a scientist who participated in the first Indian research team to Antarctica. The book should really help Arundhati think and revise her opinions.

A.K. Bhooshan, on e-mail

What a story! A fearless writer, fragile-looking but who knows her mind. Her story should shake Indians from their apathy. Otherwise the cries of millions of (dam) dispossessed will hound us. And democracy will be reduced to a demo-crazy.

H. Sequeira, on e-mail

From The End of Imagination to The Greater Common Good. Obviously, Arundhati believes she has the right to berate our leaders, planners and the government on the strength of a Booker win. Would she give it up to support the cause she ‘supposedly’ believes in?

Jaideep Shergill, Mumbai

When I started reading Arundhati’s piece, I expected the Pokhran kind of woolly-headed diatribe. But I found otherwise. The Narmada project verges on criminality. That politicos would push it vigorously is understandable; what isn’t is how the apex court allowed the denial of the constitutional rights of millions of people. Perhaps Outlook should do a story on how the case proceeded and why it allowed the project to go on.

K. Das, on e-mail

Has the Booker given Arundhati a licence to say anything she wants? She should try forsaking the luxuries she takes for granted. It’s easy to criticise while sitting in air-conditioned ivory towers with uninterrupted power supply. Suffer the long powercuts, and maybe then damn dams.

Vivek Maheshwari, Bhopal

It was long reading for a just cause. But Arundhati seemed lost in language. I’ve been out of India for long and am beginning to see India’s main problem—language. Round and round go its writers, bureaucrats and thinkers. No one says what they mean or mean what they say.

G. Venkata-Chalam, California, USA

It was heartening to see Outlook focus on real issues like dams and development. Arundhati has poignantly revealed the sad plight of people, their land, livelihood, flora and fauna. Also the very basis of Indian civilisation—respect for all living souls.

Stephen Aloor, Bangalore

You’ve done it again. Bored us to death with Arundhati’s 19-page diatribe against dams. She has written a good book, won a prestigious award for it, but is that any reason for inundating us regularly with her long-winded opinion on N-tests and dams?

V. Kumar, Delhi

Rage, shame, guilt and inadequacy consumed me as I gobbled up page after page of Arundhati’s piece. One can debate whether the crusader in Roy has gone overboard in comparing the bomb with the dam as agents of destruction, but one can’t deny the people’s plight as it emerges in the fact-file of her article. One can only express despair. Or, pretend amnesia to wash away the guilt of watching the farcical drama of development. We urbanites are tacit onlookers too.

Ranjita Biswas, Calcutta

When the Morse Report, quoted by Arundhati, first came out, the then Gujarat CM Chimanbhai Patel dismissed it saying that Morse had no right to tell us “whether tribals are Hindu or not”. In the communally-charged times, it was a convenient stick to beat Morse with. But at no point does Morse address that issue. “The history and customs of tribal peoples...has direct relevance to resettlement and rehabilitation policies,” he wrote. In that context, he studied their relationship to Hinduism and found overlaps between their lifestyle and that of mainstream Hindus. But even so, he found that tribals “did not repudiate Hinduism; rather, they affirmed their separateness”. Morse’s point was that rehabilitating tribals can be successful only if you recognise their uniqueness. Which, as Arundhati reminds us, is something dam builders never care to do.

Dilip D’Souza, Bombay

Arundhati will serve Narmada’s cause better by letting sober analysis, educated critique and informed popular mobilisation confront the proponents of large dams and not by suggesting somewhat esoteric ‘specific wars’ fought in ‘specific ways’ and signing off like an MTV VJ with a ‘be there’. Literary flourish and breastbeating are shoddy weapons of protest. Much of her so-called critique was a reiteration of known and stated positions. How it became her very own ‘story’ against large dams, as was so strikingly advertised on the cover, is perhaps another story altogether.

Rohan D’Souza, Delhi

If you publish Arundhati’s articles for their literary merit then you should qualify it by saying—‘The above is a work of fiction and has no relevance to any situation, past or present.’ And if there’s to be a debate on the humanitarian aspect of the project, I’d rather know Medha Patkar’s views on the subject.

Siddhartha, on e-mail.

Jul 05, 1999
Save a River, Save the Future

It is always a delight to see a newsmagazine like yours publishing something on big dams, on the cover. Arundhati Roy’s article (The Greater Common Good, May 24) communicates the horrors of such so-called development that plague this country and cause torture to its people. We have in this country become experts at displacing millions of people and with it destroying tens of thousands of hectares of forest land and then putting up concrete giants that provide nothing for anyone except those who milk this country dry. We are all tired of hearing about “electricity” and the “irrigation” needs of this country. Our businessmen and political leadership are damaging the future of a nation by projects like the Sardar Sarovar. The people of this country must act and stop this project. Let us set a precedent for the future. Let us end the massive trauma of a river, a people and an entire ecological system. It’s truly a moment for everyone to join hands with the Narmada Bachao Andolan and end the horrors of this project.

Valmik Thapar, New Delhi


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