Transcript Courtesy: PBS Wide Angle
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. [It's] 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 Saurashtra. 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 they're 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? We're 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: 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 Jalsandhi 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.
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