The New Statesman, May 1, 2001.
The goddess against big things
Arundhati Roy has become modern India's glamorous conscience. Salil Tripathi
May Day 2001 Special
By Salil Tripathi
There is an India that many urban Indians want the world to admire: an outward-looking,
modern India, with a middle class of 200 million people, ready to take its
place on the world stage as a nuclear power. It is a country that boasts
swanky shopping malls and private airlines, where people carry cell phones,
drive sleek cars, take their kids to McDonald's, pay by credit card. They
inhabit the world's sixth largest economy, where young men aspire to be software
engineers and young women to be Miss World.
Now this India has a representative for its very own middle-class, radical
chic: the internationally successful novelist Arundhati Roy, a far cry from
the Gandhian protest tradition of living in a hut, wearing homespun clothes
and drinking goat's milk. If Canada has Naomi Klein, India now has Roy, articulating
causes that have been articulated by others before, but without her glamour
and gift for phrase.
Roy, however, tells most middle-class Indians things they don't want to hear:
that the country's nuclear policy is foolish; that millions are left behind
by the new economy; that 50 million people are being displaced by dams and
irrigation projects; that India can't afford to pay for privatisation. She
has written three long, eloquent essays on these subjects in recent years.
She could have settled into becoming a cultural icon instead of a focus of
protest. A few days ago, she almost went to jail when the Supreme Court debated
whether to hold her and another leading activist, Medha Patkar, in contempt
for ridiculing and insulting its decision to allow continued construction
of those dams. The case against her will now be heard in August.
The establishment calls her anti-national, anti-development and anti-progress.
Her protests against poverty and inequality seem anachronistic to many Indians.
And the country has an obsession with dams that goes back five decades, to
Jawaharlal Nehru who called them the "temples of modern India". The dams'
proponents argue that they would irrigate arid lands in Gujarat and Madhya
Pradesh, generate electric power and provide drinking water to chronically
drought-affected regions of western India. Who would argue with that? Unfortunately,
the state governments have juggled statistics, understated environmental
and human costs, and claimed fictitious benefits. The World Bank pulled out
in 1993, and the dams have few international backers. Yet the consensus in
favour of big dams is so strong that Roy and Patkar are portrayed as unpatriotic
activists running for personal glory.
In truth, as some critics have noted, Roy is a latecomer to this controversy.
The Narmada dams have been contentious since they were first mooted in the
1950s. Patkar has been running the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement)
for almost two decades, while Roy was making films and writing her Booker
Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things. Yet Patkar has said that, but
for Roy's involvement, their movement could have been marginalised. And Roy
has acknowledged the work of environmental journalists, engineers and economists
who have questioned the economic sustainability of Narmada and other dams
in seismically dangerous zones such as Tehri in northern India.
On the nuclear issue, her arguments sound banal and reminiscent of rhetorical
pamphlets of the 1960s. Another novelist, Amitav Ghosh, said it much better
in his reportage in the New Yorker magazine soon after the 1998 nuclear tests.
He painted a grim picture of a post-nuclear New Delhi, and dissected the
intellectual poverty and dishonesty of the bomb's advocates, taking the argument
considerably beyond Roy's simplistic nuclear-bombs-are-bad tract.
It is not only stuffy judges who are upset with her tone and language. The
respected journalist B G Verghese, an acknowledged development expert, has
taken her to task over some of her more outlandish claims on dams in general.
The liberal anthropologist Ramachandra Guha has called her the "Arun Shourie
of the left", which is a bit like calling Mark Thomas the "P J O'Rourke of
the left", since Shourie, now a cabinet minister, was a highly polemical,
Roy admits her tone is deliberately provocative. She says she wants to shake
consciences. She will spare no one. Recently in Bombay, during the screening
of a film about the dams, she stepped out momentarily, and found a business
executive leaving the hall. She pursued him and asked why he was going. Did
he not agree with what she was saying? He protested that he had bought her
book and now had another appointment. The executive said later: "She made
me feel guilty."
Roy would take that as a compliment. She wants to arouse passions about the
Indian development model which, though it has lifted millions out of poverty,
has also driven debt-ridden farmers to suicide and failed to eradicate starvation-related
deaths from some parts of rural India. Roy is not right on all the arguments,
but her passion is genuine and her commitment total. At a time when Miss
World threatens to become the role model for urban India, it is reassuring
to see Roy striding the scene, speaking loudly for what she believes in,
and willing to go to jail for it.
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