A rallying call for dam busters

The Cost of Living
December 3, 1999

This short book collects together two essays by the novelist Arundhati Roy on issues of contemporary political concern in India and worldwide - the displacement of people by dam-building projects and the threat posed by nuclear arms. This is not, as she recognises, a volume that contains much that is factually new but rather a committed plea for change.

The first and longer essay is a passionate denunciation of the history of dam building in India, set in the context of the Sardar Sarovar dam project being implemented on the Narmada river in Gujarat. Her essay covers the social, economic and political context and the consequences for people displaced from land and livelihoods by such a project. It reflects on the politics of international aid in the past ten years pertaining to the dam and on the conflicts and contradictions in the development process.

The book is full of facts to stir anger against this and other public projects of its type. India is the third largest dam builder in the world. In the past 50 years, India has built 3,300 big dams. This particular dam will alter the ecology of the entire river basin of one of India's biggest rivers. It will submerge and destroy 4,000 sq km of natural deciduous forests. The reservoirs of these dams have displaced, she believes, perhaps 40 million people (who she labels "refugees of an unacknowledged war"). In the case of the Sardar Sarovar dam, as often, more than half of these are adivasis , or indigenous people.

Despite this, India has no national rehabilitation policy. Indeed, the government does not even have official figures for the number of people displaced. Most displaced are given cash compensations, but it is common for adivasis to lack formal title to their land and therefore to be unable to claim compensation. Michael Cernea has referred elsewhere to a "vacuum at central policy level", which amounts to a wilful evasion of responsibility. Those displaced are never consulted about the decision to build the dam. It is only when protest movements form that problems are acknowledged.

These dams have been built in the name of national development. Their purpose is to store monsoon water for the purpose of year-round irrigation,power production and flood control. This water, distributed through canals, encourages replacement of traditional crops by cash crops. Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India regarded dams as the temples of modern India, yet 250 million people have no access to safe drinking water. More than 350 million people live below the poverty line; 600 million lack basic sanitation.

There are more drought-prone and flood-prone areas today in India than 50 years ago. Land irrigated by wells is far more productive than that irrigated by dams. India's poorest people are subsidising the lifestyles of the rich. Roy argues that the state has redistributed to a favoured few and questions the compliance of the Indian people.

The second, shorter essay deals with India's decision to acquire nuclear capability but also expands to a criticism of religious nationalism, Indian politics, its political parties and the Nehru/Gandhi "dynasty". "India's nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people," writes Roy. She points to what she regards as fundamental flaws in the theory of deterrence, which relies, in her opinion, on unwarranted assumptions of rational behaviour by decision-makers, and she argues that the widespread popular support for the policy reflects a failure to grasp the true nature of these weapons.

Her two themes are tied by a perception that both dams and nuclear armaments are "weapons of destruction", both "20th-century emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence has outstripped its own instinct for survival". It is when she tries to expand this into a treatment of democracy and Indian culture and identity that she is at her least convincing, particularly in her comparisons to fascism.

The book is informal and easy to read, almost like a domestic conversation in an intellectual middle-class family with a moral conscience. The political argument is mixed with personal and biographical detail. Paragraphs of single sentences or phrases abound. At times the style is entertaining, as when she ridicules the extremities of nationalism, at others annoyingly casual or purposely naïve. Roy's intention is not to present an academic inquiry but to provoke protest.

Vandana Desai is lecturer in development geography, Royal Holloway College, University of London.

The Cost of Living

Author - Arundhati Roy
ISBN - 0 00 257187 0
Publisher - Flamingo
Price - £5.99
Pages - 162

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