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Arundhati Roy

"The Greater Common Good"



I stood on a hill and laughed out loud. I had crossed the Narmada by boat from Jalsindhi and climbed the headland on the opposite bank from where I could see, ranged across the crowns of low, bald hills, the tribal hamlets of Sikka, Surung, Neemgavan and Domkhedi. I could see their airy, fragile homes. I could see their fields and the forests behind them. I could see little children with littler goats scuttling across the landscape. I knew I was looking at a civilisation older than Hinduism, slated - sanctioned (by the highest court in the land) - to be drowned this monsoon when the waters of the Sardar Sarovar reservoir will rise to submerge it.


Why did I laugh? Because I suddenly remembered the tender concern with which the supreme court judges in Delhi (before withdrawing the legal stay on further construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam) had enquired whether tribal children in the resettlement colonies would have children's parks to play in. The lawyers representing the government assured them that indeed they would, and, what's more, that there were seesaws and slides and swings in every park. I looked up at the endless sky and down at the river rushing past and for a brief moment the absurdity of it all reversed my rage and I laughed. I meant no disrespect.


In India for 10 years, the fight against the Sardar Sarovar dam has come to represent far more than the fight for one river. It became a debate that captured the popular imagination. That's what raised the stakes and changed the complexion of the battle. From being a fight over the fate of a river valley, it began to raise doubts about an entire political system. What is at issue now is the very nature of our democracy. Who owns this land? Who owns its rivers? Its forests? Its fish? These are huge questions. They are being taken hugely seriously by the state. They are being answered in one voice by every institution at its command. And not just answered, but answered unambiguously, in bitter, brutal ways.


I was drawn to the valley because I sensed that the fight for the Narmada had entered a newer, sadder phase. I went because writers are drawn to stories the way vultures are drawn to kills. My motive was not compassion. It was sheer greed. I was right. I found a story there.


And what a story it is. In the 50 years since independence, after Nehru's famous "Dams are the temples of modern India" speech, his foot soldiers have thrown themselves into the business of building dams with unnatural fervour. Dam-building grew to be equated with nation-building. Their enthusiasm alone should have made anyone suspicious. The result is that India now boasts of being the world's third-largest dam builder, with 3,600 dams that qualify as big dams. Another 1,000 are under construction. Yet one-fifth of the population - 200m people - does not have safe drinking water and two-thirds - 600m - lack basic sanitation. India has more drought-prone and flood-prone areas today than in 1947. Big dams started well, but have ended badly. All over the world there is a growing movement against them. In the first world they're being decommissioned, blown up. The fact that they do more harm than good is no longer just conjecture.


Big dams are obsolete. They're uncool. They're undemocratic. They're a government's way of accumulating authority . They're a guaranteed way of taking a farmer's wisdom away from him. They're a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich. Their reservoirs displace huge populations of people, leaving them homeless and destitute.


Ecologically too, they are in the doghouse. They lay the earth to waste. They cause floods, waterlogging, salinity, they spread disease. There is mounting evidence that links big dams to earthquakes. It's common knowledge now that big dams do the opposite of what their publicity people say - the local pain for national gain myth has been blown wide open.


For all these reasons, the dam-building industry in the first world (worth more than 12bn a year) is in trouble and out of work. So it's exported to the third world in the name of development aid, along with their other waste like old weapons, superannuated aircraft carriers and banned pesticides. The Indian government, every Indian government, rails self-righteously against the first world, and pays to receive their gift-wrapped garbage. Aid has destroyed most of Africa. Bangladesh is reeling from its ministrations. We know all this, in numbing detail. Yet in India our leaders welcome it with slavish smiles (and make nuclear bombs to shore up their flagging self-esteem).


The government of India has detailed statistics about most things. But it does not have a figure for the number of people displaced by dams or sacrificed in other ways at the altars of "national progress". How can you measure progress if you don't know what it costs and who paid for it? How can the "market"put a price on things when it doesn't take into account the real cost of production?


According to a detailed study of 54 large dams done by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, the average number of people displaced by a large dam is 44,182. Admittedly, 54 dams out of 3,300 is not a big enough sample. But let's err on the side of abundant caution and take an average of 10,000 per large dam: 3,300 x 10,000 = 33m. That's what it works out at - 33m people. Displaced by big dams alone in the past 50 years.


What about those displaced by the thousands of other development projects? At a private lecture, NC Saxena, secretary to the planning commission, thought the number was in the region of 50m (40m displaced by dams). We daren't say so, because it isn't official. It isn't official because we daren't say so. You have to murmur it for fear of being accused of hyperbole. You have to whisper it to yourself, because it really does sound unbelievable. It can't be, I've been telling myself. I must have got the zeroes muddled. I barely have the courage to say it aloud. Fifty million people. I feel like someone who's just stumbled on a mass grave.


Fifty million is more than the population of Gujarat. Almost three times the population of Australia. More than three times the number of refugees partition created in India. Ten times the number of Palestinian refugees. The western world today is convulsed over the future of 1m people who have fled from Kosovo.


A huge percentage of the displaced are tribal. Include Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables) and the figure becomes obscene. According to the commissioner for scheduled castes and tribes it's about 60%. If you consider that tribal people account for only 8%, and Dalits 15%, of India's population, it opens up a whole other dimension to the story. The ethnic "otherness" of their victims takes some of the pressure off the nation builders. It's like having an expense account. Someone else pays the bills. People from another country. Another world. India's poorest people are subsidising the lifestyles of her richest.


What has happened to all these millions? Where are they now? Nobody really knows. They don't exist any more. When history is written, they won't be in it. Some of them have subsequently been displaced three and four times - a dam, an artillery range, another dam, a uranium mine, a power project. Once they start rolling there's no resting place. The great majority is eventually absorbed into slums on the periphery of our great cities, where it coalesces into an immense pool of cheap construction labour (who build more projects that displace more people).


And still the nightmare doesn't end. They continue to be uprooted even from their hellish hovels by government bulldozers that fan out on clean-up missions whenever elections are comfortingly far away and the urban rich get twitchy about hygiene. In cities like Delhi, they run the risk of being shot by the police for shitting in public places.


The millions of displaced people in India are nothing but refugees of an unacknowledged war. And we are condoning it by looking away. Why? Because we're told that it's being done for the sake of the greater common good. That it's being done in the name of progress, in the name of national interest. Therefore gladly, unquestioningly, almost gratefully, we believe what we're told. We believe that it benefits us to believe.


It's true that India has progressed. It's true that in 1947, when colonialism formally ended, India was in food deficit. In 1950 we produced 51m tonnes of food grain. Today we produce close to 200m tonnes. It's true that in 1995 the state granaries were overflowing with 30m tonnes of unsold grain. It's also true that at the same time, 40% of India's population - more than 350 million people - were living below the poverty line. That's more than the country's population in 1947.


Indians are too poor to buy the food their country produces. Indians are being forced to grow the kinds of food they can't afford to eat themselves. Our leaders say we must have nuclear missiles to protect us from the threat of China and Pakistan. But who will protect us from ourselves? What kind of country is this? Who owns it? Who runs it? What's going on?


It's time to spill a few state secrets. To puncture the myth about the inefficient, bumbling, corrupt, but ultimately genial, essentially democratic, Indian state. Carelessness cannot account for 50m disappeared people. Let's not delude ourselves. There is method here, precise, relentless and 100% man-made.


The Indian state is not a state that has failed. It is a state that has succeeded impressively in what it set out to do. It has been ruthlessly efficient in the way it has appropriated India's resources and redistributed them to a favoured few (in return no doubt, for a few favours). It is superbly accomplished in the art of protecting the cadres of its paid-up elite. But its finest feat of all is the way it achieves all this and emerges smelling sweet. The way it manages to keep its secrets, to contain information that vitally concerns the daily lives of 1bn people, in government files, accessible only to the keepers of the flame - ministers, bureaucrats, state engineers, defence strategists. Of course we make it easy for them, we, its beneficiaries. We don't really want to know the grisly detail.


India lives in her villages, we're told, in every other sanctimonious public speech. That's just another fig leaf from the government's bulging wardrobe. India doesn't live in her villages. India dies in her villages. India gets kicked around in her villages. India lives in her cities. India's villages live only to serve her cities. Her villagers are her citizens' vassals and for that reason must be controlled and kept alive, but only just.


Its proponents boast that Narmada is the most ambitious river valley project ever conceived. They plan to build 3,200 dams that will reconstitute the Narmada and her 41 tributaries into a series of step reservoirs. Of these, two of the major dams - the Sardar Sarovar in Gujarat and the Narmada Sagar in Madhya Pradesh - will hold, between them, more water than any other reservoir on the Indian subcontinent. Whichever way you look at it, the Narmada Valley development project is big. It will alter the ecology of the entire river basin of one of India's biggest rivers. It will affect the lives of 25m people who live in the valley.


Every single claim its proponents make about its intended benefits has been systematically disproved. Even the World Bank, has withdrawn from the project. Yet the government is hell-bent on seeing it built. The Sardar Sarovar dam alone will displace about half a million people (200,000 according to official estimates, but these are always wrong).


The government claims it is offering displaced people the best rehabilitation package in the world. I've been to some of these "resettlement sites". People have been dumped in rows of corrugated tin sheds which are furnaces in summer, and fridges in winter. Some of them are located in dry river beds which during the monsoons turn into fast-flowing streams. Shivering children perch like birds on the edges of charpais while swirling waters enter their tin homes. Frightened, fevered eyes watch pots and pans carried through the doorway by the current, floating out into the flooded fields, thin fathers swimming after them. When the waters recede, they leave ruin. Malaria, diarrhoea, sick cattle stranded in the slush. The ancient teak beams dismantled from their previous homes carefully stacked away like postponed dreams, now spongy, rotten and unusable.


And these are the lucky ones - the ones who officially qualify as what the government calls PAPs (Project Affected Persons). The rest are just kicked out of their homes and left to fend for themselves.


Truly, it is just not possible for a state administration, any state administration, to carry out the rehabilitation of a people as fragile as this, on such an immense scale. It's like using a pair of hedge-shears to trim an infant's fingernails. You can't do it without shearing its fingers off. How do you uproot 200,000 people (the official estimate), of which 117,000 are tribal people, and relocate them in a humane fashion? How do you keep their communities intact, in a country where almost all litigation pending in courts has to do with land disputes?


Where is all this fine, unoccupied arable land that is waiting to receive these intact communities? The simple answer is that there isn't any. Not even for the "officially" displaced of this one dam. What about the rest of the dams? What about the remaining thousands of "PAPs" earmarked for annihilation? Shall we just put the Star of David on their doors and get it over with?


In circumstances like these, to even entertain a debate about rehabilitation is to take the first step towards setting aside the principles of justice. Resettling 200,000 people in order to take (or pretend to take) drinking water to 40 million - there's something very wrong with the scale of operations here. This is fascist maths. It strangles stories, bludgeons detail, and manages to blind perfectly reasonable people with its spurious, shining vision.


This July will bring the last monsoon of the 20th century. The supreme court order that has allowed the construction of the dam to proceed means that this year 30 of the 245 villages will be submerged. The people have nowhere to go. They have declared that they will not move when the waters of the Sardar Sarovar reservoir rise to claim their lands and homes. Whether you love the dam or hate it, it is necessary that you understand the price being paid for it. That you have the courage to watch while the dues are cleared and the books are squared.


Our dues. Our books. Not theirs. Be there.  



Arundhati Roy won the Booker prize for her novel The God of Small Things.  This article was originally published in The Guardian, 5th June 1999.