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30 April 2001updated 15 Jun 2021 12:57pm

The goddess against big things

May Day 2001 - Arundhati Roy has become modern India's glamorous conscience. Salil Tripathi

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.

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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, right-wing journalist.

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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