“The Cost of Living”, Arundhati Roy 1999

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“The Cost of Living”, Arundhati Roy 1999

… For better or for worse the Narmada Valley Development Project will affect the lives of 25 million people who live in the valley and will alter the ecology of an entire river basin. It will submerge sacred 3 groves and temples and ancient pilgrimage routes and archaeological sites that scholars say contain an uninterrupted record of human occupation from the old stone age…

…Today, India is the world’s third largest dam-builder. According to the Central Water commission we have 3,600 dams that qualify as big dams, 3,300 of them built after Independence. A thousand more are under construction. Nehru’s famous statement about dams being the Temples of Modern India has made its way into primary school textbooks in every Indian language. Big dams have become an article of faith inextricably linked with nationalism. To question their utility amounts almost to sedition. Every school child is taught that Big Dams will deliver the people of India from hunger and poverty. But will they? Have they? Are they really the key to India’s food security? Today India has more irrigated land than any other country in the world. In the last 50 years the area under irrigation increased by about 140%.

…Dams are built, people are uprooted, forests are submerged and then the project is simply abandoned. Canals are never completed … the benefits never accrue (except to the politicians, the bureaucrats and the contractors involved in the construction). The first dam that was built on the Narmada is a case in point – the Bargi Dam in Madhya Pradesh was completed in 1990. It cost ten times more than was budgeted and submerged three times more land than engineers said it would. To save the cost and effort of doing a survey, the government just filled the reservoir without warning anybody. Seventy thousand people from 101 villages were supposed to be displaced. Instead 114,000 people from 162 villages were displaced. They were evicted from their homes by rising waters, chased out like rats, with no prior notice. There was no rehabilitation. Some got a meagre cash compensation. Most got nothing. Some died of starvation…

…Why is this happening? How can it be happening? Because Big Dams are monuments to corruption – to international corruption on an inconceivable scale – bankers politicians, bureaucrats, environmental consultants, aid agencies – they’re all involved in the racket…

…Hundreds of people in the Narmada Valley were being forcibly flooded out of heir homes by the rising waters of the Sardar Sarovar Reservoir. The nation rose as one to support the soldiers on the front. Middleclass housewives held cooking festivals to raise money, people queued up to donate blood, they collected food, clothing, and first aid. Actors, sportsmen and celebrities swarmed to the border to bolster the moral of the fighting forces. There were no such offers of help for the people in the Narmada Valley. Some of them had stood in their homes in chest deep water for days on end, protesting the Supreme Court’s decision to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. They were seen as people who were unwilling to pay the price for National progress. They were labelled antinational and anti-development and carted off to jail. The general consensus seems to be “Yes it’s sad, but hard decisions have to be made. Someone has to pay the price for development…

… What about the environmental costs? The submerged forests, the ravaged ecosystems, the destroyed estuaries, the defunct, silted up reservoirs, the endangered wildlife, the disappearing biodiversity, the millions of hectares of land that are either water-logged or salt-affected. None of this appears on the balance sheet. There are no official assessments of the cumulative impact Big Dams have had on the environment…

… Many of those who have been resettled are people who have lived all their lives deep in the forest with virtually no contact with money and the modern world. Suddenly they find themselves left with the option of either starving to death or walking several kilometres to the nearest town, sitting in the marketplace, (both men and women), offering themselves as wage labour, like goods on sale. 9 Instead of a forest from which they gathered everything they needed – food, fuel, fodder, rope, gum, tobacco, tooth powder, medicinal herbs, housing material – they earn between ten and twenty rupees a day with which to feed and keep their families. Instead of a river, they have a hand pump. In their old villages, certainly they were poor, extremely poor, but they were insured against absolute disaster. If the rains railed, they had the forests to turn to and the river to fish in. Their livestock was their fixed deposit. Without all this, they’re a heartbeat away from destitution. For the people who’ve been resettled, everything has to be re-learned. Every little thing, every big thing: from shitting and pissing (where d’you do it when there’s no jungle to hide you?) to buying a bus ticket, to learning a new language, to understanding money. And worst of all, learning to be supplicants – learning to take orders – learning to have Masters – learning to answer only when they’re addressed. From being self-sufficient and free, to being further impoverished and yoked to the whims of a world you know nothing, nothing about – what d’you suppose it must feel like? …

… Needless to say this speech never made it into the school books. I’ve made myself very unpopular in India by saying the things I say. Fortunately, I’m not standing for elections. As a writer, I would rather be loved by a river valley than by a nation state – any day!

Excerpts of the Nehru Memorial Lecture delivered by Arundhati Roy at Cambridge University on November, 1999.

2020-12-23T17:40:44+00:00 December 22nd, 2020|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 133 - 135|0 Comments