Arundhati Roy and the Narmada Dams controversy: development journalism and the 'new international public sphere'?

AuthorChapman, Jane


The Booker Prize award in 1998 for Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things opened up a new opportunity for the novelist to turn her attentions to India's nuclear policy and the campaign against the Narmada dam projects, for which she earned the label "write activist". What does this signify? Is Roy a new-style global international intellectual/activist? This article first places the writer within the context of "development journalism" in India, then assesses Roy's publication outlets, and the nature of activism as expressed in her writing in the light of the concept of the new international public sphere.

Roy's aim is to influence internationally, and her writing has provoked considerable response on the Internet. To this extent, Roy is contributing internationally to what promoters of the significance of the medium have described as a "multi-discursive public sphere" but this article questions whether we should accept the term "new international public sphere". Although it is likely that both individually and collectively, activists will communicate increasingly via the Internet, most other people still obtain their information and knowledge about even the most radical grassroots activism from the mainstream media (de Jong et al. 2005: 5).

The argument is that, in the case of Narmada, Roy has presented India as a theatre of conflict with universal relevance, and her skill as a writer-activist can be seen as a complement to the existing body of development journalism emerging from India. Furthermore, her appeal to international audiences, using all forms of media, suggest that she exemplifies a new kind of intellectual/political campaigner, characterized by the fact that she is willing to publish in a range of different outlets, both mainstream and alternative, and in doing so has elevated local conflicts to a global level of communication, in a way that will reach the maximum number of readers.

Keywords: Roy, Development Journalism, International Public Sphere, Literary Journalism, Activist Journalism, Gandhi Tradition of Journalism.


In (Chapman 2006), I examined some activist mass communications that have made an impact internationally. Stressing the new, interdisciplinary nature of activist cultural communication, I analysed some of the essay writings of Arundhati Roy as well as two documentaries by Anand Patwardhan and Franny Armstrong. (1) In this essay I return to her key and big dam texts--in particular her seminal The Cost of Living (1999), the short essay 'Ahimsa' published in The Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire (2004a), and her writings about the role of Enron in the construction of a gas plant at Dabhol (an allied development story), featured in Power Politics (2001). The purpose of this enquiry is to further define Roy's internationally acknowledged contribution. In particular, I will discuss elements of continuity versus change: is she breaking new ground as a global "writer activist" who is contributing to the growth of a "new international public sphere"? Or is her contribution better understood either within the context of Gandhi's tradition of journalism, or alongside some of India's more eminent contemporary development journalists? By examining Roy's literary techniques and intentions, I hope to highlight some issues relating to the future more generally for activist journalism on development issues.


By 1999 Arundhati Roy had followed up the Booker prize winning The God of Small Things with involvement in the campaign against the Narmada dam projects, which earned her the label of "writer-activist". Roy's skills as a fictional author have enabled her to produce a reflexive, personalised style of journalistic writing which invites the reader to share in her process of discovery: an approach that encourages support for activism. According to Roy, the activist label derives from the fact that she takes sides in her essays: "I have a point of view. What's worse, I make it clear that I think it's right and moral to take that position and what's even worse, use everything in my power to flagrantly solicit support for that position." (2002c) Whilst acknowledging that this approach "skates uncomfortably close to the territory occupied by political party ideologues", she differentiates her approach thus: "when I tell a story, I tell it not as an ideologue who wants to pit one absolute ideology against another, but as a storyteller who wants to share her way of seeing." (2002b) There is no reason, she claims, why writers should be ambiguous, for intellectuals and artists "will be called upon to take sides" in the future, and to ask themselves some difficult questions about "corporate globalisation". According to Roy this concept "has to do with boring things like water supply, electricity, irrigation. But it also has to do with a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has few parallels in history." (ibid)

With non-violent protests and a determination to drown rather than to leave their homes and land, the people of the Narmada Valley became symbols of a global struggle against what they claim to be an unjust form of development; and the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), by spearheading protests, emerged as one of the most dynamic struggles in contemporary India. The NBA has needed to constantly project their case for economic justice within the public sphere. Roy became a public face for the NBA and joined in their protests on this issue. Much of the efforts of the NBA have been centered on arguing the case for a changed policy on compensation. Writing on this issue in The Cost of Living, Roy compares the efforts of India's large and unwieldy state apparatus to provide rehabilitation for dam oustees to an adult trying to use hedge shears for cutting an infant's finger nails. (Roy 1999: 39; Currie 1999). The metaphor is backed up by academic research in development studies and social anthropology, which Roy footnotes in the essay. Scholars have pointed out that the provision of alternative land for the displaced is not legally binding and the rights of the landless (those who have no formal land titles) to compensation is not recognised. Resettlement policies are focused on individuals rather than communities or villages. Cash compensation is usually much less than the cost of replacement land, which is difficult to find; hence, many adivasis have ended up in urban shanty towns, destitute, plying rickshaws. (Roy 2002c)


What does Roy bring to the table from the literary standpoint? One reviewer has referred to the "remarkable mix of rationality and emotion" which Roy uses in her essay discourses on power (Baber 2003: 285). This claim needs to be scrutinised more closely. What are the ingredients in her recipe? First, Roy's argument: dams have become, "the implement and symbol of an unjust and unsustainable form of development--one that increasingly seeks to uproot people on a global scale" (Sharma 2002: 290). The 3,200 Narmada dams displace up to half a million people, mainly lower caste tribal people without documentary evidence of their land ownership who have been forced into social and material destitution. The other side of the coin is that around 25 million people stand to gain because of the changes in the water supply which affects agriculture and consumer supply. Yet Roy explains in detail how inadequate drainage provision has meant the region will be permanently damaged by the water logging and salinisation, rather than reaping the intended agricultural prosperity. To further her point, Roy underlines the everyday relevance of decisions made by the authorities by frequent use of metaphor, which allows her to emphasise a larger symbolism (2). In the Preface to The Cost of Living she wastes no time in establishing this eloquent, passionate style: "The story of the Narmada valley is nothing less than the story of Modern India. Like the tiger in the Belgrade Zoo during the NATO bombing, we're beginning to eat our own limbs". (3)

In The Cost of Living Roy challenges the argument presented in favour of big dams--namely that local pain is for national gain. The idea that such projects will bring water to 30 million people, is "untrue"--"one big lie". She has undertaken detailed scrutiny of the figures, in order to demonstrate that the mathematics is wrong (2002d). The point of this exercise is to challenge the authorities: "My writing is not about nations and histories, it's about power. About the physics of power" (Roy 2004b: 14). The gauntlet that Roy throws down to institutional power prompts a simplification of the most complex issues, by focusing on the big questions: who pays, who profits, who wields the power and how does it affect ordinary people?

The way that she does this is to allow the reader to accompany her en route as she embarks on a journey of discovery concerning the logic of how power in India operates. The excerpt below, presented with the original layout, use of italics and capital letters, allows us to examine in detail the political twist to her rhetoric. Roy uses the primary sources of the pro-dam authorities on the issue of water, and eventually, agricultural production. The novelist's literary devise of repetition ("The Single Authority") and the use of capitals both serve a rhetorical purpose, whilst her creation of the label "Computer Water" carries an ironic political significance. We are privy to Roy's thoughts as she takes a sometimes circuitous route, extrapolating points of detail from the documentation and statements of the authorities. These always serve her bigger argument: the ownership of resources, the behaviour of people in power, and to the need of other people to...

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