Prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy says during an interview with Reuters in New Delhi that India’s economic boom is driven by policies which are causing unsustainable environmental damage and blinding people to the misery of hundreds of millions of poor.
NEW DELHI – India’s economic boom is causing unsustainable environmental damage and is blinding people to the misery of hundreds of millions of poor, prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy said.
"Even if you know what is going on, you can’t help thinking India is this cool place now, Bollywood is ‘in’ and all of us have mobile phones," Roy told Reuters in an interview.
"But it is almost as if the light is shining so brightly that you do not notice the darkness," she said. "There is no understanding whatsoever of what price is being paid by the rivers and mountains and irrigation and ground water, there is no questioning of that because we are on a roll."
"India shining" was the campaign motto of the Bharatiya Janata Party which lost last year’s election, unable to capitalise on the fast-growing economy and failing to convince the rural poor that economic reforms were benefitting them.
Roy won the 1997 Booker prize for her first novel "The God of Small Things". Since then, she has become a leading environmental activist and opponent of big dams, which have displaced millions.
She said India’s environment faced a major crisis, caused by industrial pollution, by big dams, and in particular by unsustainable use of ground water to irrigate thirsty cash crops such as soyabeans, peanuts and sugarcane.
"When the only logic is the market, when there is no respect for ecosystems, for the amount of water available… then we are in for a lot of trouble," she said. "You have to have a system where people have access to some amount of water to grow whatever is sustainable for them to survive."
Falling water tables in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have forced millions of farmers to the brink of ruin. Buried under unpayable loans, thousands have committed suicide.
Roy said the poor were being sold a dream of consumerism which was impossible to deliver economically or environmentally.
"The idea of turning one billion people into consumers is terrifying," she said.
"Are you going to starve to death dreaming of a mobile phone or you going to have control of the resources that are available to you and have been for generations, but have been taken away so that someone else can have a mobile phone?"
Since the BJP was replaced by a coalition led by the center-left Congress party, Roy said she felt less targetted for speaking out, and some of the "vulgar and vicious" facets of BJP-rule had gone.
"But in terms of what is happening on the ground economically, I don’t think anything has changed at all."
Choosing between parties was increasingly like choosing between brands of washing powder made by the same manufacturer, she said.
"It was so clear that the mandate for the Indian elections given by millions of people who came out to vote … was one against the so-called neo-con liberal reforms," she said.
"But the minute that mandate was given to Congress, it is almost like the cameras shifted from the electoral field in India to outside the stock market, where stocks were plummeting, including the media’s own stocks. And people were forced to come out and say they were not against privatisation."
Recent court decisions in favour of dams and slum clearances had tipped the playing field further against the poor. "It is so easy for people who are on this side of the line to climb the ladder. The middle class has expanded and is having a good time, but for people who are on the other side it is becoming impossible to survive," Roy said. "There are no jobs, there is just nowhere to go, no way out of it at all."
Simon Denyer, Reuters in New Delhi June 9, 2005