Arundhati Roy, 'Power Politics'

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Review by Theresa Wolfwood

Few writers can take two seemingly different subjects like river dams and the war on terrorism and turn them into a coherent, informed, impassioned indictment of the nation state, elitist greed and militarised globalisation. Arundhati Roy can, and does.

India is a country where 70% of the population has no electricity and where more than the total population of Canada might be displaced and made homeless from their villages and farms by dam building. I say might because as Roy states, nobody really knows, as the supposedly exhaustive studies of dam building never bother to count the people who float away like some many twigs and leaves after vast areas are flooded. Dam building is popular worldwide now, because dams aren't being built in the industrialised minority world these days. So power equipment corporations, mainly from USA, roam the valleys of majority world countries, seeking new sites, as they schmooze their way through financial board-rooms and political back rooms. Witness new projects in Turkey, Uganda, and Belize - to name a few.

Roy goes further to argue that power companies seek not only the privatisation of resources and infrastructure but, through the co-option of political elites, they want the privatisation of policy itself. Power companies are only the leading knife-edge of a whole series of new policies and agreements that expedite the sell-out of the natural riches of India. This country now pays out more money in interest and debt payments than it receives. It is exporting capital.

In India, 700,000,000 rural people live in subsistence societies, their livelihood depending on direct access to natural resources. Roy says that to snatch and sell them as stock to private companies is a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history.

Roy, the author of award winning novel The God of Small Things, turns her attention from the violence of development policies to the violence of the “War on Terrorism”.

Even as she devotes her considerable fame and talent to citizen action against dams, governments and courts in India declare that those who oppose big development are terrorists. Noble company to be in!

As the war of attrition continues against the destitute Afghans, and Bin Laden's name is never mentioned, the desperate search for and naming of terrorists continues. Roy warns that a war, ostensibly fought to save the “American Way of Life”, will undermine it completely as it spawns more anger and terror in the world. She says terrorism is the symptom, not the disease. Terrorism has no country. It's transnational, as global an enterprise as Coke or Pepsi or Nike.

In her final essay Roy gives a detailed account of the policies that have lead to the present situation in Afghanistan from drugs to the CIA. And the help of USA, Canada (who provided CANDU nuclear reactors which produce plutonium for India) and other enthusiastic weapons exporters have lead to the escalation of hostility between Pakistan and India.

Meanwhile, Indian peasants fast against dams and stick to their condemned villages as others resolutely act for peace and an end to militarism as solution to human problems. As Gandhi once said, “What we do may appear small and insignificant, but it very important that we do it”.

Roy says language is the skin on my thought. Her words are white hot and cut holes in our complacency. So although she rejects the label of writer-activist (like sofa-bed, she comments) we can be grateful that she sees it is her moral responsibility to use her language to take sides, to be clear and moral about the violence and corruption of militarised globalisation.

This is a passionate, high protein book, easy to read, but hard to digest. I take courage and inspiration from the wisdom of her heart and her intellectual genius. I am reminded of the old labour song, Which side are you on? Read Power Politics and you will know.

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