Arundhati Roy’s “The Greater Common Good” and the Narmada Protests

The case of the Sardar Sarovar dam is an extremely complex one: involving the cost of massive environmental damage, internal displacements (of mostly adivasis, or tribals, dalits, or untouchables, and poor village populations) and the pull of economic development, of “India Shining.” The Sardar Sarovar dam, the largest of 30 dams to be constructed on the Narmada river in central India, critics charge will displace 320,000 people directly and adversely effect over 1 million people, with little or no compensation. In response to this situation, in 1990, Narmada Bachao Andholon (NBA), a social movement made up of adivasis, farmers, dalits, human rights activists, environmentalists, and led by Medha Patka initiated a series of protest and civil disobedience programs. The results their actions achieved were unprecedented: firstly, the World Bank, who had funded the project in the amount of $ 450 million, called for an independent review in 1991 – the first such review of a Bank project in its over sixty years of operations; secondly, the Indian state announced a new scheme to compensate and relocate displaced populations.

Within this background you have Arundhati Roy, the agent. In 1999, fresh of winning the 1997 Booker Prize for God of Small Things, she became a staunch supporter and activist for the NBA. Using her celebrity to draw international focus on the issue, the author donated her Booker Prize money and royalties to the campaign, and wrote “The Greater Common Good” “to wade through the congealed morass of hope, anger, information, disinformation,… disingenuous socialism,… misinformed emotionalism, and, of course, the… politics of international Aid.” David Barsamain writes about Roy’s political writings in the years following the Booker win in The Progressive:

Her devastating essay on dams, “The Greater Common Good,” and her searing denunciation of India’s nuclear testing, “The End of Imagination,” have literally kindled bonfires. The upper class didn’t appreciate her critique of development, and the nationalists abhorred her for questioning India’s nuclear arsenal.

In addition to the uproar caused by her politically charged polemics, in 2002, Roy was convicted of contempt-of-court in a case filed against her by the Indian Supreme Court. Citing one of her responses during a police action on a NBA sit-in, the government found Roy in contempt of the judicial system and sentenced her to at least one day’s imprisonment. She was also punished with a Rs. 2500 fine, or failing to pay that, a six-month jail sentence. Roy served her symbolic one-day and paid her fine, explaining in a documentary – and flouting the trope of the suffering and silent feminized subject – “I didn’t want to be a martyr in a cause that was not mine alone. Suffering, choosing to suffer, isn’t exactly my style.” Roy’s refusal to turn herself into a symbol merits more analysis than I can provide in this space. However I will say Roy, situated in the Marxist-dialectical tradition, views her simultaneous-situatedness (as celebrity, intellectual, activist, convicted-felon, woman) as primarily a material one; self-theorizing and self-symbolizing, she might say, takes away from the work on the ground.

Roy’s essay has a lot to teach. “The Greater Common Good” is a rhetorical master class and, utilizing multiple topoi, develops a powerful analysis of the complex dam problem in India and how they disproportionally affect adivasis and dalits. Pointing out that at least 50 million people have been displaced because of dams since 1947, Roy explains:

… the displaced are tribal people… Include Dalits and the figure becomes obscene… The ethnic ‘otherness’ of their victims takes some of the pressure off the Nation Builders. It’s like having an expense account. Someone else pays the bills. People from another country. Another world. India’s poorest people are subsidizing the lifestyles of her richest.

It is a statement deliberately eliciting moral outrage from the mainstream population, whom she charges as directly complicit in these crimes and for ethnicizing their fellow country-men and -women as “people form another country. Another world.” The cost of development, of “India Shinning,” she concludes, is the exploitation of these poorest and most marginalized people.

In fact, I would argue that the form of agencies used by Roy in the essay and the NBA in its protest program is probably the most illustrative of the intersection of race, sexed-body, and socioeconomic status. Both acts utilize highly affective tactics. The NBA use of such tactics as locking themselves to their houses about to be submerged or group-lamentations in the large public squares outside the courts or documentaries aimed at national and international civil society brings to mind Gloria Anzaldua’s point about “[l]a Llorona, the Indian woman’s only means of protest was wailing” (43). Roy for her part also uses evocative language, knowing that resisting domination is not about facts, but also “sentiment” and “letting [the] heart wonder.” It is tactical – and simply good writing – that in addition to overpopulating the piece with numbers Roy also articulates a deep sense of connection to rivers – citing that she grew up fishing in the rivers of Kerela and it was that experience that led her to pick the vocation of writer – and calls the dammed waterways “a loved one who has developed symptoms of psychosis.” It is a treatment that turns the landscape from objects of analysis to beings in connection to her own-self. “The work of mestiza consciousness,” Gloria Anzaldua writes, “is to break down the subject-object duality… and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended” (102)

The last principle is that of purpose: why do these actors resist? Development is inevitable. The dam will be built and even if it displaces over 300, 000 people, it is self-evident it will benefit many more. However, it is here that we need to note the affective nature of the resistance of this protest movement. “Resettling 200, 000 people in order to take (or pretend to take) drinking water to 40 million – there’s something very wrong with the scale of operations here.” Roy writes: “This is Fascist Maths. It strangles stories. Bludgeons details.” As much as resisting acts of violence, the power of intersections also means forcing the dominating class to look at those acts in more than numbers; it is about recognizing the stories of those gendered as subjugated, of adivasis and dalits, of women, of the poor (all positions that in this situation fundamentally overlap). It is not incidental that Roy ends her essay by presenting a story about meeting one Bhaiji bhai, a tribal from Undava. She says at first she did not recognize Bhiji bhai, but soon realizes she had previously heard him talk in a documentary “shot more than ten years ago, in the valley. He was frailer now, his beard softened with age. But his story hadn’t changed… I could tell he told it over and over and over again, hoping, praying, that one day, one of the strangers passing through Undava would turn out to be Good Luck. Or God.”

When reading people of other languages or cultures there is always a sense of the reader feeling uncomfortable about what they are reading. The most obvious are the un-translated words which enable a feeling of difference. I think a similar rhetoric is exhibited in the NBA movement and Roy’s writings in support of the movement; their stories charge the comfortable classes for complicity and point towards a new feminist identity in the global South. At a 2011 South Asian Conference, Roy, speaking on exclusion, evolving feminism, resistance movements, declares: “To me, [the woman mobilizers associated with NBA] are the icons, the emerging feminist identities. The adivasis, the dalits have lived with violence, oppression and inequality and are slowly beginning to push those boundaries. Yet, they are not recognized, by the structured agencies and are not funded. So they are not allowed a label.”


Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012. Print.

“Interview with Arundhati Roy.”

“Drowned out: Trailer.”

“Arundhati Roy on Exclusion, Feminism, and Resistance Movements.”

Ramírez, Cristina D. “Forging a Mestiza Rhetoric: Mexican Women Journalists’ Role in the Construction of a National Identity.” College English 71.6 (2009): 606-629. Print.

“The Greater Common Good.”

“Dam/Age: A Film With Arundhati Roy.”

“The Sardar Sarovar Dam: A Brief Introduction.”

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