Arundhati Roy: The Cost of Living

Arundhati Roy
The Cost of Living
Modern Library ;

IN 1998, AS the buzz created by her novel The God of Small Things began to subside, two events compelled Arundhati Roy to leap back into the public arena. In May of that year, India successfully tested a nuclear bomb. Then, in February 1999, its supreme court abolished a stay on the construction of a controversial dam, the Sardar Sarovar, being built on the Narmada River in central India. Following her curiosity and passion for her home country, novelist Roy became an activist, exploring the ramifications of these political developments.

The result is The Cost of Living, a slim but inspired polemic against the human costs exacted by these so-called developmental leaps. From Nehru's declaration "Dams are the temples of modern India," to the current government's touting of the bomb, India has remained a terribly poor country. Today nearly 40 percent of its population lives in abject poverty, and 20 percent of the total population has no safe drinking water. But rather than using these dams as tools to bring water to villages, Roy argues, the Indian state employs them as weapons, displacing 44,000 people with each large project built.

Many of these people are Adivasis, the oldest and poorest tribe of India. The abrupt, often unpublicized changes in water level make their river, once a source of sustenance, an unpredictable menace. "[W]hen the waters recede they leave malaria, diarrhea, sick cattle," Roy writes; often the displaced or PAPs (Persons Affected by Project) become landless laborers overnight, sometimes returning to work as servants on their old land. Beyond wiping out its present inhabitants, the dams threaten to wash away precious archaeological records of previous inhabitants. There is no hyperbole when Roy states, "I feel like someone who's just stumbled on a mass grave."

With a record this harsh, one would think dams had at the very least played a crucial part in India's development. But as Roy shows, they actually require more energy than they provide. So why build them? As Roy points out, "There's good money in poverty." Some of it flows out of India. In the past five years, India has paid the World Bank, the project's original financier, nearly $1.5 billion dollars in interest. On top of that, there are consultants, equipment contracts, and local builders grabbing a piece.

Greed aside, the broader issue that Roy decries is the undemocratic use of power by the Indian state. The dams, she argues, are "a brazen means of taking water, land, and irrigation away from the poor and giving it to the rich." In this way, India betrays its roots as an artificial state, created by the British for its own use, a "state created from the top down, not the bottom up."

In the bomb, Roy finds yet another example of the state unfairly appropriating the people's power. Her essay "The End of Imagination" does not speak here of the title word in its fictive, capital-letter sense, as might seem the wont of a novelist. Instead she obliterates the myth that the bomb brings power and respect to India. She argues that the bomb represents "the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people"--taking away the ability to imagine a better, more peaceable world.

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