India 'boom' an environmental disaster, author says

Thu Jun 9, 2005 03:56 AM ET

By Simon Denyer

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - 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

"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 capitalize 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

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 privatization."

Recent court decisions in favor 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."