Tea and Scandal Indian-Style, or, The Tao of Rubbish-Burning, Blended Suits & Dam[n]s
Power Politics - Arundhati Roy
Member Name: beoram
Power Politics - Arundhati Roy
Date: 16/11/01, updated on 22/11/01 (224 review reads)
Advantages: Chomsky-style exposť of travesty in India, very eye-opening
Disadvantages: not very long
In the first section, ‘The Ladies Have Feelings, So…’, is partially a forward to the ‘meat’ of the book, outlining some of her basic grievances – though it also gives some interesting and ‘fascinating’ (in the same way that car-accidents are fascinating) facts like ‘[c]lose to forty percent of Delhi’s population of twelve million…live in slums and unauthorized colonies. Most of them are not serviced by municipal services – no electricity, no water, no sewage systems. About fifty thousand people are homeless and sleep on the streets. The “noncitizens” are employed in what economists rather stuffily call the “informal sector”, the fragile but parallel economy’ (pg. 21). However, the majority of the this introductory section (pg. 1-33) is a defence of her right to write about econo-politics (or anything else she wants), some of the normal things which people usually say (but still bear repeating) about free speech and objections to being called a ‘writer-activist’ (‘like a sofa-bed’ (pg. 10)). Roy seems worried that writers will see her as ‘aligned’ and therefore shallow and uncool; and that political activists will see her as an ivory-t
ower intellectual who has no right to speak on such issues—she wants to defend her right to be fiction writer while still be able to speak out on political issues. I don’t have any problem with this, so it wasn’t particularly useful to me, but I have no particular objection to her defending her right to do so. She also mentions in the intro (and the conclusion) how the Indian Supreme Court chastised her for writing an article protesting the Narmada Dam project ['I was told that the three-judge bench ranted and raved and referred to me as "that woman" (I began to think of myself as the hooker who won the Booker)']. The latter part of the book is much more informative though.
The ‘meat’ of the text, “The Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin” (pg. 35-86), is truly interesting and very eye-opening. The main thrust of her book is a protest against the Narmada Valley Development project (building a series of 3,200 dams along the Narmada River, which runs from the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India through to Gujarat, in the west of India) which, if completed, will displace hundreds of thousands of people—with absolutely no scheme even for their relocation.
The beginning of this section serves as a sort of appetizer for the discussion of the Narmada Project by presenting the horrendous details of the ‘Enron deal’—the first privately-built power plant in India [for a different point of view, see Shashi Tharoor’s book, INDIA: FROM MIDNIGHT TO THE MILLENNIUM], in the state of Maharashtra. Enron is a Houston-based natural gas company contracted to build the first private power plant in India. ‘The Power Purchase Agreement between Enron and the Congress Party-ruled State Government of Maharashtra for a six hundred and ninety-five megawatt power plant was signed in 1993’ (pg. 53). The Hindu-nationalist parties, Bharatiya Janata Party (roughly, ‘Indian
People’s Party’) [BJP] and the Shiv Sena (a extreme Hindu-fundamentalist party, literally ‘The Army of Shiva’) protested this contract and joined forces to win the state elections and throw out the Congress Party (and, ostensibly, the Power Purchase Agreement as well).
However, following the annulment of the contract, the USA government started to pressure the State of Maharashtra led by the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition: ‘U.S. ambassador Frank Wisner made several statements deploring the cancellation (soon after he completed his term as ambassador, he joined Enron as a director)’ (pg. 54). The upshot of which is that, in 1996, Maharashtra signed a new contract with Enron: the original contract ‘had involved annual payments to Enron of four hundred and thirty million U.S. dollars for Phase I (six hundred and ninety-five megawatts) of the project, with Phase II (two thousand and fifteen megawatts) being optional. The “re-negotiated” Power Purchase Agreement makes Phase II of the project mandatory and legally binds the Maharashtra State Electricity Board [MSEB] to pay Enron a sum of thirty billion U.S. dollars! It constitutes the largest contract ever signed in the history of India’ (pg. 54-55). Roy goes on to say that, ‘expert who have studied the project have called it the most massive fraud in the country’s history. The project’s gross profits work out to between twelve and fourteen billion dollars. The official return on equity is more than thirty percent. That’s almost double what Indian law and statutes permit in power projects’ (pg. 55).
OK, you might say, so Enron is making a big profit, but India got a state-of-the-art power plant for power which the state of Maharashtra desperately needs (as does Mr Tharoor in INDIA:FROM MIDNIGHT TO THE MILLENIUM) – and new power facilities are always expensive, but they pay-off in the long-run. However, ‘[t]h
e power that the Enron plant produces is twice as expensive as its nearest competitor and seven times as expensive as the cheapest electricity available in Maharashtra. In May 2000, the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Committee [MERC] ruled that temporarily, until as long as was absolutely necessary, no power should be bought from Enron. It was based on a calculation that it would be cheaper to just pay Enron the mandatory fixed charges for the maintenance and administration of the plant…than to actually buy any of its exorbitant power. The fixed charges alone [for maintenance and admin.] work out to around two hundred and twenty million U.S. dollars a year for Phase I…Phase II will be nearly twice the size’ (pg. 56).
That’s US$220 million a year for the next twenty years for a power plant that’s doing nothing. So who benefits? Not the business and industries of India, because they cannot afford Enron’s power – so there’s no argument to be made that the ‘Enron deal’ is stimulating the economy in any way. In fact, it is only creating an additional burden of $220 million a year for the Maharashtran tax-payers. According to the state’s electricity commission, ‘even if it were to buy ninety percent of Enron’s output, its losses will amount to 1.2 billion U.S. dollars a year…more than sixty percent of India’s annual Rural Development budget’ (pg. 57). So who benefits? Enron, of course (and its new director, former US ambassador Frank Wisner), as well as current US President George W. Bush, Jr (Enron was one of the biggest corporate contributors to his presidential campaign). OK, there are some people in India who benefit from the ‘Enron deal’: ‘Enron has made no secret of the fact that, in order to secure the deal, it had paid out millions of dollars to “educate” the politicians and bureaucrats involved in the deal’ (pg. 54). An
d, this is just the first course of the book – ‘There are plenty of Enron clones in the pipeline. Indian citizens have a lot to look forward to’ (pg. 59).
The main course, as I mentioned, is a protest against the Narmada Valley Development project. An interesting fact: ‘The international dam industry alone is worth thirty-two to forty-six billion U.S. dollars a year. In the first world, dams are being decommissioned, blown up. That leaves us with another industry threatened with redundancy desperately in search of dumping grounds. Fortunately (for the industry), most third world countries, India especially [India has the third largest number of Big Dams in the world], are deeply committed to Big Dams’ (pg. 62-63). What are the dams being used for? 90% are irrigation dams, to aid in farming – part of India’s ‘food security’. How much food do they produce? ‘There is no official government figure for this’ (pg. 65). However, the India section of the World Commission on Dams ‘deduces that the contribution of large dams to India’s food grain produce is less than ten percent…The Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies says that ten percent of India’s total food grain produce every year is spoiled or eaten by rats. India must be the only country in the world that builds dams, uproots millions of people, and submerges thousands of acres of forest in order to feed rats’ (pg. 65-66).
Right, so there’s a problem – but one might fairly ask, how big is it really, how many people are actually affected? ‘The India Country survey says the figure [of people displaced by Big Dams in India over the past fifty years] could be as high as fifty-six million people…That’s almost twice the population of Canada. More than three times the population of Australia’ (pg. 67). And the government has no official rehabilitation project. That means not o
nly do the people displaced by the dams have no say in the matter, but they aren’t even offered new places for their homes (or jobs, many of which are connected to living alongside the river).
One of Arundhati Roy’s main goals is to try to stop the ‘four-hundred-megawatt Shri Maheshwar Hydel Project…which boasts of being the most ambitious river valley project in the world. It envisages building three thousand and two hundred dams (thirty big dams, one hundred and thirty-five medium dams, and the rest small) that will reconstitute the Narmada and her forty-one tributaries into a series of step reservoirs. It will alter the ecology of an entire river basin, affect the lives of about twenty-five million people who live in the valley, and submerge four thousand square kilometers of old-growth, deciduous forest, hundreds of temples, as well as archaeological sites dating back to the Lower Paleolithic Age…India’s first major private hydel power project…[I]t’s not only part of the most bitterly opposed river valley project in India, but also…a strand in the skein of a mammoth global enterprise’ (pg. 38-39).
This massive private power venture is a joint-deal between two companies in two of the world’s greatest democracies: India and the USA. Important question: who are these companies planning this grand project? ‘Ogden Energy Group, a company that specializes in operating garbage incinerators in the United States, and S. Kumars, an Indian textile company that manufactures what it calls “suiting blends”…what might garbage incineration and suiting blends possibly have in common? Suit-incineration? Garbage-blend? Nope. A big hydroelectric dam on the river Narmada in central India. Neither Ogden nor S. Kumars has ever built or operated a large dam before’ (pg. 38). So why are they doing it now? The obvious answer is: because they can and because it will make bot
h of them a lot of money. Who cares about the hundreds of thousands of people it will displace or the destruction of the environment or temples or archaeological sites? Or even whether it will benefit anyone other than Ogden and S. Kumars. Money’s the thing.
POWER POLITICS is an excellently argued book and the author provides numerous citations and references (many of which are available on the Internet – for general information on the Narmada Valley Project, goto: http://www.narmada.org).
If you are a fan of Noam Chomsky's political works or are interested in modern India or the global economy in general, you should read POWER POLITICS. As Arundhati Roy says, ‘What is happening to our world is almost too colossal for human comprehension to contain. But it is a terrible, terrible thing. To contemplate its girth and circumference, to attempt to define it, to try and fight it all at once, is impossible. The only way to combat it is by fighting specific wars in specific ways. A good place to begin would be the Narmada valley’ (pg. 86).