Arundhati Roy’s The Greater Common Good & Environmental Concerns

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Environmental concerns and the politics of Exclusion: A Study of Arundhati Roy’s  The Greater common Good

     Dr. Prajna Manjari Badajena (introduction at the end of the paper), Vol. III, Issue. XXVIII, May 2017



This article foregrounds Arundhati Roy’s nonfiction concerned with environment and the politics of exclusion in The Greater common Good (1999). By writing such a phenomenal essay she had taken up the challenge and made it a national issue after having witnessed the sufferings of the people. She has also focused some of the politics involved in the dams and makes clear enormity of the human cost and the lives lost and displaced in postcolonial era. The displaced are mostly poorest of the poor. In the name of development, they are herded out of their rich natural habits and mod to fend for themselves. She is not voicing about being against development but the politics of development. In this essay, she makes her position clear by stating that she is not against development projects.


Key words: environment, politics, exclusion, dams, postcolonial era, natural habits, development projects.       



Growth of developmental projects and destruction of the natural environment in postcolonial India have stimulated on environmental movements at both local as well as global levels whether it is Chipko movement in the Garhwal region of Uttaranchal in Uttar Pradesh or Narmada Bachao Andolan in Gujarat. The theory goes that as country globalizes or develops, often by exploiting resources like forests, minerals, oil, coal, fish, wildlife, and water, their increased wealth will enable them to save more patches of nature from their ravages and they will be able to introduce technical devices to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of their own increased production. Here, the Government outspokenly promotes the idea of globalization as helping nature, while at the same time it advocates more oil drilling, more forest cutting, more poisons in rivers, and voices his fierce opposition to any measures that help control climate change-the ultimate expression of globalization.

The idea of globalization as some kind of environmental strategy is ridiculous on its face. Now we face similar pressure on fresh water–rivers, lakes, streams–probably the most basic element of sustenance, always considered to be part of the commons, available to all life, but soon to be converted into part of the global trade system.

Arundhati Roy creates a narrative mapping of place by highlighting such issues and geographical features not given so much of prominence by earlier writers. Her article “The Greater Common Good” in Frontline disparages a project that could force millions to abandon their homes in order to provide limited benefits to a limited number of people. She has demonstrated against construction of the dam both in the Narmada Valley, and globally in an effort to heighten awareness and obtain support for the cause. Her style and language that make her essay so vibrant and dialogic in nature. Roy’s politics remains clear–voiced and fearless, large in scope, consistent in its concern for the exploited, scathing in its criticism of the state and its institutions. Her non-fiction is power-packed and is a more direct attacked on the ‘Big things’. With the exception of Arundhati Roy, no other Indian woman writer has been mentioned in the field of postcolonial ecociticism.

As her life was spent on the banks of a river in Kerala; her instinct took her to support the idea of people fighting to save a river and for sustenance of environment. Her second essay The Greater Common Good (1999) is written in support for the displaced tribal people who suffer from the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the banks of the Narmada valley. She had taken up the challenge and made it a national issue after having witnessed the sufferings of the people. Roy writes about some of the politics involved in the building of the dams and makes clear enormity of the human cost and the lives lost and displaced. Roy is vehemently against this ongoing project. She has become part of the suffering humanity with her words and deeds. She pointed out:

Let me say at the outset that I’m not a city-baser. I’ve done my time in a village. I’ve had first-hand experience of the isolation, the inequity and the potential savagery of it (36).

In order to find out the exact picture of the Narmada valley, Roy has spent many days with the tribal people, meeting the homeless and the destitute. She decided to do something for the people of the Narmada valley who suffer in the name of development. The earnest quest for an immediate action resulted in the publication of The Greater Common Good, in which she wrote:

“Curiosity took me to the Narmada valley. Instinct told me that this was the big one. The one in which the battle lines were clearly drawn, the warring armies massed along them. The one in which it would be… International Aid”(ibid).


Development is a favorite mantra of Indian politicians. In the past decades, India has developed rapidly, at least in terms of its Gross Domestic Product. Although this development has helped some, especially the rich and the powerful, it has also caused immense misery for many of the poor and marginalized groups. This is the claim that globalization’s benefits will trickle down to all segments of society; that, indeed, its real purpose is to help lift the poor. But is that true? And who, finally, benefits? It’s not the farmers driven from their lands and made into homeless refugees. It’s not urban dwellers, dealing with influxes of displaced peoples, jamming in to look for jobs. It’s not workers caught in downward wage spirals. It’s surely not nature.

            Since gaining independence, India has uprooted and displaced more than 60 million people through its numerous dams, special economic zones, mines, thermal and nuclear power plants, industrial complexes and more. The displaced are mostly the poor: farmers, Adivasi, Dalits, and other marginal groups. In the name of development they are herded out of their rich natural habits and mod to fend for themselves. Roy takes of this issue and writes in The Greater Common Good:

“They’re guaranteed way of taking a farmer’s wisdom away from him. They’re a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and lifting into the rich. Their reservoirs displace huge population of people, leaving them homeless and destitute….They cause floods, water logging, salinity, they spread disease. There is mounting evidence that links Big Dams to earthquakes” (42).

As for the people who used to live on the lands, growing their own foods, they are rapidly being removed from their lands. And they are not getting jobs, either. Since these corporate systems feature highly intensive, machine- and pesticide-driven production, there are very few jobs. So the people who used to feed themselves become landless, cashless, homeless, dependent, and hungry! And at last they met with xenophobia and violence.

As a woman she grew up in a village in India. She has spent her whole life fighting tradition. There’s no way that she wants to be a traditional Indian woman. So she is not talking about being against development. She is talking about the politics of development. In The Greater Common Good, Roy makes her position clear by stating that she is not against development projects. Roy visited the Narmada valley only for the sake of curiosity. Roy says:

I’m not an anti-development junkie, nor a proselytizer for the eternal upholding of custom and tradition (36).

India is an agrarian country and dams play vital role in irrigating the agricultural field. Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of dams as the “Temples of modern India” which he himself regretted later in his life (40).  Roy criticizes dam is equated with being anti-national. The dam building industry grew into such an extent that it was “equated wih Nation-building” (41).

The Greater Common Good opens with a quotation from Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of the country. It reads, “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country . . .” (35). The occasion was in 1948 when Nehru addressed the villagers who were to be displaced by the Hirakud dam. Roy begins the essay with an ironic statement, “I stood on a hill and laughed out loud” (ibid).  The obvious reason for her laughter is nothing but the tender concern with which the Supreme Court judges in Delhi (before vacating  the legal  stay on further construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam) had enquired whether tribal children in the resettlement colonies would have children’s park to play in (ibid).

The thing about them is that people have to understand that they’re just monuments to corruption and they are undemocratic. They centralize natural resources, snatch them away from people, and then redistribute them to a favored few. The importance of dam has made its way into primary school textbooks and the children are taught only the good aspect of big dams.

In the case of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, the victims are Adivasis who constitute 57.6 % of the total people displaced by the construction of the dam. Roy criticizes the Government for not having a “National Rehabilitation Policy”. Though the Land Acquisition Act4 of 1894 was amended in 1984, “the Government is not legally bound to provide a displaced person anything but cash compensation” (45). In The Greater Common Good, Roy makes fun of the existing scenario in the following words:

A cash compensation, to be paid by an Indian government official to an illiterate tribal man (the women get nothing) in a land where even the postman demands a tip for a delivery! Most tribal people have no formal title to their land and therefore cannot claim compensation anyway. Most tribal people or let’s say most small farmers – have as much use for money as a Supreme Court judge has for a bag of fertilizer (ibid).

The Narmada Valley Development Project is one of the most challenging and mammoth projects in the history of mankind. When the project is completed there will be 3,200 dams, out of which 30 will be major dams, 135 medium and the rest small. The Sardar Sarovar in Gujarat and the Narmada Sagar in Madhya Pradesh come under “multipurpose mega-dams” (54). The Narmada Valley Development Project is undoubtedly big and it is a Herculean task for the Government to complete it without dispute. The project is estimated to “affect the lives of twenty five million people who live in the valley” (18). The project can also “alter the ecology of the entire river basin of one of India’s biggest rivers” (ibid). The natural vegetation that supports the eco-system will be affected. The project is estimated to “submerge and destroy 4,000 square kilo meters of natural deciduous forest” (ibid).

The World Bank had taken a special interest in financing the project even before the Ministry of Environment gave a green signal to it. The Ministry of Environment gave the clearance certificate only in 1987 but the World Bank was ready with the first installment of the loan $450 million for the Sardar Sarovar Project way back in 1985. The World Bank is ready to extend its helping hand to the third world countries and to finance useless projects in the name of development aid as the bank wants interest rather than the capital. The third world countries will never be able to pay back the money that they have received from the World Bank and the officials know it very well that they finance useless projects in the name of so-called development aid.

The foundation stone for the Sardar Sarovar Dam was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961. The founding fathers had fixed the height of the dam to a moderate height of 49.8 meters. The then Government of Gujarat acquired 1,600 acres of land through a trick played on its people. In The Greater Common Good, Roy brings out the genesis of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. In 1961, the people of Kothie village were told by a government officer that some of their land would be needed for constructing a helipad because an important person was going to visit them. The crops that were about to be harvested were destroyed with immediate effect. The villagers were forced to sign different papers and a sum of money was given in return.


The construction of the dam began in full swing and the poor villagers became victims of the project. The Government took no initiative in rehabilitating the people except the cash compensation being paid in different installments. Roy accuses the Government of Gujarat for having the rehabilitation policy only on paper (71). The Government carries out big projects like the Sardar Sarovar Dam for the greater common good of the people and at the same time neglects the harmful consequences of such projects upon the people and the environment. As the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam goes up, the people and the forest become inevitable prey to mega dam:

It thinks nothing of submerging a valley that has yielded fossils, microliths and rock paintings, the only valley in India, according to archaeologists, that contains an uninterrupted record of human occupation from the Old Stone Age (80).

The illiterate villagers thought that the money was given as compensation for their lost crops. The VIP was none other than the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who laid the foundation stone for the Sardar Sarovar Dam by pressing  “ a button and there was a an explosion on the other side of the river” (44). Roy’s question is very simple and straightforward, “Could Nehru have known when he pressed that button that he had unleashed an incubus?” (77).

Through The Greater Common Good, Roy has brought out some stupefying facts about the Narmada Valley Project.  The book was an open plea to the authorities to react strongly and effectively for the greater common good. She laments the facts that, “Day by day, river by river, forest by forest . . . bomb by bomb – almost without our knowing it – we are being broken” (95). It is high time that the Government did something to protect the people of the Narmada valley from cultural genocide. Roy roused the inspiration for Narmada Bachao Andolan with her non-fictional work The Greater Common Good. She encouraged them to strive towards the goal, the goal of being liberated from all kinds of invasion and achieve peace and serenity in the valley.

Roy became an ardent supporter of Narmada Bachao Andolan with the publication of The Greater Common Good. She extends her full support to the people of the Narmada valley especially those who are affected by the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Roy joined hands with hundreds of activists of Narmada Bachao Andolan to fight against the social nuisance. Roy’s presence gave a new morale to the activists of NBA to march ahead with confidence and to face the eventualities of the future. NBA activists welcomed The Greater Common Good as the dawn of a new struggle in the Narmada valley.

Roy had enough time at her disposal to visit the displaced tribals of the Narmada valley in their tents. She mingled freely with them and expressed solidarity with the people.  Roy wholeheartedly supported Narmada Bachao Andolan with huge amount of money that she got from the Booker Prize. She gave wide publicity to the issue and the struggles in Narmada valley were being covered by many of the international journals. She supported the displaced tribal people of the Narmada valley as they are “nothing but refugees in an unacknowledged war” (47). The people who lost their land in the name of development should be given enough land for the proper rehabilitation. The Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal Award (NWDTA) included in its provisions on rehabilitation that “land for land” as the basis of the rehabilitation as against the cash compensation under the Land Acquisition Act. The displaced tribal people of the Narmada valley did not get any cash compensation from the Government as they had no legal ownership of the land which they had been cultivating for centuries. So, officially on paper, the displaced tribal people of the Narmada valley are refugees and the Government is not ready to rehabilitate them. Water borne diseases are rampant in the Narmada valley due to the constant submergence of it.

The Supreme Court of India declared its final verdict on the Public Interest Litigation filed by Narmada Bachao Andolan against the Union of India and the state governments of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh on 18th October 2000.          In the so-called “Majority Judgement”, Justice Kirpal and Justice Anand (Chief Justice) ordered that the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam should be completed as “expeditiously” as possible. The judgement gave a green signal to the project and the height of the dam could go up to 138.68 meters.  Justice Bharucha, the only one of the three judges to have heard the case from its very beginning, wrote a dissenting judgment.  In his “Minority Judgement”, Justice Barouche voiced his protest against the further construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Roy criticized the “Majority Judgement” of the Supreme Court of India   and became a victim of the Contempt of Court. The Supreme Court of India found  Roy  guilty of criminal Contempt of Court by “scandalizing its authorities with malafide intentions”  punishable under Section  12 of the Contempt of Court Act” (Press Release  1).  Justice G.  B.  Pattnaik and R.  P.  Sethi sentenced her to simple imprisonment for one day and to pay a fine of Rs. 2,000/-. Roy reacted to the judgement as:

I stand by what I said. And I am prepared to suffer the consequences. The dignity of the court will be upheld by the quality of their judgments. The quality of their judgments will be assessed by the people of the country. The message is clear. Any citizen who dares to criticize the court does so at his or her peril. The judgment only confirms what I said in my affidavit. It is a sad realization for me, because I feel the Supreme Court of India is an important institution and the citizens of India have high expectation from it (ibid).

Roy turned her jail experience into a fruitful one.  It was one of the rare opportunities that Roy got in her life to mingle freely with the inmates of the Tihar Jail. One day imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 2,000/- were nothing when compared to the punishment of appearing in person before the court at the demand. Roy sums up the jail experience in the following words:

I spent a night in prison, trying to decide whether to pay the fine or serve out a 3-month sentence instead. Paying the fine does not in any way mean that I have apologized or accepted the judgment…I hope that battle will be joined (Roy’s Statement 1).

In her open appeal, she requests the participation of all the people to come forward and share the atrocities of the displaced tribal people of the Narmada valley. They are neglected and often became prey to Pseudo development. Arundhati Roy substantiates her arguments in The Greater Common Good by stating that:

India lives in her villages, we are told in every other sanctimonious public speech, that’s bullshit. India doesn’t live in her villages. India dies in her villages. India gets kicked around in her villages. India lives in her cities. India’s villages just live only to serve her cities. Her villages are her citizen’s vassals and for that reason must be controlled and kept alive, but only just (50).


Roy for her essay, she received brutal criticism from various sources. Ramachandra Guha, an ecological historian,and B. G. Verghese denounced this essay as sentimental without being factual, self- indulgent and unoriginal, and a piece of writing romanticizing the adivasi style. This sort of accusation shows their ignorance of the subject as the essay is the result of well-researched and studied data on social, ecological, economic and political effect of the Sardar Sarovar and other dams. Roy cannot be accused of being ‘unoriginal’, because this essay is based on facts which can only be accumulated through painstaking research, not invented. Roy lashes out at the judicial system of India because of its undemocratic right to micromanage all aspects of our lives, even natural environment and ecology.

            This ironically-titled essay, which has literary kindled bonfire in which, she writes about the Narmada issue in language so clear that it cuts right through the comfortable clutter of economic rationalization, engineering justifications, legal arguments and political rhetoric we have created to bolster our assumption of what ‘develop’ means. This article locates to the cultural construction articulating deep map of India pertaining to identity and ecological crisis so far.


Introduction to the Author:

Dr. Prajna Manjari Badajena is based in Bhubaneswar and she is constantly indulged in research activities in the various literary fields.



  1. Jesudasan, Usha. “The Ahimsa Way-Voices of Dissent.” The Hindu, Magazine. February 8 2009: p.5. Print.
  2. Orwell, George. Politics and the English Language. Penguin UK, 2013. Print.
  3. Prasad, Murari, ed. Arundhati Roy: Critical Perspectives. New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2006. 11-12. Print.
  4. Press Release. “Arundhati Roy’s Judgement.” 06 March 2002. Print.
  5. Roy, Mary. “My Daughter and I.” India Today, 27 Oct. 1997. Print.
  6. Roy, Arundhati. “The End of Imagination.” The Algebra of Infinite Justice. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2002. Print.
  7. —. “The Greater Common Good.” The Algebra of Infinite Justice. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2002. Print.
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