Arundhati Roy’s Magic Journalism: An Autopsy

Hartosh Singh Bal in Open:

This is not an unbiased piece. I became sceptical of the cult of Arundhati Roy at a time when the dams on the Narmada were still being debated. Even in agreement I was taken aback by the easy generalisations and overdose of capitalised words that marked her piece, The Greater Common Good. It seemed to me, though, that the real problems with her writing went much deeper, and these became apparent only once the breathlessness of the prose was set aside.

In a crucial section of the essay, she claims:

According to a detailed study of 54 Large Dams done by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, the average number of people displaced by a Large Dam is 44,182. Admittedly, 54 dams out of 3,300 is not a big enough sample. But since it’s all we have, let’s try and do some rough arithmetic. A first draft. To err on the side of caution, let’s halve the number of people. Or, let’s err on the side of abundant caution and take an average of just 10,000 people per Large Dam. It’s an improbably low figure, I know, but …never mind. Whip out your calculators. 3,300 x 10,000 = 33 million. That’s what it works out to. Thirty-three million people. Displaced by big dams alone in the last fifty years. What about those that have been displaced by the thousands of other Development Projects? At a private lecture, N.C. Saxena, Secretary to the Planning Commission, said he thought the number was in the region of 50 million (of which 40 million were displaced by dams). We daren’t say so, because it isn’t official. It isn’t official because we daren’t say so. You have to murmur it for fear of being accused of hyperbole. You have to whisper it to yourself, because it really does sound unbelievable. It can’t be, I’ve been telling myself. I must have got the zeroes muddled. It can’t be true. I barely have the courage to say it aloud. To run the risk of sounding like a ‘sixties hippie dropping acid (“It’s the System, man!”), or a paranoid schizophrenic with a persecution complex. But it is the System, man. What else can it be?

Fifty million people.

Go on, Government, quibble. Bargain. Beat it down. Say something.

I feel like someone who’s just stumbled on a mass grave.

Rhetoric can win you the Booker, it can’t help you pass a course in elementary statistics.

The initial IIPA report she cites considers an average of 44,000 persons displaced per large dam. But it seems to have considered only the very largest of the dams in India, since even a dam like Bhakra displaced about 40,000 people. Roy, however, applies this figure to all of India’s ‘large’ dams, while condescending to reduce the number by a fourth to arrive at a figure of 10,000 per large dam.

She claimed, ‘It’s an improbably low figure, I know…’ Actually, it is an improbably large figure. The term ‘large’ she uses, applies to all dams whose height exceeds 15 metres. As far as displacement of people is concerned, what really matters is the area submerged by a dam, not its height. The vast majority of her ‘large’ dams have a reservoir area of less than 5 sq km, and to say each such dam displaces 10,000 people is a travesty.

More here.