Here's one you can go after: Arundhati Roy
Thu, 7 Mar 2002 14:18:55 -0800
Published on Sunday, January 20, 2002 in The Sunday Herald (Scotland)
How Arundhati Roy Took Back the Power in India
She Won the Booker Prize for The God Of Small Things, Then She Helped Author
by James Hamilton
IT was the biggest piece of inward investment India had ever seen, a $2.9
billion bonanza, but for the Texas-based Enron it was also one of the
reasons why the multinational corporation has just become one of the biggest
ever corporate losses in the history of capitalism.
One of the authors of that collapse is best-selling novelist Arundhati Roy
whose Booker Prize winner, The God Of Small Things, catapulted her into
international literary stardom. Not that her head has been turned by fame.
When Hollywood came looking to film her work she told her agent to spin out
the negotiations, make them grovel and then turn them down.
In her book, the Hollywood agents are in the same league as multinationals
such as Enron, which wanted to turn her native India into one big franchise.
'Is globalization about the eradication of world poverty or is it a mutant
variety of colonialism, remote controlled and digitally operated?' she asked
in the wake of Enron's recent fall from financial grace.
Roy is an unlikely rebel. A drop-out architectural student and a one-time
aerobics instructor, she comes from a middle-class family in the southern
state of Kerala. She enjoys a global reputation for her fiction yet she is
now a committed activist who has campaigned against nuclear testing, the war
in Afghanistan and the construction of the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam
in the Narmada valley in central India.
And in taking on Enron, whose Dabhol Power Corporation produced one of the
biggest corruption scandals in Indian history, she showed that she was not
afraid of standing up to the might of international big business backed by
international power politics.
The story of Enron's involvement in India is one of double-dealing,
corruption, violence and violation of human rights. It began in 1993 when
the company signed a deal to provide much-needed electricity in a state that
was desperate for power to fuel its new high-tech industries and to propel
the country on its new free-market economy.
Even though the World Bank said that the project was too expensive and that
other forms of power would be cheaper, Enron bulldoze d ahead. There were no
competitive tenders, politicians were bought off with bribes estimated to
run to $20 million and local police and thugs were hired to terrorize the
opposition into silence. By 1997 Enron had been listed by the New York-based
Human Rights Watch organization as guilty of being 'complicit in human
rights violations' in the state of Maharashtra.
The scandal attracted the attention of Roy, who was already campaigning
against the construction of dams on the Narmada river -- moves that would
have displaced 400,000 people. When Roy agreed to head the protest
movements, she was accused of inciting violence and tried at the Supreme
Court -- an action that she countered by writing her own affidavit and
publishing it in a mass-circulation magazine.
>From the dams it was a short stroll to Enron, which by 1999 was deeply in
trouble. That year DBC began supplying electricity to Maharashtra at a price
pegged to world oil prices, the state could not afford the $1.4bn bill --
seven times higher than other electricity costs in India -- and stopped
paying it. The cost was, after all, equivalent to the state's annual
expenditure on education.
As the stand-off continued, the US put pressure on India to settle the
problem -- the ambassador Frank Wisner went on to become a director of
Enron -- but the state government of Maharashtra dug in and refused to cough
up. The workers downed tools, Enron was left waiting for $50m and gave
notice that it would pull out of India unless it was paid.
For Roy, India's leading critic of globalization and arch-enemy of Enron,
this was all too typical of a company that had come to India not to help
people get cheaper electricity but to line its own pockets. It was corporate
imperialism at its worst.
Roy went on to write Power Politics, a coruscating essay about Enron's
involvement in Indian politics. The firm's office was in a gleaming
high-tech building in Bombay within reach of some of the city's worst slums,
and that seemed to exemplify their attitudes. The Indians were left with
little option but to honor the deal on pain of Enron pulling out and leaving
millions of people destitute. For Roy this was the classical locus of
globalization -- 'a process of barbaric dispossession which has few
parallels in history'.
Last June, DBC's plant closed down, work halted on the second phase of the
development and all the employees were sacked. With Enron's collapse, DBC is
likely to be sold off at a bargain basement price, the most likely purchaser
being the Indian-based Tata Power.
On Friday, the White House defended US encouragement for the Enron project
in India, and vice-president Dick Cheney's support for Enron's attempts to
collect a $64m debt from the country. It insisted that this had nothing to
do with Enron contributions to the Bush campaign.
©2001 smg sunday newspapers ltd