Dam/Age – A Film with Arundhati Roy
The film, DAM/AGE: A Film with Arundhati Roy, is an expertly-produced documentary exploring themes which can only be described as some of the most controversial topics in contemporary India. It is based on Roy’s personal experience in a highly-publicized crusade against the building of the proposed Narmada Valley dam project in Gujarat based on the negative effects posed on at-risk populations and the accompanying backlash. Roy’s main concern was the dam’s effect on the poor indigenous inhabitants of the Narmada Valley, especially given that the fertile lands they rely for sustenance would be submerged under water while displacing over a million people. The documentary, therefore, sought to offer a detailed assessment of a thorny issue to the public based on a structured background of the actual events leading to her arrest and subsequent arraignment for contempt of court. Moreover, Roy’s documentary offered unprecedented insight into the litigation process and trials in India while providing an in-depth evaluation of the intersection between economic development projects, water resource development, and accompanying social impacts in society. As an acclaimed and award-winning writer raised in Aymanam, Kerala; Roy emerges as an authority on the main theme. She does this by providing a detailed assessment of the inner workings behind a process designed to silence activists’ dissent and criticism of structural inequality, injustice, and oppression using existing legal frameworks as highlighted in the documentary. This single incident is commonly cited as the sole motivation behind Roy’s recent focus on relevant contemporary issues such as structural inequality, the relevance of India’s nuclear weapons program, and the activities of Western multinational corporations in India.
From the onset, it is apparent that Roy’s primary intention was to highlight the plight of individuals considered to be at the bottom of stratified societies and the manner in which dams are complicit in oppressing them. In India, mega dam projects have long been celebrated as the embodiment of the country’s technological iconography and long viewed as a force for good in a rapidly-changing global environment. These projects are revered by their progenitors as the a solution to some of the agricultural and major energy problems facing the country. While Roy admits that dams are crucial to providing access to much-needed water and power across India, she is highly critical of the fact this conversation does not feature the subsequent impact of such projects on native populations. Mega dam projects have long been at the crux of India’s technological iconography, and their role in providing water and power to the nation was for a time unquestioned, even unquestionable. Lately, however, there has been an increasingly confrontational debate about the role that large dams have played in development. For instance the proposed Sardar Savor Project was expected to stand at a final height of 447 feet which posed a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of all persons residing along the Narmada River in Gujarat State (Roy, 2002). Yet, Roy notes that these concerns are intentionally blocked and hidden from the mainstream; with critics openly threatened with legal action if they persist with their ‘seditious’ rhetoric. She also claims that the court system is, sometimes, weaponized to crush dissent among vocal activists such as herself. Such actions are meant to demoralize mainstream detractors of the supposed development agenda to ensure they tow the line and are eventually incapable of exposing the underbelly of water resource development projects.
The film’s merit is its firm grounding in facts and documented statistics on the actual impact of mega dam projects such as those highlighted in the film. These claims are further merited by the accounts of farmers driven from their lands after the official commencement of project activities and presented in a fact-based fashion as opposed to sensational reporting. For instance, Roy viewed the Narmada Valley project as counterproductive. Her assessment was informed by credible reports indicating that the proposed dame would eventually displace over 200, 000 villagers and the irreversible damage of a fragile ecosystem while only irrigating 5 % of the target farmland (Roy, 2002). Roy’s assessment of the absurdity of the Narmada Valley dam project was further bolstered by a similar review presented by the World Commission of Dams in 2002. The agency supported the assertions made in conclusions made by the World Conservation Union in 2001 which stressed that mega dam projects damaged viable farmland, increased the risk of flooding, and resulted in the extinction of certain rare species of fresh water (Roy, 2018). Moreover, Roy’s attempt appears to be a quest for honesty and accountability and compelling the mainstream media to highlight issues of such relevance. I was particularly impressed by Roy’s personal view on the actual impact of proposed project on the psyche of rural dwellers residing close to the Narmada Valley. Roy relates her childhood and the countless hours spent fishing in the Narmada River. Such experiences forge the basis of her claim that inhabitants of the Narmada Valley view the river as a Mother hence the accompanying spiritual attachment shared by many. Roy is exceptional in highlighting the possible implications of the Narmada River Dam project. Beyond the readily apparent physical implications of the project on the Valley’s topography, Roy also insists that losing the river is an irreplaceable loss due to the inhabitant’s spiritual attachment to this natural resource.
What I liked most about the film is Roy’s unrelenting pursuit of truth and accountability even in the face of legal threats and intimidation from influential quarters of Indian society. In essence, Roy notes that the protest against the construction of the Narmada River project pits individuals from the lowest stratum of Indian society against powerful corporations and their agents. Those affected by such projects were, more often than not, the dalit (the untouchable) forced to contend with systemic and institutionalized discrimination in the quest for justice and recognition. Roy is particular and categorical in claiming that the dam projects are a farce built on a false pretext and will potentially do more harm than good to vulnerable communities along the Narmada River. The most impressive part of the documentary were the shots depicting splendid and pristine rural life which would inevitably be harmed to pave way for lucrative economic agenda. Roy’s assessment of the current situation also included a review of the irony behind the dam project. She is also highly critical of fallacious idea that the dam project would be readily welcomed by inhabitants of the Narmada Valley since it was bound to eventually improve their economic situation. However, Roy was highly critical of this assertion and viewed the dam as a symbol of the yoke of servitude now bestowed among the poor and societal subtypes in the lower stratum of Indian society. She was quick to point out that it was noteworthy to start by acknowledging that it was rural people who would pay the ultimate price for the proposed construction of a dam on Narmada River. In a quick rejoinder, Roy also adds that the perks of any proposed dam project are almost entirely enjoyed by the urban rich. This is especially worrying considering that 80% of rural Indian households are not connected to the electrical grid and an upwards of 200 million people do not have access to clean and safe drinking water. Roy’s activism, therefore, emerges as a noble cause on behalf of a voiceless cross-section of the Indian society while also forcing the Indian government to come to terms with inconvenient facts and uncomfortable truths surrounding dam projects.
Arundati Roy’s documentary titled, DAM/AGE: A Film with Arundhati Roy is, arguably, one of the most insightful reviews of economic development projects and water resource development projects and the rarely explored human cost. The film’s title is symbolic and expertly coined to highlight the alleged long-term ‘damage’ of mega dam projects on rural countryside landscapes and their inhabitants. Roy’s presentation of this contemporary problem is exceptional and brings the viewers up to speed with the current crisis and the consequences that await those who choose to speak up against such violations. The passionate display of criticism leveled against the decision of the Indian government for green-lighting the Narmada Dam Project (under the auspices of the Sardar Sarovar Project) was the primary reason behind the 2002 contempt notice issued by the Supreme Court of India. Yet, the film succeeded in demonstrating the manner in which flawed and unsubstantiated claims by interested parties can be used to justify a contempt notice, essentially gagging dissenting voices. I was deeply enthralled by Roy’s film and the subsequent presentation of the subject matter designed with the sole aim of moving the audience; forcing one to ponder deeply about unknown victims of large dam projects in the recent past and their ultimate fate. Roy, thus, seems to conclude that mega economic development and water resource development projects are a political game in which the rich win by ultimately dislocating, dispossessing, and wiping out weaker groups within the context of a fast-paced contemporary society.