Saturday, November 20, 2010

India's best export

Arundathi Roy. Photo Wikimedia
Activists fighting private power projects in British Columbia are so absorbed in their local struggle, that we easily forget how much this battle is truly global in nature. That point was carried home back in 2001 in a book by Indian novelist, essayist and activist Arundathi Roy, Power Politics.

The book tells the story of the controversial 400MW Maheshwar hydropower project on the Narmada river in central India's state of Madhya Pradesh, which according to watchdog organization International Rivers will submerge, if completed, the fertile lands and homes of about 100,000 people.

That private project was initially structured as a joint venture between US incineration giant Ogden Energy Group and Indian textile company S. Kumars. Since then it has descended, as so many other projects of its kind, into an investors' nightmare and Ogden has walked away. But the project has managed to survive and is now 80% complete, in spite of fierce resistance by the valley's population, continuous and repeated environmental and contractual violations at every step of the way, legal battles of epic dimensions, and a recent order by the central Indian government to temporarily interrupt construction - an order contemptuously ignored by the developer which has continued construction of the dam with the support of the state government.

Arundathi Roy's book is available at the Vancouver Public Library's central branch (Call # 320.954 R88p) and is worth being read cover to cover, but here are a few passages particularly relevant to our own situation in British Columbia:

The cost of the electricity [produced by this project] at the factory gate will be 13.9 cents per kilowatt hour, which is 26 times more expensive than existing hydroelectric power in the state, 5.5 times more expensive than thermal power, and 4 times more expensive than power from the central grid. (It's worth mentioning here that Madhya Pradesh today generates 1,500 megawatts more power than it can transmit and distribute.)

Though the installed capacity of the Maheshwar project is supposed to be 400 megawatts, studies using 28 years of actual river flow data show that 80% of the electricity will be generated only during the monsoon months, when the river is full. What this means is that most of the supply will be generated when it's least needed.

S. Kumars has no worries on this count. [...] They have an escrow clause in their contract, which guarantees them first call on government funds. This means that however much (or however little) electricity they produce, whether anybody buys it or not, for the next 35 years they are guaranteed a minimum payment from the government of approximately $127 million a year. This money will be paid to them even before employees of the bankrupt State Electricity Board get their salaries. […] 

To date, S. Kumars hasn't even managed to produce a list of project-affected people, let alone land on which they are to be resettled. Yet, construction continues. S. Kumars is so well entrenched with the state government that they don't even need to pretend to cover their tracks. […] 

What they don't realize is that the fight is on. Over the last three years, the struggle against the Maheshwar Dam has grown into a veritable civil disobedience movement, though you wouldn't know it if you read the papers. The mainstream media is hugely dependent on revenue from advertising. S. Kumars sponsors massive advertisements for their blended suitings. After their James Bond campaign with Pierce Brosnan, they've signed India's biggest film star - Hrithik Roshan - as their star campaigner. It's extraordinary how much silent admiration and support a hunk in a blended suit can evoke. […]

Over the last two years, tens of thousands of villagers have captured the dam site several times and halted construction work. Protests in the region forced two companies, Bayernwerk and VEW of Germany, to withdraw from the project.”

The similarities between India's Maheshwar project and our own “run-of-river” schemes are painfully evident, only perhaps a little more extreme in their Indian manifestation. Roy's book demonstrates that there is not only a global agenda of private appropriation of public resources. There is also a proven methodology, a transferable know-how, a reusable template according to which such appropriations are performed. What is being done to our rivers in BC today by the ruling class has been tried and tested and fine-tuned elsewhere in the world many times over.

As such, when fighting our local battles to reclaim our commons from the ruling class, it's simply not good enough to keep it local. Thinking globally while acting locally is a slogan which does not cut it anymore. We must act globally too, constitute a transnational movement of organized political resistance which actively connects like-minded movements worldwide.

Elsewhere in her book, Arundathi Roy writes that what we need is a new kind of politics:

“Not the politics of governance, but the politics of resistance. The politics of opposition. The politics of forcing accountability. The politics of slowing things down. The politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain destruction. In the present circumstances, I'd say that the only thing worth globalizing is dissent. It's India's best export.”

Such an organized political resistance is indispensable indeed if we are not to constantly reinvent the wheel at every new local battle, and therefore inevitably lose every such battle as we fruitlessly attempt to reinvent its particular rules of engagement.

We all know that the climate summit in Cancun next month will amount to nothing at all in terms of measurable results. Yet it could achieve a lot - possibly even more than Copenhagen, precisely because it will be relieved of the pressure of having to deliver any "results" - in terms of building the global organized political force of resistance that Roy and other leaders are calling for. An organization which will federate and reconcile heterogeneous and often mutually class-antagonistic movements such as climate justice and anti-WTO, landless peasant and indigenous rights, armed insurgencies as in India's northern and eastern regions and classical industrial workers' movements as the ones now emerging in China. A movement which unifies topics and regions under a common struggle to rid the world of the plague of neoliberalism.

In other words - and to shamelessly use some outdated and historically tainted terminology - what we need today is an International.



  1. ivan,
    i was boarding on Grouse yesterday and was struck
    by its beauty, strangely intact(compared to the forest behind my house which had been cut down for the Fraser river Perimeter Road) with ravens and bluebirds flying in the morning sun.

    to save nature, it has to be where the people see and value it...a ski hill for example.

    that is why the rivers of BC cannot be saved. they are only bodies of water that must be passed or crossed when putting little feet on gas petals.

    i've realized that until our car culture is handed a death blow...environmentalism is just a lot of hot
    air, filled with CO2.

    on a lighter note: i took public transit all the way from surrey to grouse mountain and was there in time to be the first one to tie up my boots!

    ps the point you make about acting globally is huge
    and i reckon it may well hold the answers to all that ails us...pushing that thinking further...equality seems essential to linking with our co-citizens around the globe.
    could you imagine the eagleridge crowd and Maheshwar
    crowd drinking coffee together?