Arundhati Roy on the Deceptiveness of Development
Not content to merely debunk “Lies That Build Empire,” Arundhati Roy transforms that imperialist bunk into material for gripping storytelling. Her research and masterful writing on India’s ongoing economic development raises powerful questions about the myth of progress: who benefits from development, whose lives are destroyed, and who decides to resist the “advancement” that is actually immiserating millions.
Roy’s work reminds us that it’s not enough to denounce imperialism: we have to understand it. We have to study how it functions. Buddhist practitioners could be very good at this kind of inquiry, I think. Investigating what is pleasant about imperialism. Finding out what makes it tick. As Stan Weir puts it:
The greatest authors explain the human condition in a way so that none turn up as villains, so that no matter the depth of corruption of the people they describe, all are understandable as part of the total human condition.
Imperialism is not all bad all the time, and its appealing qualities are key to its deceptiveness. Plenty of people want electricity and running water. Roy herself takes pains to point out that “I’m not an anti-development junkie, nor a proselytiser for the eternal upholding of custom and tradition.” But she also notes that “progress” doesn’t come without a cost — if it ever materializes at all. In India, for example, the cost of constructing dams has included the displacement of around 50 million people.
Poking and prodding the false promises of development, we discover some of the hallmarks of imperialism, and we also strengthen our strategies for promoting true progress. In one of her recent speeches, Roy argued that justice and meaningful advancement can come only with the redistribution of wealth and land currently concentrated in the hands of a few.
If you look at the history of the struggle for land in India, what is really sad is that after India became independent, land reform was one of the biggest things on the agenda of the new government. This was of course subverted by the politicians, who were upper-class people, landowners. They put so many caveats in the legal system that absolutely no redistribution happened. Then, in the 1970s, shortly after the Naxalite movement started, when the first people rose up, it was about the redistribution of land. The movement was saying land to the tiller. It was crushed; the army was called out. The Indian government, which calls itself democratic, never hesitates to call out the army. Today, people have completely forgotten the idea of redistribution. Now, they are fighting just to hold on to what little they have. We call that “progress.” The home minister allegedly says he wants 70 percent of India to live in cities, meaning he wants five to six hundred million people to move. How do you make that happen, unless you become a military state? How do you do that, unless you build big dams and big thermal projects and have nuclear power?
In so many ways, we have regressed. Even the most radical politics are practiced by people that are privileged enough to have land. There are millions and millions of people who don’t have land, who now just live as pools of underpaid wage labor on the edges of these huge megalopolises that make up India now. The politics of land in one way is radical, but in another way it has left out the poorest people, because they are out of the equation. We don’t talk about justice anymore. None of us do; we just talk about human rights or survival. We don’t talk about redistribution. In America, four hundred people own more wealth than half of the American population. We should not be saying tax the rich, but instead we should be saying take their money and redistribute it, take their property and redistribute it.
Her entire speech, “We Call This Progress,” is available for free online, and well worth a read. (Feel free to disagree with her arguments and conclusions! We’re fans of debate around here.) In the first Study Guide for The System Stinks, we’ll be including some reading questions to accompany Roy’s work, so we can all practice getting a better handle on the deceptions of development. Can’t wait to talk about it with fellow BPFers.