“Walking with the Comrades” is an engrossing account of the under currents of social, political and economic direction of India. Arundhati Roy’s unassuming question sums up the book, “Can you leave the water in the rivers? The trees in the forest? Can you leave the bauxite in the mountain?”
The book questions the accepted ideas of what constitutes progress, development and indeed civilization itself. It condemns both the Indian State and the Maoists for their war over power, land, ideology, mineral riches, rights and ecology. Contrary to popular belief about A Roy’s inclinations, the militant behavior of the Maoists has no sympathy or support in the book. She expresses clear skepticism whether these Naxalites would do anything different if in power than those currently in power. She draws a picture for us to understand the conundrum of the extreme circumstances under which these people live, the boundaries to which they are pushed, and why and how the resistance movements have come about. She aptly states, “If you pay attention to many of the struggles taking place in India, people are demanding no more than their constitutional rights”.
Beneath the forests of India lies billions of dollars worth of minerals. Approximately 24 types of minerals including iron, bauxite, copper, chromium, gold, lead, manganese, zinc and coal, are found in nearly 50 percent of India’s total landmass of 3.20 million sq km. India’s considerable mineral resources are being coveted not just by the Indian industry, but increasingly by foreign capital. There is international demand for these natural resources and pressure on the Administration. Roy exposes the conflict of interest of various top level Politicians with the exponential growth in the mining industry.
Fueled by the furious pace of development in foreign countries, the production of iron ore, bauxite, chromium, coal and natural gas has doubled and even tripled from mid-1990s to mid-2000 in India. But this huge spiraling production has contributed a measly 2.5% to the country’s GDP in the last ten years. In southern mineral-rich Karnataka state, for instance, royalties from mining have remained a static 0.7 to 0.8 percent of total revenues even while the value of these minerals have shot up manifold.
Of 1.2 billion people in India, 700 million continue to live under $2 a day while 50 Indian billionaires top the Forbes wealthiest people charts. On one hand, we are the fastest growing nations, but on the other hand less than 6% employment comes from the industrialization, 40% of students drop out by secondary school, 230 million Indians are suffering from malnutrition and 6 lakh villages are in desperate poverty with access to limited or simply no water, electricity, hospitals, etc.
According to the 2001 census, there are more than 90 million tribal people in India, with large concentrations in the eastern and central Indian states, such as Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. The human development report of the eastern Orissa state, the country’s richest mineral-bearing State, is an abysmal low of 0.404.
To make matters worse, almost all of these minerals are exported; thus not benefitting India even indirectly in terms of our own infrastructural growth. The gross ecological damage, health degradation, uncontrolled pollution and scale of social irresponsibility are horrendous. In the meanwhile, the industrialists across the globe are trading Futures in the stock market waiting on the secretly signed MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding) to materialize, over the dead bodies of the tribals & police.
Here is a disarming account that I want to share from the book. The Maoists invite A.Roy to spend time with them. In order for them to recognize each other, she had to arrive at a given location with camera, tika and coconut and look for the person with a cap, Outlook magazine and bananas. Upon reaching the destination, she met a young boy with a cap, but he was carrying neither the magazine nor the bananas. He said, he couldn’t find the magazine and he ate the bananas since he got very hungry on the way. And from here she began her journey with the Naxalites whom the government portrays as the “Internal Security Threat” (an over simplified and exaggerated term for a very complex issue).
In an earlier blog, I have captured some other excerpts from the book: http://ourglobaldiary.weebly.com/chandnis-blog/excerpts-walking-with-the-comrades-by-arundhati-roy
She covers intriguing personal accounts of various tribal people, that was made possible only because she spent one on one time spent with them over several days by living, eating, and experiencing their way of life. Their life’s tragic stories start to feel like getting to know of the losses in a friend’s life.
She exposes the human rights violation performed at catastrophic levels in the name of “Operation Green Hunt” by the State. It is typical of the Government to kill the key liaison for peace-talks between the Maoists and the State while holding make-believe peace talks. (Alongside the urban Indian asks rather naively, “but why don’t they hold peace talks”?) The oppressive government is becoming more and more hostile towards its own marginalized citizens that suffer poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and caste and gender discrimination.
Legalizing of unfair practices via new laws and policies is brought to light. The Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution provides protection to the Adivasi (indigenous) people living in the Scheduled Areas. This constitutional right is under threat of being amended to effect transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals and corporate bodies. Since 2000, India has begun liberalizing the mining industry; there are laws and amendments being passed to even allow 100% Foreign Direct investment with almost no controls and nil accountability. India ranks among the five largest markets in the world for coal, steel and aluminum. But we fail to ask the critical question…at what cost?
Committees set up by the Government acknowledged (but this information was intentionally dropped from the final released reports) that facts are being misrepresented for the purpose of forcibly acquiring land for private industry. The media is working hand in glove with the establishment, twisting and faking stories in favor of the powerful & the influential, eroding one’s belief in the daily news headlines.The author also covers women’s issues and rural health problems in the book. She has written at great length about the need for “personal integrity” in our leaders and decries the extent of killing of people in this internal combat.
Reading this collection of essays requires one to keep an open mind to a different point of view. I really appreciate her voice and this book despite the highly acerbic remarks, especially in the last essay. After all, someone has to say it. It exposes us to other people’s reality. That someone can still write such essays reinforces that Indians continue to live in democracy and there is still hope.
Arundhati Roy is a Booker Prize winner and has written a screenplay for a TV film that won 2 National awards. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arundhati_Roy
This book has 3 essays all of which can also be read online:
Mr. Chidambaram’s War – http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?262519
Walking with the Comrades – http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264738
The Trickledown Revolution – http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?267040