It's Avatar, but for real

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am


Walking with the Comrades
by Arundhati Roy

In the blockbuster science fiction film Avatar, unbridled capitalism has left the Earth destroyed. The overpopulated and resource-depleted planet is besieged by natural cataclysms and man-made disasters, while humans are scouring outer space for resources.

On Pandora, an Earth-like moon, they discover unobtanium, a precious source of energy. But there's a problem: Pandora is home to a humanoid species called the Na'vi, who live in a giant tree that sits on a vast store of unobtanium. To mine this resource, humans will have to battle the Na'vi, destroy their way of life and upset the ecological balance. Unless stopped, they'll end up wrecking Pandora just as they have done the Earth.

Avatar's enormous success can be partially explained by our ambivalence about climate change and global warming: is our lifestyle wrecking our planet and leading us to doomsday? Are we fated to live in an urban ghetto, heavily militarised and devoid of flora and fauna - a 'dying world', as a character in Avatar says, where humans have 'killed their mother'?

In Walking with the Comrades, Booker Prize-winning Indian novelist Arundhati Roy tackles this question head on. She spends time with the Maoist guerillas in the forests where they are battling Indian security forces, documents their armed resistance and raises the question: will global capitalism tolerate any societies existing outside its realm of control?

In a globalising world, one question has been raised with increasing frequency: is capitalism compatible with sustainable development? Apart from being a one-line summary of the movie Avatar, it is a debate of considerable significance as our world population surpasses seven billion. Can our environment take the strain of an ever-expanding economy?

Walking with the Comrades is a collection of three essays published first in the Indian news weekly Outlook. In the first, Mr Chidambaram's War, Roy takes us to Orissa, a state locked in battle between tribals called the Kondh and the Indian government. P. Chidambaram is India's home minister and 'CEO of the war'. In a scene that seems lifted from Avatar, Roy describes how the Kondh worship the low flat-topped hills of their home as deities. The same hills, however, contain vast deposits of bauxite, which one of the biggest mining corporations in the world wants to mine. The financial value of Orissa's bauxite deposits is US$2.27 trillion (twice India's gross domestic product, at 2004 prices).

'Thirteen tonnes of rock and stone yield one tonne of bauxite. The 'red mud' in these stilling ponds is the toxic residue produced by the refining process in which bauxite is turned to aluminium,' Roy writes, explaining the devastation that mining would bring to south Orissa. 'If the flat-topped hills are destroyed, the forests that clothe them will be destroyed, too. So will the rivers and streams that flow out of them and irrigate the plains below. So will the Kondh.'

The tribals believe that if they do not fight for their land, they'll be annihilated. They have taken up arms, and the Indian government has announced Operation Green Hunt, a war against the 'Maoist' rebels in the jungles of central India.

So, who are the Maoists really? Roy answers this question in the second essay, Walking with the Comrades, which gives the book its title. Through a secret rendezvous in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, Roy is led to an area controlled by the Maoists. 'It's the epicentre of a war,' she writes. 'It's an upside-down, inside-out town. There the villages are empty, but the forest is full of people. The police wear plain clothes and the rebels wear uniforms.'

The Maoists are members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), one of the several descendants of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which led the 1967 Naxalite uprising in the Indian state of West Bengal. The Maoists adhere to violence, believing it to be the only way to redress the innate structural inequality of India. Their insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of central India, which are 'a homeland to millions of India's tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world'.

In Dantewada, Roy learns first hand of the war being fought between a government paramilitary force and 'ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organised, hugely motivated Maoist guerilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion'.

Over several days of trudging through the forest during day and sleeping in makeshift beds at night, Roy meets several guerilla members. 'Lal salaam, kaamrid' is the universal greeting: 'red salute, comrade'. The guerillas show her a deserted school building constructed like three octagons connected like a honeycomb to enable the police to fire in all directions. She learns the history of the resistance movement and how uniting the people has improved their bargaining power with firms that operate out of the region - beedi cigarette makers, paper mills and the Forest Department. They are governed by an elaborate structure of janatana sarkars (people's governments) and 'the organising principles come from the Chinese revolution and the national liberation struggle in Vietnam'.

Trickledown Revolution, the third essay, rebuts trickle-down economics, which argues that the benefits that government provides to businesses and the wealthy will help poorer members of society by improving the economy as a whole. Capitalists advocate that better technology and efficiency would lead to using fewer resources even while increasing economic output.

However, that central tenet of capitalism has come under fire in the face of rising inequality, dwindling social mobility and a denuded environment. In India it has resulted in a growth in armed uprising. 'In Orissa, for instance, there are a number of diverse struggles being waged by unarmed resistance movements that often have sharp differences with each other,' Roy writes. 'And yet, between them all, they have managed to temporarily stop some major corporations from being able to proceed with their projects'.

India's capitalistic experiment is two decades old, and its track record with sustainable development has been unreliable. During the construction of one of its biggest dams, the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, every single thing that was the target of protest has happened. Displaced people have not been rehabilitated, canals have not been built, and most of the water is being guzzled by cities and big industry.

The insurrection poses a challenge to the government; it questions what constitutes progress and development. Roy has taken up the tribals' cause with passion. Her publisher, Penguin, describes her work as 'full of earth-shattering revelations'.

Several publications in India have been documenting this story. Roy's voice is an important addition to this debate. It would help if she could tone down the shrillness, avoid hyperbole and repetition, and use the considerable power of her pen to get both sides to the table.

Avatar might have ended with an all-out war that ended with a Na'vi victory, but that was on Pandora. We are on Earth, and need to find the right balance to survive.