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Arundhati Roy Talks Indian Politics, Development in Keynote at HKS Science, Technology, and the Human Future Symposium

The Harvard Kennedy School is hosting a symposium on science, technology, and the human future this weekend.
The Harvard Kennedy School is hosting a symposium on science, technology, and the human future this weekend. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Tristan T. Darshan, Madeleine A. Hung, and Austin H. Wang, Contributing Writers

Indian author Arundhati Roy, who wrote “The God of Small Things,” spoke about the political and social effects of India’s development in her keynote lecture Thursday at a symposium hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School.

Roy’s remarks kicked off the three-day conference, titled “Science, Technology and the Human Future,” which commemorates the 20th anniversary of HKS’ Program on Science, Technology and Society.

In her speech, Roy recalled the situation in India when she last spoke at Harvard.

“The government at the time, Congress Party-led, had signed away indigenous people’s homelands — protected by the Indian constitution — to mining and infrastructure projects,” she said.

Roy said the mining of Bauxite — a source of aluminum found in the mountains of Bastar — led to destruction of nearby forests and rivers. The forests contained many of India’s forest-dwelling tribes and the headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), she added. The government conducted a military operation to clear the land in 2009, and the Maoist People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army responded, resulting in a civil war.

“Villages were burned to the ground,” she added. “People were chased into the forest where they lived for months under open skies. Women were especially targeted, raped, and killed.”

Roy highlighted the complicated relationship between science, technology, politics, and justice.

“Can we leave the Bauxite in the mountain?” Roy said. “We have the science and technology to take it out. Do we have the imagination or the vision to leave it in?”

Though India has experienced technological development, she said, it has come at a cost.

“Now as the rivers dry up and the forests disappear, as the water table recedes all over the country, there’s unrest,” she said. “There are protests by people refusing to give up their land and access to their resources, refusing to believe false promises anymore.”

Roy said she thinks conflict will never be resolved in India.

“How do you look for light?” she said. “How do you look for something to hold onto for a while where you catch your breath? For me, that’s all we can do.”

The event also featured an original piano quintet, titled “Machine Dreams,” written by composer and Harvard Law School student Chung Hon Michael Cheng ’19.

“It seemed like an exciting way to combine two strands of my background and identity — STEM and music,” Cheng wrote in the event’s program notes.

Thursday’s programming also featured readings from “The Future Humans Anthology,” a curation of poetry, fiction, and art about the future of humanity. Michael P. Evans ’24, an undergraduate STS fellow and co-editor of the anthology, said the work stemmed from one question.

“It was to imagine a future where something fundamental about the world will be altered, and explore the ways in which that may change how we think about ourselves, each other, and what we value,” he said.

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