The elephant in the room: Will/Can the BJP address environmental concerns?

A surprising number of people I know reasonably well, who had offered no opinions or shown enthusiasm all through the build up and during the polls, broke their silence yesterday after BJP’s victory was safely established. My first thoughts are about why people are so reticent about their political leanings or current feelings. If you’re right wing, it’s OK! Why be apologetic about it? As I began to read what people put up on FB, I began to see that for the majority of people on my timeline, their vote was in favor of stability and development. They believe that Modi can provide the sort of leadership that can bring the bounce back in the economy. For people like my driver and maid, they are hoping Modi brings life to the agro sector and most importantly, brings prices down. Fortunately, I do not know too many people who would like Modi to send the Muslims to Pakistan, etc etc. I do know a couple though, but like they say, one doesn’t always choose one’s acquaintances!

Let’s agree for the moment that the mandate is for a better economy and better governance. Looking at the analysis, I think its pretty remarkable that entire communities chose to abandon their traditional leanings and voted for the BJP, at times against the logic of caste or region. It’s a big responsibility for the BJP now, to steer the nation back onto course. Media is working overtime to offer opinions on what Modi’s priorities will be- economic growth, foreign investment, controlling inflation, reviving the farm sector, taking away the malaise of the subsidy, making people more self-reliant, assuring justice for all especially minorities, etc etc. No one is really talking about the big elephant in the room: environmental sustainability.

Kafila promptly carried a piece on this yesterday, on the dangers of the BJP government being a surrogate of the corporate sector sans checks. Among other concerns, environmental sustainability is something that those of us who work in the development sector have been really worried about. It seems that a government that plays to the corporate sector won’t bother too much about this. [For those who will jump on me at this time and tell me the UPA was as much a corporate surrogacy as Modi’s will be, let me tell you that this is not the time to compare the Congress’ crony capitalism to the BJP’s. That point is moot now, with the majority mandate. ]

When it comes to the environment, big the problems still remain. India’s record is dismal. We’re going downhill fast! Food security is a concern, toxicity in food and water is causing epidemics of lifestyle and other diseases. Pollution levels in cities are peaking. We’re not healthier humans, we’re probably getting sicker and sicker. I don’t think we can afford five years of turning a blind eye to environmental concerns, especially if we are looking to make more investments in infrastructure and industry. I don’t buy the idea that its all right for the developed world to worry about the environment, while developing nations like India should first focus on growth. Climate change is a reality, however much the extreme right in the US denies it! India’s only salvation will be in finding innovative ways to achieve growth in a sustainable manner. This impacts every sector. Our ways of production, of eating, living and traveling, of disposing waste, all need to change if we want to build a better future, sustainably.

I am also equally concerned about social equity in the context of neoliberal economic thinking, but am less paranoid there because I know the BJP will have to, in some way, benefit the vast electorate that has supported it this time. In my work, especially at micro Home Solutions, I’ve always pushed for a market-based approach, but its not always possible to do that owing to the lack of transparency in our system. How Modi will address social concerns therefore remains to be seen? The Gujarat model hasn’t any good answers and its something the new government will need to work on, I think.

I’ve made no bones about my own political leanings. They definitely do not veer towards the right. As a proud Indian, however, and a believer in the democratic system, it is my duty to support the government in power with good counsel in my own field of expertise. This piece has been written in that spirit. I see myself in the role of the enabler as well as the watchdog and critic, as a person who can make a small contribution to ensure India doesn’t take the road to disaster while thinking it’s taking the road to progress!

Freedom is precious. Let’s value it, not abuse it! #Elections2014 #VoteSmart

Last week, I found myself at Teen Murti House in the heart of New Delhi. This is where the Nehru Planetarium and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library are located. I was here to attend a talk, a couple of hours too early. On impulse, I decided to stroll through the museum, a great alternative I though to sitting under a tree and scrolling through my phone!

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, lived and died in this house. The grand building witnessed not only many important moments of a young nation’s history, but also absorbed the vibrations and echoes of many meaningful debates and reveries, I am sure. I had heard terrible things about the museum, of how badly the great photographic collections was displayed, how much more is possible, etc. But I am a sucker for museums and I set that sort of negativity aside during my time there.

A grand colonial building!

A grand colonial building!

Kushak Mahal, Tughlaq's hunting lodge is inside the Teen Murti campus, just opposite the Planetarium building

Kushak Mahal, Tughlaq’s hunting lodge is inside the Teen Murti campus, just opposite the Planetarium building

A lovely spring afternoon!

A lovely spring afternoon!

Inscription next to Jawahar Jyoti, the eternal flame that burns in his memory

Inscription next to Jawahar Jyoti, the eternal flame that burns in his memory

An aside: It is a sign of the times that Cambridge educated Jawahar wrote to his father in chaste Hindi, something that the most of us English-medium folks would find hard to do today. I felt a bit ashamed!

An aside: It is a sign of those times that Cambridge educated Jawahar wrote to his father in chaste Hindi, something that the most of us English-medium folks would find hard to do today. I felt a bit ashamed!

I walked through pictures from Nehru’s early life without much interest, but the fascinating perspective of the freedom struggle that the display offered got me thinking. Few of us realize what a long way we have come and how precious our freedom is! I read the names of hundreds of people on those walls, brave people I didn’t even know about who had dedicated their lives to a cause, because of whom we can dream the dreams we have today.

Even fewer question what we are doing with this freedom? Are we choosing to reinforce prejudices and stereotypes that our colonial masters reinforced for political and economic gain or are we working to create institutions and processes that set our nation on a new path of change (Historian Romila Thapar talks about this)? In fact, are we really free?

Isn’t that a great question to ponder over today, as our nation goes to polls. India is the largest democracy in the world and its relatively high voter turnout astounds the West repeatedly. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, this puts a great responsibility on each of us to vote intelligently and to vote for change and NOT vote for people who reinforce the old stereotypes and continue to play us against each other for narrow political gains.

I’m not even getting into how we abuse our freedom everyday (break traffic rules, bribe the cop, have differential rules for others and none for ourselves!). I’m not going to ramble about how we need to become better citizens and better people, find ways to work with each other, contribute to our own community and neighborhood, etc. To me, these are no-brainers! We know all of that, but we choose to ignore it because we believe the future of our country is in the hands of THEM, corrupt politicians, stupid egoistic bureaucrats. Perhaps it’s time to think differently and take that future in our hands, in whatever way we can!

We are fortunate to live in a democracy. The wise men (and some women) who wrote our Constitution and set up our democratic processes gifted us many powers we don’t bother to use. I’ve been reading up and thinking deeply about these issues and only beginning to understand what these powers are. I’ve made many friends in Gurgaon (you know who you are!) because I’ve been curious about these issues and I laud the dedication of those who take up citizen activism at sometimes great cost to themselves. And I see great hope for a country that has people like these as its citizens. I’m learning everyday that citizenship is as much about GIVE as it is about TAKE; it is as much about our relations with EACH OTHER as our relations with THE STATE.

Here is a pic I took from the display at the museum that puts my thoughts in perspective.IMG_5992

 

 

 

Change is a challenge, in every age

History is a magnanimous teacher. You can sit in your armchair and read about times gone by, people long dead and wonder how their lives were similar or different from ours. And it is fascinating that there is always a situation or a person you identify with.

I just finished reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. Set in the early 16th century, it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, who traversed the unthinkable trajectory in a single lifetime starting as a blacksmith’s son and becoming Henry VIIIs closest aide. At a time when England challenged the ubiquitous power of the Catholic Church, Cromwell is a man of commerce, almost a disbeliever. A cynic and a liberal. A man who educates his daughters and involves them in his business, a man who is unafraid of negotiations, who makes discipline and duty his ultimate religion.

What fascinated me about the book was the conflict between belief and religion. King Henry challenged and sought to bring down the confluence of money and power that vested in the officials of the Church during his time, primarily because the Catholic Church did not readily give in to his idea of divorcing Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell crafted around the king’s whim a web of laws and statutes that made him the head of the kingdom and the Church in England. And while he did this, powerful people warned of a downfall of morality, an end of truth, none of which happened because it was already an anarchic situation in what we know as Europe today- Turks attacking at one end, a dead Pope’s body being paraded around Rome and Munich being ruled by an autocratic tailor some among many crazy stories we know of now.

What is telling is how Cromwell manipulates the relationship between the citizen and the forces in power. On one side, he believes that citizens must have basic amenities and security of life, on the other he must work with the vagaries of the King’s mind. When push comes to shove, Cromwell sends his law all over the land and asks citizens to swear upon the Bible to accept their King as head of the Church, thus justifying all Henry’s actions. Cromwell knows what he does is wrong, asking innocents to swear upon an issue they barely understand, but he has no choice if he (and England) must survive!

These are the difficult compromises those in power and those close to them must make. Many of their decisions, when viewed in isolation, seem hard, unjustified and unethical. Yet, if we see the web of inter-related matters these men (and women, going by the formidable forces Katherine and Anne were!) must consider, one wonders how decisions get taken at all! In the end, strategic decisions are taken to keep the balance so that the machinery of State keeps running and the people, those poor citizens who know not what is at stake, can continue to lead their contented or wretched lives….

So what has changed, through history? At this point I look at the political situation in India, Egypt, Turkey…and many other places and I see that the citizen is still marginalized from the loci of power. I also see that citizens are given to rather myopic visions, overrun by their immediate concerns and that democratic gathering of opinion is not always possible because information, understanding as well as the well to be informed and understand is not equal among citizens. If we believe democracy to be the best solution for the modern State, we need to develop consensus building skills and powers of negotiation of a very refined and evolved nature. In parallel, citizens must have the means to be aware and involved in decisions that impact their lives. Most of all, we need systems that can wait till these processes of negotiation are complete and this is where I think democracy fails, repeatedly. As KC Sivaramakrishnan, eminent economist and Chairman of Delhi-based think tank said in the context of a recent workshop to support incrementally built neighborhoods in the informal parts of the city, “Every so often, there is an urge and impatience to do something world class and grand” that impinges on this patience. In an instant, we abandon the slower democratic processes to make sweeping changes without worrying about who they benefit. Later, when sense returns, it seems inappropriate to feel remorse, so we justify and we use sellotape to patch the fissures and so on, till things fall apart and a new age is ushered in…

Comments on social engineering and urbanization in China, India

I won’t say I am shocked by the news that China is moving 250 million rural residents to newly created towns and cities over the next 12 years. In keeping with an economic policy restructuring that aims to rely less on exports and increase domestic demand, China is re-engineering the lives of rural people in a bid to convert them into urban consumers who will boost their economy in the future. As rural homes are bulldozed and replaced by highrises, people’s lives are being thrown into turmoil and I can only imagine the sense of loss and outrage being experienced by those who are the guinea pigs of this economic experiment.

It seems to be standard for governments, not just in China, to simply decide what’s good for thousands of their citizens; no skin off their backs, just a steely face and a shrug!

It’s not just China, where in the absence of democratic institutions, it is perhaps easier to implement sweeping decisions like this. When Delhi decided to relocate slum dwellers to far-flung resettlement colonies before the Commonwealth Games 2010, it also subscribed to a notion that world-class cities were those that did not have slums, were exceedingly clean and I would say, devoid of anything spontaneous at all! What gives governments the right to take decisions that benefit a small minority in the name of the greater common good, decisions that often follow no proven success mantra (indeed defy everything suggested by previous experience!) and put those who are poor and disadvantages through suffering and misery? When such massive changes are carried out without consultation, without debate and without any window for recourse, it violates not only democratic principles, but humanistic ones as well. What is the hope then for societies, indeed civilizations, based on the premise of exploitation?

Yes, yes, I know. The poor cannot hope to move toward prosperity if there is no economic growth and therefore they need to sacrifice their lives at the altar of national growth. I am familiar with that line of thinking and I find it hard to agree.

Urban planners like me are trained in the great tradition of modernism and taught that everything can be planned. I have come to believe that there is much to be said for not planning, simply leaving things be. A balanced perspective would mean that we neither over-plan, nor abandon planning completely. We try to propose the future based on an informed understanding of the present, including physical and socio-economic conditions as well as aspirations of the people whose lives will be impacted by what you propose. This is not just a question of human rights, but also a matter of common sense, if our objective is to build a society where people can hope to lead happy lives and contribute meaningfully to the collective progress of their communities, cities, nations. I am suggesting that the desire for growth needs to be balanced with measures that allow people to opt for alternatives ways of life.

In China, would it not be possible to identify areas slated for urbanization and then allow options for farmers to either opt for urban jobs by retraining for them and changing their lifestyle, or be offered alternative space where they can continue to live rural lives. I am sure enough young people would opt to join to new economy, while others would still be able to live lives of dignity and earn enough to feed themselves. This way, reports say, the old and the infirm are reduced to playing mah-jong all day without having any useful role to play in these new cities and towns.

Not possible to ‘control’ the Internet! Are you relieved or alarmed? @THiNK2012

That’s quite a radical statement from Ben Hammersley here at the Thinkfest 2012 in Goa. Apparently, it isn’t technologically possible to control content on the Internet. Governments want the good things that the Internet brings you, but not the bad stuff. That isn’t really possible.

Any sort of move towards censorship brings out a considerable amount of fury from Internet users. I don’t really see the same sort of fury from repression of other sorts of expression (writing, poetry, even cartoons!), so sometimes I really wonder! But to come back to the argument…. 

Ben argues that the need to censor or control the Internet is a social, or political problem. For parents worrying about what their teenage son is up to, it is a parenting problem! His argument is that we need to differentiate between a technological issue and a social one, or a political one. When you want to repress the Internet, you end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater and giving up on the benefits as well.

Point taken. But it still doesn’t give us a solution to deal with misuse, fraud, crime…. Also, like many other problems in the country, dealing with the social and political dimensions takes a concerted effort over a long period of time.

Sachin Pilot is arguing that the Internet itself is not run democratically. The compliance rates of requests from the Govt of India to Google and other platforms is much lower than similar requests from other, more powerful nations, like Norway and Germany, who apparently make far more such requests in the first place! Now that is something for us to think about. More democracy is needed and is being demanded by India and other countries. More representatives from Asia, Africa and South America is part of what he is talking about. Impressive. He also talks about the funds India is pumping into providing connectivity to remote places in India as part of an ideology that believes that the Internet can and should and must benefit the masses. Am eager to see that transformation play out over the net decade or so. I think it is a wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs to tap new markets and for social businesses to make real impact!

So we come back to that social, political problem! Is society mature enough to understand the nuances of being able to sift content? No! But that too, like many other topics we are hearing about, is a facet of our society in transition, a society in flux….permanent flux perhaps! We have to live with it and bring up our children to become responsible citizens and human beings with strong values and strong powers of rational analysis.