In the face of disaster, active citizens are already filling the governance gap; let’s upscale this now!
Owing to an attempted shift to more academic writing and partly in reaction to the few friends who haven’t been too thrilled with my use of this platform to rant, my posts over the past year have been fewer and less about opinion and more about experience. However, what’s the use of nurturing a blog of your own if you cannot occasionally rant!
My peeve today is, unsurprisingly, the flooding many cities across the world are experiencing and the general unpreparedness we have seen in dealing with them. Experts have attributed the higher incidents of flooding to changing patterns of precipitation (in the form of storms, rain, typhoons, cyclones), both in terms of the amount and the timing. Whether or not we link this to climate change, to me, is a moot point right now as we stare at mass destruction and anguish in Houston, eastern India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mumbai.
Reports pour in from friends in Houston, those evacuated worry about their homes, while those who are hunkering down currently safe are concerned about rising waters, survival with limited supplies and to what extent they can help others in distress. While attacks mount on the administration for not heeding warning systems and anticipating the scale of disaster, the focus is on rescue and prevention of further damage, as it should be. In Mumbai too, friends host strangers who are stranded in the vicinity, others despair and curse, life comes to a standstill and the government is unable to answer questions about the absence of warnings and alerts. In both cases, local government did not admit guilt; Houston’s officials have defended their decision to not evacuate ahead of Huricane Harvey, while in Mumbai the government did too little too late. That both cities have had previous experiences with flooding makes this even more unpalatable.
Some of the bad press for Houston is also stemming from its infamous no zoning and limitless growth stance (see here and here), and therein lies an obvious comparison with cities in India where urban sprawl and massive unregulated growth are undeniable realities. In India, this was driven home to us post the December 2015 floods in Chennai (see urban expert KT Ravindran’s piece here); and now, the idea that these disasters are not just nature but considerably exacerbated by human folly has been firmly established. Even as India banks on its cities to become ‘engines of growth’ and economic powerhouses, this dream is seriously challenged by its inability to plan and manage urbanization even in an everyday sense, leave alone in the face of a disaster!
A discussion on how this might be fixed is a long one but I will leave that for another time. For now, I’d like to dwell on how it is not enough to blame the government and the system. We must go beyond this to ask pointed questions and hold them accountable in specific ways. For instance, by displaying maps of floodplains and flood levels juxtaposed with built form, we can demonstrate how the State has disregarded basic environmental logic in its plans. While doing fieldwork in Gurgaon’s urban villages recently, for instance, I recorded vivid accounts from locals about how natural drains and ponds (johads) were covered over by government officials in order to built community centres and roads! These oral histories combined with GIS mapping and government data obtained through RTIs can clearly demonstrate the flaws in planning. But if this evidence remains confined to academic journals and limited circles of activism, it cannot create the pressure needed to prevent more of the same from continuing to happen!
This means that we as citizens need to engage with issues related to development and the environment. We need to move towards active citizenship. I can think of many ways to include citizen oversight over processes of planning and development, but the dream of participatory governance can only come true if we engage pro-actively without first waiting for the government to set up the processes for that engagement. For starters, we can educate ourselves about governance processes in our cities, about issues we face and about the environmental status of our communities, we can organize training sessions to empower citizens to manage disaster relief operations, we can ensure our communities follow laws on waste segregation and disposal, accessibility and water harvesting…..the list of actions we can take is endless and many of us have made commendable beginnings already. Those beginnings need to coalesce into movements that force governments to act!
Beyond this, we need to turn our gaze inward to reflect on how we are part of the problem here. After all, we are the consumers that sprawling development projects and mega infrastructure projects are catering to! We have bought into that ideology (and the imagery) of unlimited growth and ‘world class’ development. Rarely did we think about the environmental consequences of our consumption, rarely did we support those who did voice these concerns. Today, when we shout ourselves hoarse about the failures, we too need to feel a sense of responsibility. The world over, the mantra of sustainable development has focused on the first principle of REDUCE. Of course, this is directly in conflict with capitalistic urges to consume more, but we do need to question where consumption is taking us. We need to ask: Can we become responsible consumers?
These are no longer mere ideological questions, but matters of utmost urgency for citizens living in an age of urbanization, rapid environmental deterioration and yes, climate change! It is no longer enough to encourage our kids to submit cute ‘Save our Planet’ posters to local art contests and consider our jobs done. In an age of paralyzed governance, the citizen must step in to fill the gaps.
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!
Conserve and manage resources like water OR Go hungry! May 15, 2012
The first ever UN Human Development report for Africa released today. And the big discussion was about food security. Amid emotional statements [“History is not destiny, Africans are not fated to starve,” – Tegegnework Gettu, UNDP Africa Director], the report present positive case studies as well [Malawi went from food deficit to a 1.3 million tonne surplus in two years, thanks to a massive seed and fertilizer subsidy programme].
However, food security is something we in India need to get very worried about. India has a malnutrition problem that surpasses that of Sub Saharan Africa! One in every three malnutritioned children in the world lives in India, as per UNICEF!
It seems to me we need another Green Revolution in India. Born in the ’70s, I remember the euphoria the nation felt when it was finally able to stop its dependence on imports to feed its citizens and was even able export food grains way back in 1978-79. The main feature of the Green Revolution was to change the practice of agriculture from a one-crop to a two-crop system, thereby stepping up productivity hugely on the same amount of cultivated land. That euphoria still has most Indians thinking we shouldn’t really be worrying about food production, instead focusing on better storage and distribution. And while improvements across the food chain are imperative, production is still a huge issue that has considerable socio-economic consequences, considering the majority of Indians are still dependent on the land for a living!
We get the impression that persistent droughts in India in the winter months and the deluge of rain that follows, thus ruining crops, is some fallout of climate change that we have little short term control over. However, Sunita Narain, in a Business Standard editorial yesterday, attributes the problem largely to poor management of resources like water and land. Water management is ever more urgent, she argues, because climate change has made rainfall unpredictable. Besides the convoluted logic (or lack of it) of the various government schemes that address irrigation, basic actions to recharge groundwater and to increase the efficiency of water usage are not taken. To add to our woes, India’s agricultural land is shrinking owing to the pressure of other uses, not in the least the persistent onslaught of urbanization and industrial growth.
So when I scream at my children to not leave the tap running when they brush their teeth or for leaving food uneaten on their plate (because there are zillion starving kids who really need that morsel of food; however jaded the line, it is the absolute truth!), I’m not entirely unjustified in doing so!