Monday, 21 April 2014

Young voters and the green argument

In 1959, the Times of India had a special publication to celebrate Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s 70th birth year. The Indo-China war had not happened and Nehru’s popularity had not taken the nosedive. He had been in power for 12 years, long enough to assess his governance.

The thick volume – A study of Nehru (1)was edited by Rafiq Zakaria, then a columnist with Times of India, and later a Member of Parliament and minister in the Maharastra Government. Zakaria had collected and edited essays on Nehru from leaders across political and civil life in India and across the world. Josip Broz Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Clement Atlee, Louis Mountbatten, S. Radhakrishnan, E.M.S Namboodiripad, S.A. Dange and R.K. Laxman were among those who contributed to the volume. Some essays praised Nehru, a few others ran him down and there were some that kept the balance.

Accumulating urban waste is high on the list of
environment problems for the young voter.

The essays in the volume gave Nehru depth and life. Whether supporting or pillorying him, they argued cogently, with clarity of thought and public purpose rarely seen in the present times.

These leaders were unencumbered by the present-day distractions – popping e-mails, SMS messages, Tweets and Facebook posts. No shouting television anchors, talk shows, opinion polls and exit polls.

We are a country of argumentative people and right now we are going through a period when our arguments have reached their crescendo. More than half the country’s voters have exercised their franchise, but those remaining to vote can make a serious impact. There is an aggression and desperation simultaneously as parties go for the kill.

Elections 2014 has a strong component to the arguments, discussions and debates from young voters. Of the total of 814.5 million about 100 million (2) are casting their votes for the first time. And among these first-timers, 23.6 million have just turned 18 years of age. The voters represent the demographic profile of the population, and according to the 2011 census 28.9% of the population is between 18 and 35 years of age (3), emphasising the strong involvement of young voters this year.

What is the environmental consciousness of these young voters and how is it likely to affect their voting? Even the oldest in the 18 to 35 age group would have just been born around the end of the 1970s when the landmark controversy of modern Indian environmental history – over the construction of a dam for a hydro-electric project flooding the Silent Valley rainforest in Kerala – was raging.

They would have been too young to register the impact of the Bhopal gas leak in 1984, or the sit-in by the anti-Narmada Dam movement at Ferkuva in 1990-91. Essentially the environment consciousness of this group would have become active after the economic liberalisation was launched in the country in 1991.

Environmental understanding for this generation that has had its awakening in the post-liberalised India is different from that of the earlier generations. In the first half of the 1990s there was a transition in the manner in which people thought about the environment and how they acted to protect it.

Two decades ago, when the activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, led by Medha Patkar, marched to Ferkuva in the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border, or when they sat along the banks of the Narmada river braving the rising waters of the river repeating “doobenge par hatenge nahin” (we may drown but will not move), they were pitting the moral strength of individuals against the might of the State. 

The same was true when Sundarlal Bahuguna sat in protest on the banks of the Bhagirathi river in Tehri Garhwal in the present-day Uttarakhand.

The equation, as perceived then, was that industrial capital and the State were two different entities, but was coalescing to take away people’s access to their natural resources. The citizen had to protest this with the State.

After the impact of the economic liberalisation started in the mid-1990s, the boundaries between capital and the State blurred and it was difficult to pit the citizen’s moral strength against an amorphous entity. The young lived and drew sustenance from the liberalised economy, thus their lives were same (or they aspired for it to be same) as that of their class enemies. Thus, the broad-brush protests of the anti-Narmada and anti-Tehri dam movements became ineffective in dealing with environmental problems.

It was necessary to have specific, targeted action. Thus by the second half of 1990s, like their counterparts in the West, environment activists in India took to fighting legal cases, campaigning through the media, lobbying with Parliamentarians and carrying out e-mail campaigns. These were project-based environmental confrontations.

However, the romance of the protest remained. The romance was revived when Anna Hazare sat on protest at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi in August 2011. The urban middle class youngster enjoyed the novelty of protesting, but had to get back with his/her life after a few days. And there were messages on Facebook: “Anna-ji maan jayiye!” (please do agree, Anna). Fashionable protest is different from protest to protect livelihoods.

The Hazare movement evolved into the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the novelty of the concept attracted the youth. Here was an opportunity to fight the “corrupt politicians.” But when the dream party resigned from the Delhi Government, some of its sheen was lost. There are “murmurings” though, as social scientist Shiv Visvanathan points out (4), but these are from the livelihood protestors in regions such as the Kolar gold mines in Karnataka.

Some of the sheen that the AAP lost in the perception of the young voter has accrued to the BJP account. Development, nationalism, growth, change, “Vikas Purush”, etc., are the keywords that the BJP is using to tap into it.

In the glossary of environmental-civic problems of these young voters there would be mention of urban garbage, sewage problems, air pollution, pot-holed roads and inadequate public transport. Unsafe municipal water supply may not appear, since water reaches homes in plastic containers. Neither will there be a mention of the risk of climate change for farmers.

These keywords are the ones playing out on Twitter, Facebook and the television talk shows. The messages, however, are disjointed and sporadic.

Unlike in the time of Nehru, there are far too many messages in far too many media types communicated by far too many people. Teasing out a narrative from all this has so far been near impossible in this year’s elections.  

1.         A study of Nehru. 1960 ed: Times of India; 1959.
2.         Sharma R. Electorate 2014. Frontline.  18 April 2014.
3.         Mishra AR, Anuja, Tandon S, Verma G. Census profiles the young Indian voter, spender. Live Mint.  7 September 2013.

4.         Visvanathan S. The future and the AAP. The Hindu.  16 April 2014.

Related blogs:
  1. Finding a future from the past
  2. Life beyond 7% growth
  3. Will the NAPM-AAP marriage work?

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Finding a future from the past

There is a kind of e-mail that does its rounds of mailboxes frequently. It is a rather long one, extolling the virtues of ancient Indian science and technology, and talking about the glory of Aryabhata, Charaka and Sushruta.

From the tone and tenor of the e-mail it looks as if its author is a person who in the present is feeling slighted (for whatever reasons) and has to find strength by emphasizing the glorious past from which his/her people evolved. Perhaps he or she is a non-resident Indian in the US, for that is the community from which much cyber-nationalism emerges. 

The BJP claims that it will balance the needs of development and environment
if voted to power.

The author of the e-mail is unknown but the names of the authors for the 2014 election manifesto for the BJP(1) are known in the public domain. The preface of the manifesto starts thus: “India is the most ancient civilization of the world and has always been looked upon by the world as a land of wealth and wisdom. India has been credited to have developed, apart from philosophy and mathematics, science and technology of a very high order, which had attracted scholars from all over the world. … India was respected for its flourishing economy, trade, commerce and culture. It had an international outreach from Korea to Arabia, from Bamiyan to Borobudur and beyond.”

There are a few subtexts in the BJP manifesto. Its title – Ek Bharat shreshta Bharat: Sabka saath, sabka vikas – defines the party’s vision of grandeur. It pledges to build a “modern India” on the “best foundation” of “our own culture” using “our own hands” and the “best material” of “our own aspirations.”

“Our own aspirations” is the key phrase here. It taps the feeling of frustration of the middle class and the wannabe middle class of not being able to realise their aspirations due to poor governance of the Congress-led government. And the BJP will rectify that through an “open, transparent and systems-based government” that will provide “pro-active, pro-people good governance.”

Interestingly, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) the third political entity with national ambitions, took this very argument one step forward. For them the poor governance came from “corrupt politicians.” The dampener for the BJP is the AAP focusing on the corruption angle in its campaign.

The inability of successive national governments to deliver on people’s aspirations is well articulated in the manifesto: “Even after nearly seven decades of our independence, the country has not been able to discover its innate vitality, the sense of time and the will to act. … The present crisis is the result of this confusion and disconnect from the seekings and sensibilities of the people. This is worse confounded by the weak and spineless leadership of the UPA Government.”

The problem about painting the whole of post-Independence history with one brush is that it also covers one term plus 13 months and 13 days of BJP-led governance. So the manifesto builds in this caveat: “The beginning of the 21st century showed some light under the NDA rule. India started being reckoned as an economic superpower. The six-year rule of NDA had given the Nation many firsts, building an image in the international community. However, many of the hopes, potentials and projects have not been fully realized in the subsequent years. But after 2004, UPA came into power and the situation started worsening again. We missed a historic national opportunity once more.”

Prima facie this begs the question that if India was really shining between 1999 and 2004 then why did the voters interrupt the dream run? At a deeper level, the question is what does it mean for the environmental considerations of the country if the BJP were to come to power at the Centre? The manifesto takes a two-pronged approach towards environment – direct and indirect.

The promises are direct. It promises to take the idea of sustainability and climate change mitigation initiatives seriously and work with the global community. The government will encourage cleaner production; promote cleaner fuel; launch an integrated public transport project; promote pro-active carbon credit (sic); conduct ecological audit of projects and pollution indexing of urban centres; use wastelands for social forestry; produce guidelines for constructing green buildings; promote human capacity building in environmental technologies; establish fool proof mechanisms for the protection and preservation of wildlife; encourage and incentivise innovative garbage management practices; and clean rivers starting with the Ganga.

There is mention of a National Mission on the Himalayas and the creation of a Himalayan Sustainability Fund. The BJP government “will set in place national policies on critical natural resources like coal, minerals, spectrum, etc., spelling out in black and white how much should be utilised in what time and pace.” Cultural values and thorium reserves will be considered before deciding on the Sethu Samudram project in the Palk Strait. 

In terms of sheer number of environmental promises the BJP manifesto beats the document from the Congress (even if one were to debate whether spectrum is a natural resource). But this is because the BJP has one benefit over the Congress – its statements in the manifesto cannot be immediately verified against performance. Ten years is a long time to be out of power at the Centre, and extrapolating BJP governments’ performance in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh against a national context is not exactly a valid comparison.

However, in real terms it is the indirect references to environmental concerns that are more important. Especially so since the BJP is keen to take India to its historical greatness.

“We should no longer remain a market for the global industry,” emphasises the manifesto. “Rather, we should become a global manufacturing hub.” There would a conducive and enabling environment for doing business which will cut down the red tape, simplify procedures and remove the bottlenecks. The government will ensure logistic infrastructure, including stable power.

“Our attempt will be to move towards a single-window system of clearances both at the Centre and the states through a hub-spoke model.” The Centre and the states will work in coordination for giving clearances to mega projects. “Decision making on environment clearances will be made transparent as well as time-bound.” The government will “frame the environment laws in a manner that provides no scope for confusion and will lead to speedy clearance of proposals without delay.”

The play of words is interesting. The single window of the BJP is similar to the National Enviornmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority articulated in the Congress manifesto. At least the Congress believes in creating a body specifically for looking at environmental issues, whereas the single window envisaged by the BJP is for giving clearance for the project and not necessarily to look at the environmental issues. Further, even the environment laws can be rewritten to avoid confusion and lead to speedy clearance.

Both the BJP and Congress are in a hurry. But only the BJP knows where to reach – the glorious India of the past “whose prosperity held the world in thrall.”

1.            Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat: Election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 2014.