It would not be an exaggeration to call 2018 the year of elections in India. The fate of as many as eight state assemblies will be in ballot boxes starting February. As is the new culture of political campaigning, nationalism, religion and caste will no doubt dominate the discourse. After all, these issues protect the entire political class from any accountability towards citizens.
In the din of mudslinging and scapegoating, the issues that may remain unaddressed are the ones that affect us all.
Beyond NPAs or bad loads to investors and developers, falling industrial employment rates and higher taxation, citizens bear these costs in the form of natural resource conflicts. The scale and intensity of these conflicts have proven hollow the language of regulatory trade-offs or management measures, as these are now chronic problems affecting rural and urban people, workers, their families and larger communities.
Interstate water disputes over rivers such as the Mahadayi (Karnataka-Goa) are already in the news. Karnataka, going to elections early 2018, is recovering from the worst drought in 40 years. Crops failed and there were acute urban and rural drinking water shortages and groundwater contamination due to salinity in coastal areas. Many of the 40,00,000 bore wells in the state have dried up. The Mahanadi river is the lifeline for the people of Odisha and Chhattisgarh, yet both states have allocated these waters to steel plants and power generation. Chhattisgarh’s industrial hubs, Raigarh and Korba, heavily rely on the waters of Kelo and Hasdeo, major tributaries of the Mahanadi. Odisha proposes to construct barrages on the upper part of the river to enable irrigation but these could trigger drought downstream.
The Chhattisgarh assembly recently amended the state land revenue code. The amendment to Section 165 of the code allows the government to directly purchase tribal lands through “consensus”, and bypass the processes of acquisition, which requires taking consent and conducting social impact assessments. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have seen vocal protests due to government’s acquisition of private property for mining, urban development and other infrastructure. Tribal communities living in Fifth Schedule Areas like Sarguja and Korba districts that are also demarcated as “coal bearing areas” suffer displacement or life amidst exploding mines and burning coal stacks.
The air pollution crisis enveloped all the states of the Gangetic belt this winter.
Most Indian cities breathe foul air. While cities at least have monitors which show that they are in the red on air quality, rural areas live with pollution from mining, stone crushing, road upgradation or expansion, ore transportation and power production like there’s no other way to be.
What can green bring to democracy?
Development is no longer about costs and benefits or about the haves and the have-nots. Since everyone is already affected, development is now about how its costs will be distributed among us. That makes each one of us both responsible and vulnerable.
These problems that we face together may not influence democratic practice because elected members cannot or will not do what their voters don’t push them to. As leaders come calling for votes in 2018, can citizens speak up for a shared social priority of better lives for us all? Land, water and air are essential for human survival. A green democracy is neither about cynical self-interest, nor about discarding modernity. It can be both moral and practical.