Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Environmental crisis: Fuels growth of government

The IPCC's climate-change fearmongering is only the latest excuse to expand the public sector. My article titled "Environmental 'crisis' and government power", was published in the Wall Street Journal Asia, on 24 March 2010.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admitted for the first time last month that it is facing a crisis of confidence. But the IPCC's failings go far beyond the recent spate of errors identified in its reports. The problem began with the global political climate that led to the formation of the IPCC two decades ago.

Contrary to popular perception, the IPCC is not a scientific organization. It does no research of its own. Composed of scientists nominated by different governments, its key function is to collate evidence of human-induced climate change, not just changes in climate.

It is hardly surprising that with such an inherently biased objective the scientists lost their objectivity. Many of them went on a crusade to support the political goal of proving anthropogenic global warming. Concerns about scientific objectivity and critical discourse were thrown overboard.

Why did political masters set such a nonscientific mandate for their scientists at the IPCC? Because over the past half century, governments have often ridden the green bandwagon to justify public-sector expansion.

Almost every decade we have witnessed the birth of a new green scare, apparently based on new scientific findings. First came the campaign against the pesticide DDT in the 1960s, followed by the population bomb in the 1970s. Then we had the campaign to protect forests and species in the 1980s, the ozone hole in the 1990s, and most recently the crescendo over climate change leading up to last year's Copenhagen summit.

Each time, the scare was shown to be false or overhyped. For instance, millions of people in the developing world died of malaria because DDT was wrongly vilified. It took decades to overcome the blanket ban of the chemical, and now it is once again being used to control mosquitoes in Africa.

Predictions of a rising population depleting the world's resources have proven equally false and destructive. India today is enjoying the demographic dividend of a young workforce, while China is getting worried at the prospect that it may become the first society in history to grow old before it becomes rich. Likewise, forests are making a surprising comeback in many parts of the world, as the rise in agricultural productivity and economic growth are lowering demand for agricultural land.

Clearly, the track record of green prophecies has been pathetic. And with the collapse of the Soviet empire, and periodic economic turmoil, (such as the Asian economic crisis in 1997, and the dot-com bust in 2000), the public's confidence in their leaders' capacity to make effective economic policies has been shaken. It is in this context that climate change provided a new opportunity for many governments to legitimize their role, and expand their scope.

The formation of the IPCC and its apparent focus on the science of climate change allowed the political establishments to claim science as the basis for proposed climate policies that increased the power of government and curtailed the private sector. The time frame of the projected climate change was longer than earlier green crusades, typically from 50 to 100 years. This allowed policy makers to escape accountability for their misguided policies since they would be out of office by the time the consequences became apparent.

The relationship between a section of political leaders and scientists turned out to be mutually reinforcing. Policy makers justified their empire building on the basis of "scientific consensus," and scientists found a very profitable avenue for political influence and access to funding.
To sell this climate strategy, political leaders and scientists adopted the classic carrot-and-stick approach. The rich countries offered money to the poor ones in an attempt to buy support for the climate policies. More recently there is the threat of trade sanctions, which reflect the stick.

This approach was apparent in the build-up to the Copenhagen summit last December. The distinction between scientists and activists virtually disappeared as the scaremongering reached a new depth. The rich countries' carrots virtually broke the Group of 77 developing-world nations, as some of the poorest countries found the lure of easy money in hand more attractive than the fruits of economic growth in the future.

The grand design failed on three counts, and the world was saved from the onslaught of the climate crusade. Copenhagen coincided with the global economic slowdown, and therefore the promise of money seemed more like a mirage. Second, the scientific authority of the IPCC collapsed. And finally, deepening developmental aspirations in some of the major developing countries, such as Brazil, China, India and South Africa, meant that the leadership in these countries could not afford to barter their economic future for the sake of some small change today.

The current crisis in the environmental movement is not limited to a few leading climate scientists; its root lies in the political shifts taking place in many countries. Leaders are being forced to take their responsibilities more seriously, and not to outsource it to scientists. And scientists will have to regain public confidence by returning to their traditional values of objectivity and intellectual rigor.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Debasing India’s Democracy

The constitutional amendment to reserve seats for women, in a rotational basis, in national and state legislature was introduced as a historic step. While Rajya Sabha passed it after a tumultuous two days, it exposed the deep political fractures. If adopted, this legislation will seriously undermine the roots of democracy in India.

I assess the political cost of reserving seats for women, in the article titled "Debasing India's Democracy", in the Wall Street Journal Asia, on 9 March 2010.

It was advertised as a historic day. On March 8, the centenary of International Women’s Day, India’s governing coalition planned to present the country with a constitutional amendment reserving 33% of the seats for women in national and state legislatures. However, it was not to be. The failure of the amendment to pass was dubbed by the law minister a national day of shame, as a few unruly MPs, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, created such a ruckus that the house had to be adjourned six times.

The bill was adopted in the Rajya Sabha the next day, with the government promising to bring further amendments to the bill. But it has also exposed the widening gap within the governing allies, and it is likely to be a close race in the Lok Sabha, the lower house. Increasing women’s participation in politics sounds like a fine idea in principle. But its implementation would have grave consequences for the country’s quality of governance and political culture.

A comfortable majority in the parliament professes to support the women’s reservation bill, with dominant parties on both sides of the political divide in favor. However, the truth is that many members are apprehensive about the consequences. And that opposition can’t be explained away as simply the vested interest of male politicians.

First of all, the justifications for the amendment don’t stand up to scrutiny. If there is indeed political and social support for greater participation of women in politics, nothing prevents political parties from choosing more female candidates. Nor would reservations somehow change the status of women in the country—some of the worst forms of discrimination against women continued to take place even after Indira Gandhi became prime minister in the 1960s. And finally, there are formidable women leaders like Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal who have come up on their own through persistence and political acumen. In the name of empowering women, the bill is actually is very paternalistic, believing that women cannot make it in politics on their own.

More importantly, the bill poses a fundamental threat to the nature of India’s representative democracy. While the reservation of a small number of seats for certain castes might be accepted as a temporary anomaly necessary to correct historic wrongs, a reservation for such a broad section of the population inevitably undermines India’s “first past the post” electoral system. The bill moves India toward a proportional representation system dividing the population on sectional lines. This represents a fundamental change from the basic design of the constitution, and the debates in the constituent assembly, when the notion of separate electorates was considered and rejected.

In the current system, parliamentary constituencies are comprised of a wide range of people, forcing candidates to build a social and political coalition to have a reasonable chance of winning the election. It is this tendency to bridge the sectional divide among the population that has been the hallmark of Indian democracy, where diversity has only strengthened the political institutions.

If India is to tread the path toward ensuring representation according to the diversity of the population, by adopting a kind of proportional electoral system, then the social coalition will inevitably break down, leading to increased political instability. The demand for a sectional quota within the women’s quota would be a logical demand in that direction. And the next step could be to demand political reservation for men as well along sectional lines. This would signal the end of the idea of India.

Accountability to voters will also be reduced. At one stroke, by rotating the constituencies reserved for women, an enormous political churning will be triggered. Legislators who have built up their own independent base of support within their constituencies will be forced out of office. Two-thirds of the sitting members of the legislature may have to surrender their seats under a rotational reservation for women. In effect this will disempower the voter, and reduce the incentive for elected representatives to be seriously concerned with the issues affecting their constituencies.

Party leaders stand to benefit the most from a system where the voters are not in a position to assess the performance of their representative. The parties will have to constantly put forward for new candidates, and these are chosen by the leadership—there is no inner party democracy in India. Hiding behind the fairer sex, entrenched party leaders are solidifying their authority over their backbenchers.
This represents an extension of the antidefection law which was passed by the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, when it had an unprecedented majority in Parliament. Under this law, a legislator is required to vote along party lines or face disqualification from parliament. That spelled the end for meaningful parliamentary debate.

Now Sonia Gandhi is now attempting to push through a constitutional amendment that deals another body blow to representative democracy. At a time when the rest of the world is just beginning to appreciate the democratic miracle that is India, it is ironic indeed that the country’s own political leadership is seeking to undermine its democratic character to further its own narrow interests.