Friday, December 10, 2010

Prospect of liberal politics in India today - Part 2

The verdict, in the recent assembly election in the state of Bihar, has attracted a lot of interest across India. The ruling coalition of Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)), and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won a record 85% of the seats, 206 seats in a house of 243. Did this huge margin of victory, signify a major shift in Indian politics? Is the political agenda in India being reshaped? What does this election really tell us about the future political direction in India? 

In Part 1, I look at the implication and impact of the Bihar assembly election, here.

In this the second part of the two part article, I try to look back at Indian politics,  attempt to identify the various strands that dominated politics at one point in time or another - language, region, religion, caste, and find that there is a diminishing political return from various shades of identity politics that has set in. With identity politics in decline, could political ideology find a legitimate space in India?

Part 2: Evolution of Politics in India 

In the first 15 years after Independence, politics was dominated by the identity of languages, and the states were reorganized along broadly linguistic lines.

In the next 15 years, poverty became the dominant element of political discourse, cutting across various social fracture lines, and encompassing different identities. During this phase, with nationalization of major industries such as banks, energy and oil, textile, etc, India entered a decidedly socialist era. But increased economic control, along with the first oil price shock, led inevitably to political discontent.

Consequently, in the historic election in the aftermath of the ‘Emergency’, in 1977, the INC lost power at the national level for the first time. As the world watched, India became the first major democracy in a developing country to undergo constitutional transfer of power from one party to another. This was an event of enormous political significance, empowering people, and entrenching democracy.

But the parties that formed the new government, pursued the socialistic economic vision with even greater rigour, and with the second oil price shock of 1979, inflation touched 20% per annum, and the fate of the first non-Congress government in Delhi was sealed.

In the 1980s, while the INC regained power, and took some tentative steps to reform the economy, the country was almost torn apart by various sectarian movements. Bolstered by socialistic attempt to re-distribute wealth, various political parties experimented with identity politics of caste, religion, and region, in the hope of capturing the organs of the state. The separatist movements in Punjab and Assam gathered steam. A lot of blood was spilled throughout the 1980s, including the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

At the same time, various caste groups attempted to organize and mobilize politically, particularly in north India. In an attempt to politically consolidate some of the backward castes, a sweeping policy of reservation or affirmative action was proposed.

On the other hand, another kind of identity politics raised its head. Hindu fundamentalists were already apprehensive of appeasement of religious minorities such as Muslims, for electoral gain by the INC. Now the same forces became concerned about social fragmentation on caste lines, and sought to unite the Hindu majority of India in to a cogent political force.

By the 1990s, while the separatists and secessionist movements had by and large been controlled, the caste and religious polarization completely fragmented Indian polity. This necessarily ushered in a new era of coalition politics, and for the first time, Indian politics became really competitive, for the first time. With people experiencing diverse political options, routinely threw out the ruling side. This has been described as the anti-incumbency syndrome. A point came, when a sitting legislator had barely 30% chance of getting re-elected.

Indian politics was again transformed. For the first time political parties sensed an opportunity to gain power by winning election, and by the same token feared the very real danger of losing power as well.

It is in this tumultuous political environment of the 1990s, when political uncertainty prevailed, that India began to reform her economy in a big way. This defied conventional wisdom that political uncertainty will lead to an uncertain economic outlook.

It is precisely this political uncertainty which made the political leaders and parties look for policies to improve governance and the economic performance, in the hope of winning the favour of the voters.

Policies became a subject of discourse out of sheer political necessity in an extremely competitive political environment. Just as competition improves the economic efficiency, political competition sustained the search for policies that might improve the prospect of getting re-elected.

As India’s economic growth increased gradually from 6% in the 1990s, to 8% and then 9% in the mid-2000s, politics of performance became a significant factor in elections.

The second significant consequence of increased political competition was the diminishing returns of earlier identity politics. While politicians tasted power riding their favourite identity, be it caste or religion, the voters began to relish the prospect of political competition, and explore ways to force the political parties to perform.

The BSP, the party of the most oppressed castes, had made its mark on Indian politics by rabidly polarizing caste opinon, and mobilizing and consolidating its targeted caste groups. It came close to political power in UP, propelled by narrow identity of its caste base. Yet, it had to rely on the support of other parties representing other caste groups, in order to cobble up the coalition with necessary numbers in the legislature. These experiments continued throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, and each time such coalition of expediency was quite short lived.

It is then, that the BSP, the party of extremely narrowly defined caste groups, realized the need to broad base its political appeal if it had to have any realistic chance of securing political power in UP. With no caste group enjoying more than 20% share of the population, there was little possibility of any party being able to secure political power on its own. For over two years, BSP went about transforming itself from the party of the Dalits, to the party of all, particularly the poor, appealing to virtually every section of Indian society, caste and religions. While the other major parties in UP sought to consolidate their voter base, BSP was the only one that attempted to expand its base to other groups.

In the UP assembly election of 2007, BSP reaped the benefit broad basing its appeal. Defying all predictions, it won the assembly election on its own, and gained political power in India’s largest state.

After 1977, when INC lost the national election for the first time, and the1990s, when Indian politics became truly competitive, the UP assembly election, of 2007, is perhaps the most politically significant event in India. For it showed the limits of identity politics, and established the political reason for broad basing politics.

Real significance of Bihar election of 2010

The assembly election in Bihar, in 2005, also exposed the limits of identity politics. For 15 years, RJD leader Lalu Prasad enjoyed unquestioned political authority in the state. Yet, he failed to grasp the political reality. While he tried to consolidate his traditional support base, but his almost complete failure to maintain basic law and order, and governance, meant that his voters were growing increasingly dissatisfied.

One of the biggest advantage of the first past the post election system is that even a small shift in support base can bring in big electoral dividend in terms of seats. This greatly increases the prospect of new political entrants to make their mark.

In 2005, in Bihar, as RJD’s political fortune was fraying, its main coalition partners, the INC, and another local party, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), moved away. As his vote base got divided, the coalition of JD(U) and BJP gained the upper hand, and captured political power.

The election in Bihar, in 2010, only reconfirms the basic thrust of this analysis. Increased political competition, inevitably diminishes the political returns of identity politics as voters begin to relish the greater range of political choices. Consequently, parties are forced to look at ways of improving their performance in governance.

Indians typically have multiple identities in terms of caste, language, religion and region, and the voters are increasingly aware of the advantage of switching their identity to take political advantage of the situation.

This is a fundamental lesson which Mr Kumar, the leader of JD(U) and BJP coalition in Bihar took to heart. Realising the fickleness of identity politics, he opted to improve governance as a way to appeal to broad section of voters beyond any particular identity. He moderated the caste based appeal of many in his own party, and convinced his coalition partner, the BJP, to moderate their Hindu religious agenda.

At the same time, since identity loyalties are not permanent, as his predecessor from RJD had learned at a high political cost, Mr Kumar embarked on basic governance issues. This allowed his coalition to increase their vote share by only 5%, getting about 39% of the vote in 2010 election, but ending up winning 85% of the seats. The major opposition combine of RJD and LJP, secured 25% of the votes, but only 10% of the seats. The INC, which increased its votes by 2% to 8%, won just 4 seats in 2010, compared to 9 seats in 2009.

Prospect for Liberal Politics in India

With identity politics running out of steam, and distributive politics failing to keep up with the rapidly rising aspiration of Indians today, the need for governance and development have clearly emerged on the political agenda.

This is the first time in the 60 years of Indian democracy, that the prospect of policies that boost performance of government and the economic sectors are likely to get prime attention, out of sheer necessity of political survival in the extremely competitive world of Indian politics. This implies that policies would have to be formulated with much greater care, and these would have to be politically viable. And since the ordinary voter is not a policy expert, the only way to get the message out to the voter is by narrating the policy proposals to the public through the filter of political ideologies.

Again, for the first time in the history of democratic India, political parties have the need to adopt a coherent ideology in order to explain the intricacies of policies to its voters. So far, Indian politics have been largely devoid of ideology. All parties tended to adopt the dominant ideology of the day, since their distinctive feature was identity. Ideology was only seen as a providing a veneer to mask the base identities to which the political parties traditionally appealed to.

But with increasing significance of political performance for survival of political parties, policies are coming to the centre stage. To make policies politically accessible to mass audiences, political ideology will necessarily have to be developed. With diminishing returns from identity politics, political ideology will emerge from the shadows to the forefront.

For liberals in India, this is a once in a life time opportunity. For all these years, liberals were devoted to their political ideals, but found very few takers. The liberals were either swepat away by identity politics of one kind or the other, or their ideological roots were seen as politically irrelevant, in an environment where ideologies were not needed to differentiate different political parties.

Today, with the demise of identity politics, and rise of the need for political ideology to distinguish themselves from one another, the political environment seems opportune for a liberal renaissance in India. Are the Indian liberals ready to seize their moment under the Indian sky!

This is the real significance of the Bihar assembly election. It has reconfirmed the focus on governance that had emerged over the past decade, while also confirming the limits of identity politics.

Indian democracy has always been very vocal, voluble and full of colour. Yet, one of the most startling features of democracy in India has been the near complete consensus on the core political beliefs of the day, among most of the political parties.

Over the past century, as political freedom expanded around the world, so too did economic freedom. Almost all the rich countries of today are democracies. While the poor and developing countries are not typically characterized by their weak democratic political institutions. India has been a proud exception to that narrative.

India retained her constitutional democratic republican character right through the past six decades. But for the first time, with political competition facilitating an environment for economic growth and improved governance, out of sheer political necessity, the prospect of India actually joining the ranks of those countries that are economically free, politically democratic, and enjoying the highest standards of life seem to be a distinct possibility.

Indian liberals have their ideology, can they rise to shape the political destiny of India in the coming decades? The liberals have their task clear cut, history is confirming their path, future is beckoning them, but they need to be able to rise to the occasion.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Prospect of liberal politics in India today - Part 1

The verdict, in the Bihar state assembly election held in November 2010, has attracted a lot of interest across India. The ruling coalition of Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)), and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won a record 85% of the seats, 206 seats in a house of 243. Did this huge margin of victory, signify a major shift in Indian politics? Is the political agenda in India being reshaped? What does this election really tell us about the future political direction in India? I attempt to answer some of these questions in this two-part article. 

In this the first part, I analyse at the political scene in Bihar. And in the second part, I try to assess the direction Indian politics may take in the coming years, here.

Part 1: Lessons from the Bihar assembly election of 2010

Political configuration in Bihar 2010

This was the first major state to hold an election, since the general election to the national parliament (Lok Sabha) held in the summer of 2009. Naturally, there was a lot of interest to understand whether the verdict will be relevant only locally, or would it have national significance. Next year, 2011, as many as 5 or 6 states are expected to go to the polls to elect their legislators. So there was a high level of interest in the Bihar election, and speculation on the possible political fall out in the coming round of elections, and also on the probable impact on the political dynamics at the national level.

Secondly, the general expectation, and the opinion polls, had all indicated that the ruling coalition of JD(U), and BJP, will be re-elected. What was uncertain was the margin of victory.

Thirdly, Bihar is a state where caste based identity politics had struck deep roots. Almost all the major political parties in the state have come to rely upon the core caste based support it has. But in this election, there was a general consensus that issues of development - law and order, roads, electricity, employment, - were at the forefront during the campaign. So, there was a great deal of interest to see if the election really tilted the balance in favour of the development agenda.

Then there were other lesser themes running through this two month long election schedule. Given that most people expected the ruling coalition to win, there was an interest to see which of the two parties in the coalition would fare better. To keep the coalition together, BJP had to soft pedal its Hindu religious agenda.

There was also an interest to know how the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the party led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, who along with his wife, had ruled Bihar continuously between 1990 and 2005, through three legislative terms. The question was would the social coalition of Dalits (among the most oppressed castes), the Yadavs (among the backward castes) and the Muslims, that had seen the RJD through for 15 years, will continue to hold or dissipate.

The Indian National Congress (INC), the principal party in the national coalition government in Delhi, was seeking to make a comeback in the two major Hindi speaking states of the north – Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Over the past 30 years, INC had slowly but steadily lost its support base in these two major states. But INC had done surprisingly well in the UP in the 2009 general election to national Parliament, and so there was speculation that perhaps the party had turned a corner, and might improve its position in Bihar.

Finally, among the other major parties, there was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has emerged at the national level over the past two decades. The BSP now rules the largest state in India, Uttar Pradesh, having won the election to the state assembly in 2007. The BSP primarily represented the Dalits, which constitute about 20% of India’s population. But it changed its political strategy in prior to 2007, to include the poor, the religious minorities, and the disadvantaged among different social segments, and had built an unique rainbow coalition, which had propelled it to power on its own, in UP. So there was an interest to see if the BSP with its recent successes will have any impact in Bihar.

The past and the present in Bihar

Bihar is a major state in India, lying on the gangetic plains. It is politically a very significant state too. Yet, economically and socially, Bihar ranks among the lowest in India, in per capita income, or life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, and many other developmental indicators. Over the past twenty-five years, there was a general sense, that Bihar moves only in one direction, which is, downwards, falling further behind the rest of the country.

Bihar had produced many leaders of national prominence during the decades of India’s struggle for Independence. The first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, hailed from Bihar. In the first three decades after Independence in 1947, Bihar had a major role in shaping the social and political agenda of the country. During 1975-77, Indian democracy was under a cloud under the ‘Emergency’ rule of Mrs Indira Gandhi, when many constitutional rights and freedoms were suspended, Bihar was at the forefront of the movement to restore democracy in the country. Many of the current generation of political leaders are a product of that national movement.

Yet, over the next three decades, Bihar had lost its political prominence. Bihar had become synonymous with the worst of India’s social and political life. Identity politics of caste and religion fragmented the social fabric. Corruption and crime sky rocketed. Some of the worst forms of caste oppression and violence were witnessed in Bihar. Parts of the state were under the grip of extreme left wing forces. In other parts, mafia dons ruled their own fiefdom with impunity. Economic development had come to halt. Kidnapping had emerged as the most lucrative business. People, rich and poor, migrated out of the state in search of employment and safety. People of Bihar seemed to have lost their self-confidence and their pride. That was 2005.

The fifteen year rule of the RJD led coalition, in Bihar came to an end in 2005. Mr Nitish Kumar of the JD(U), formed a coalition government with the BJP. The soft spoken Mr Kumar was a study in contrast to the flamboyant Mr Prasad. With this election victory, people of Bihar seems to have confirmed their faith in Mr Kumar and his coalition. In return, Mr Kumar seems to have helped people regain their pride to be a resident of Bihar. 

Socially and economically, Bihar still has a long way to go. But there are a few things that the ruling coalition seems to have done in the past few years that have clearly impressed the people.

The most visible change was in restoration of law and order. Kidnappings declined dramatically. For the first time in years, people felt a degree of security. Even many parts of Patna, the capital city on the Ganges, particularly the river front had been abandoned to the criminals and bootleggers. Today, families with children feel safe to spend their afternoon and evening on the banks.

Apparently, the government had clearly instructed the police not to be swayed by any extraneous influence, but enforce the law. It is believed that about 50,000 suspected criminals were locked up.

The Economist, the international weekly magazine, reported on the changes in Bihar. Where there were no roads, now there were pot holes, recognizing the major effort of the state government to rebuild the roads and bridges.

Another popular step seems to have been the effort to promote education among girls. Hundreds of thousands of bicycles were distributed among girls who continued their education to the high school level. This step alone was credited with reducing the drop out rate among girls by about 25%.

In an effort to promote greater political participation among women, the state government also reserved half the seats in village councils, the third tier of electoral democracy in India, to women.

And women did participate in a major way during the recent election. According to Election Commission of India, 10% more women voted than men, when the overall voter turn out is estimated at about 54%. The turn out was 6% more than the number of people who voted in 2009 during the Parliamentary election.

In general, economic growth rate in Bihar has been averaging over 10%, higher than the national rate, for the past few years. This has been primarily driven by government expenditure on infrastructure.

While there has been a visible change in the ground situation in Bihar, it would be incorrect to assume that the bold efforts of the ruling coalition to improve governance had been the only factor that is responsible for its electoral success in 2010.

Development was clearly on the political agenda in Bihar as never before. But Mr Kumar also had undertaken a new form of social engineering. He promoted special welfare measures for two segments of the caste cauldron, in an attempt to create new sense of identities. Traditionally, social welfare programmes for the oppressed and underprivileged castes were captured by the more advanced segments within these sections. So Mr Kumar initiated special welfare programmes for the most backward among the Dalits (the Maha Dalits). He did the same for the most backward of castes (MBC) from among the other backward castes (the OBC).

In addition, Mr Kumar ensured that his coalition partner, the BJP, did not pursue the hardline Hindu agenda that alienates other religious groups, particularly the Muslims. Some of the more strident Hindu voices of the BJP, including the Chief Minister of Gujart, Narendra Modi, were not invited to campaign for the party.

These factors helped the ruling coalition to not only to consolidate their traditional social base, but also move break the core support base of the opposition as well. It prevented polarization of opinion among religious ground. And it prevented the consolidation of traditional caste support base in favour of the opposition.

Does this mean that identity politics continues to have a place even while developmental issues are emerging on the political horizon? To understand this question, one has to look back at the evolution of the Indian political scene over the past 60 years.

Save the tiger from those who love it

The summit in St Petersburg focusing on the plight of the tiger was the first international summit of its kind, though similar in content to the new Global Tiger Initiative launched by the World Bank in 2010 itself. Few of the tigers who roamed in the wild in the past remain that way at present, and many of the rest are in captivity. The greatest threat is the loss of habitat and man animal conflict. The tiger is a much valuable animal for human beings for parts like bones and skin. Environmental activists are busy blaming human beings for the problems of conservation without proposing practical solutions. My article titled "Save the tiger from those who love it" was published in The Financial Express on 7th December 2010.

Russia recently hosted a summit in St Petersburg to focus attention on the plight of the tiger in the wild. This is the first international summit of this kind, where heads of states of Russia, China, Bangladesh and some of the other range countries gathered to discuss the fate of the tiger. The summit follows the new Global Tiger Initiative launched by the World Bank earlier in the year. The bottle was new, but the content was the same old stale stuff!

It is believed that around 1,00,000, tigers roamed in the wild across 25 countries at the turn of the 1900. Today, barely 3,000 of them are in the wild. Another 10-15,000 are in captivity. The wild tiger, facing the prospect of extinction for the past 40 years, has seen a barrage of activism and funding. The Project Tiger was launched in the 1970s, then the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility directed more funds towards forestry and conservation, since the early 1990s. Over the years, innumerable conferences have been held and cash promised but nothing has helped the tiger yet. The summiteers in St Petersburg kept with that tradition, promising $350 million over the next few years, though more staunch environmentalists complained that barely 10% of this money is really new.

The delegates once again promised to work together to improve law enforcement so that the most profitable aspect, the smuggling of tigers parts, can be eliminated. They reaffirmed the belief that poaching of tigers poses the single biggest threat to wild tiger population, largely from India, which has half the wild tigers of the world today, to China, which has almost none, but where there is a demand for tiger body parts.

The biggest threat to the tiger comes from loss of habitat and man-animal conflict. Each year, a couple of hundred people die from wildlife attacks, mostly tigers, leopards and elephants. This often leads to revenge killings. On the other hand, poaching is estimated to constitute just about 25% of the threat to the tiger.

The most practical solution to saving tigers is allowing human beings some sense of property over them. Almost every species that brings any economic benefit to humans is generally nurtured and preserved: the humble cow is not facing extinction, despite the massive economic exploitation.

The tiger can also be as valuable. In the wild, it can attract tourists, nature lovers and even hunters, and generate revenue that can compensate for its keep. But this will only happen if the people living in its vicinity have some form of property right and ownership over the animal and its habitat, and can legitimately claim a share of profits.

A dead tiger is equally valuable for its skins and bones. And since the tiger breeds easily, even in captivity, it could be possible to breed them to meet the demand, again generating economic benefits. Alligator farming generates $20 million annually in the American state of Louisiana alone.

Demand for tiger parts in China could provide a big economic advantage and secure the future of the tiger in the wild. India is currently allocating about $20,000 per tiger per year and the money is not helping the tiger. Instead, a tiger could potentially earn 4 to 5 times as much and save itself from extinction.

The farmed or ranched animals could take the pressure off their wild cousins. And the wild ones could then become valuable as well for tourists and environmentalists.

Activists, and their political allies, don’t pursue these solutions; they are more interested in blaming humans as the problem. So they recommend clearing humans from tiger habitat areas.

Focusing on the problem creates an illusion for green summiteers that they are seriously engaged. It’s this illusive perception that helps political leaders consolidate their power in the name of protecting tiger. After all, in contrast to an ever demanding populace in a democracy, tigers make no demands. A blank check, that is a dream of all political leaders. But times are changing. Even the poorest forest dwellers in India are becoming aware of their citizenship in a democracy. They are demanding a way out of grinding poverty. They are voting for their rights. They are many times more numerous than the tiger wallahs!

At St Petersburg, delegates recognised that 40 years of conservation efforts to protect the tiger have failed, yet went on to promise more of the same. Pitting people, who live in close proximity to wild animals, against the animals. In such a conflict, the animals stand not a chance. It is time to realise that forests and wildlife are renewable resources. If the people are able to profit from those resources, then they will go out of their way to nurture and grow those resources. It is time to harness the power of commerce for the cause of conservation of tigers and its habitat. There is no need to wait for the delegates in St Petersburg to show the way.

Just as the world economy is trying to claw its way out of trouble on the basis of growing demand in developing countries, so too the tiger in the wild could be saved precisely because there is a demand for it, both dead and alive. Let the tiger earn its stripes!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Climate of Politics vs Economics of Development

In this article, I look at the political dimension of various environmental concerns. This is particularly relevant since the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), opened in Cancun, Mexico, this week. Last week, the first global summit on tiger conservation was held in St. Petersburg, Russia. What is common to such diverse environmental agendas is that they offer enormous opportunity to political leaders to escape accountability. After all, if one claims to speak on behalf of the tigers, the animals won't make any demand. Likewise, if one claims to speak of protecting the interest of future generations 50 or 100 years later, the leaders can be sure that the future generations will not be able to hold them politically accountable for any misdeed. Such agendas tend to be political blank cheques! Please read and comment.

Can the climate save the tiger!

This week, the annual summit organized under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is taking place in Cancun, Mexico. But after the collapse of the talks in Copenhagen last December, and the continuing economic turmoil in many parts of the world, not many are expecting any radical outcome.

The summiteers in Cancun may want to follow another meeting that was held in St Petersburg, last week. Russia hosted a summit to focus attention on the plight of the tiger in the wild, mostly in Asia, and Siberia, called the International Tiger Conservation Forum, organised under the auspices of the Global Tiger Initiative of the World Bank.

Economics of Tiger

The wild tiger has been facing the prospect of extinction for the past 40 years. Various initiatives such as Project Tiger were launched in early 1970s. Trade in tiger parts has been banned since 1975, (for Siberian tiger in 1987). Nearly two decades ago, the World Bank had launched the Global Environment Facility, a fund which was to have been used, among others, to help develop sustainable ecology in villages and reduce the human pressure on the forest and wildlife. Today, in India, many of the village eco-development committees are either non-existent or defunct.

India, which is home to about half of world’s tiger population, ranging between 1200 to 1500, now has nearly 40 forests areas are declared as tiger reserves. Thousands of villages dot these so-called tiger havens, where neither the tiger nor the people feel safe. In any such conflict between man and animal, where human toll ranges in a few hundred each year, the animal will necessarily lose out.

While participants gathered in Russia, in Chandrapur village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, a tiger was found dead, and officials tallied the number of people killed, presumably by tigers, in the district to 11 this year. A senior official in Madhya Pradesh estimated that there were over 700 villages in the different tiger reserves in the central Indian state, but about 100 villages are really critical, located in the heart of the tiger territories, and the people need to be moved and resettled elsewhere. For just this task, the bill could be around $600 million.

The summiteers in St Petersburg discussed the threat to tiger, promised $350 million over the next few years, and environmentalists complained that barely 10% of this is new money.

It is this kind of hopeless mismatch between the ground realities and global discourse, which has only perpetuated the crisis, whether it is the tiger or the climate. Ironically, most of the environmental activists look at people as the problem, and fail to think of people as the possible solution as well.

Almost every species that brings any economic benefit to the people are generally nurtured and preserved. The humble cow is not facing extinction, despite massive economic exploitation. Wilderness areas with tigers can attract tourists, nature lovers and hunters, and generate revenue. Particularly, if the people living in the vicinity have some form of property right and ownership in the animal, the habitat and can legitimately claim a share in the profits. It is estimated, that annually fishing and hunting generates economic activity in the range of $ 50 to 70 billion.

A dead tiger is equally valuable for its skins and bones, for fashion and Chinese traditional medicine, respectively. Since the tiger breeds easily, even in captivity, it could be possible to breed them to meet the demand, again generating economic benefits.

Alligator farming in just the state of Louisiana, in the US, generates $20 million annually. Rather than breeding tigers for commerce, the participants at St Petersburg promised stronger effort at enforcing prohibition, a policy that has not helped the cause.

In addition, if trade is liberalized, there could be significant demand for tigers in zoos, private collectors,circuses and among a section of exotic animal owners. There is no reason for such a magnificent and valuable species to face the prospect of extinction from the wild, if only one practiced what is generally preached at every environmental summit – think globally, but act locally. Particularly, allow the local people the freedom to act, since they know their immediate environment much better than anyone else.

But many environmental activists, and their political allies, are more interested in focusing on the problem, rather than practical solutions. Focusing on the problem creates an illusion for the various green summiteers that they are seriously engaged. And it’s this illusive perception that usually helps political leaders to consolidate their power. As for the solutions, if the problem were to be really solved, a whole range of activists and managers, who have thrived from the political patronage, will lose their bread and butter.

Claiming to represent the tiger is an attempt to secure a political blank cheque. After all, tigers make no demand to the political leaders, unlike the increasingly demanding human voters.

Politics of Climate 

The debate on climate change actually illustrates the same argument. A problem is proposed so far ahead in the future, typically 50 to 100 years, that political leadership across the world finds it very convenient to escape accountability, in the name of the future generations. After all, the future generations will never be able to hold the present leaders accountable.

But if people’s present priorities are not met, the prospect of that political power turning out to be a mirage is quite real. The collapse of so many totalitarian and authoritarian political regimes in the past two decades is an illustration of that reality too.

Like the tigers, the leaders face a practical problem today. Most people, particularly in poor countries, have many immediate problems to grapple with. For two billion people, daily survival is a top priority, and they cannot afford the luxury of considering future options, decades or generations down the road.

So political leaders gathering in Cancun will have to again consider the option of either dealing with a distant future, or confront the realities of today. Whether planet’s climate will change 100 years later, and wreck havoc on the people is uncertain. But what is not in doubt is that at least 2 billion people around the world do not have access to clean and safe energy. In India alone, particularly in the villages, indoor air pollution from inefficient cooking stoves poses daily health hazard to millions, with an estimated annual death toll of around 500,000.

Diseases may pose a problem in the future, but malaria poses a daily threat to hundreds of millions today. Tens of thousands of people die each year in rural areas of India and elsewhere, because the rural clinics do not have reliable electricity to run the refrigerators and preserve many medicines, vaccines and anti-venoms.

Two decades ago, ozone depletion was considered to be a top threat, increasing the risk of skin cancer to people with lighter complexion. Under the auspices of the UN, the governments agreed to replace the CFCs, used in air-conditioning, refrigeration and various aerosol sprays, which were believed to be the culprits. Today, there is not much talk of ozone-hole, or skin cancer epidemic, but the HFCs that ultimately replaced the CFCs, are believed to be a far potent greenhouse gas, contributing to global warming.

Over the past year, the political undertones of the global warming debate have been thoroughly exposed. The mis-pronouncements of the IPCC were not mere mistakes, but inevitable consequence of following the political lead. The political risk of miscalculation is very high, and which is why the political leaders are wary. The leaders of the rich countries, which typically funded or supported many of the environmental causes, no longer have the economic muscle to engage in their favourite pastime. 

This provides a golden opportunity for political leaders going to Cancun, to focus on the realities of today. Whether it is the pressure on forests which is threatening the habitat of the tiger, or the lack of access to safe and cheap energy, these problems of today, affect millions, and these are all manifestation of misguided regulations stifling opportunities for economic development.

Reality check

With economic freedom, countries like China and India would be able to afford more efficient energy technologies, and reduce the load of pollution on the environment. After all, even with currently available technologies, energy intensity of Germany at 0.12 tons of oil equivalent for $1000 of GDP(2005), is less than one fifth of India’s at 0.68. Likewise, with economic development, and improvement in agricultural efficiencies, pressure on forest would decline, improved habitat will help revive the wildlife, including the tiger. It is agricultural productivity that helped China expand its man-made forest cover by over 2 million hectares, annually, from 2004 to 2008. In contrast, India added 0.3 million hectares annually, between 1997-2007, India. It is this kind of development that has allowed the US to reintroduce wildlife in to areas from where they had disappeared decades ago.

Today, half the world population does not have access to reliable sources of energy. Ignoring that reality, and focusing on a problem that may or may not occur 50-100 years later and demanding a reduction in consumption today, will not be very politically palatable.

If Copenhagen in 2009, exposed the limits of political power, Cancun could show the enormous possibilities if the political leadership of free countries focus more on the real concerns of today, rather than choosing to enter a battle like Don Quixote! That battle may be very exciting, but also completely futile. It is the economics of development that should determine the climate of politics, rather than the other way round. It is only with economic development, will environmental quality improve as well.