Revolt of the rich and the poor

When a recent report says 26 people now own the same wealth as the world's poorest half and the IMF chief flags risks associated with India’s high fiscal deficit, here is a look at how 2018 was the year of revolt of the already-rich and the very poor

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 28 December 2018
Image: Getty Images Image: Getty Images

We are just stepping into a new year. I had said 2016 was a year of revenge of the rich that unfolded in the election of Donald Trump and Brexit. For 2017, I tagged it as the year of revenge of climate change when the weather was terribly weird. And for 2018, let me give my verdict: it was the year of revolt of the already-rich and the very poor. It may sound contradictory, but that’s what the year was all about. In continuum, 2019 should be a year of realisation of change that we can bring in.

The messages of 2018 mostly emanated from the streets—from Paris to Delhi. We need to understand these protests to see how they are linked—enjoined against the current economic and ecological order. We need to understand so that we can work towards change. Now.

The yellow vests in Paris out on the streets are pitted against the French government’s efforts to combat climate change by raising fuel prices. Their message to President Emmanuel Macron is that you may be worried about the end of the world, but we are worried about the end of this week. The fuel price hike has become a potent symbol of their anger against increasing costs, taxes and unemployment. In their world, their President’s plans to reduce emissions seemed distant and out of touch with their reality.

This is disturbing for a world that is running out of time to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or face a catastrophic consequences. More importantly, because large number of people in the world do not even have access to energy, it means that the rich have to do more to reduce consumption, create ecological space for the poor to increase and provide funds so that the poor too can grow, but grow without fossil fuels. This is the challenge.

But the French government has forced its own people against the enormous challenge of climate change—the need for ambition and the need for equity. The world not only needs equity in the global agreement for GHG emissions, it also needs to address the issue of equity in each country. The French protest is not against the poor Indian or Bangladeshi. It is against their own government’s inability to build an economic model that meets the needs (if not the aspirations) of all.

Take the issue of the hated and now deferred fuel tax. The fact is that France needs to do much more to reduce the use of petrol and diesel in transport. There is huge talk about how Paris has changed its mobility patterns, by getting more people to walk, use a cycle or even a bus. But the fact is that these changes are not showing up on the ground. Data reveals that well over 80 per cent of people commute in cars in France; railways and buses still have a miniscule share in passenger travel.

But instead of improving the infrastructure for mass transit, the French government is bent to downsize its railway network, which is publicly owned and in heavy losses. It is reducing the workforce and has cut unprofitable trains, hitting people twice. It is no wonder then that they are out in force against the “President of the Rich” as they call Macron.

This is not the way to fix climate change. In fact, it is clearly going to backfire and make governments wary of doing anything drastic or inconvenient. This when we need even more drastic action. But what is also clear is that action—national and global—must be inclusive. It must be fair. It cannot hit the poorest—the ones without energy to even cook food. It cannot even hit the poor in the rich world—the ones without affordable alternatives to cars, for instance. Climate change action will not work unless it works for all.

It is certain now that countries in the West—those that needed to reduce GHG emissions—have only managed to show reduction because they have exported their manufacturing industries to other parts of the world, mostly China. So, there is no reduction in consumption or reduction in emission, there is a change where the emission is generated.

So where does this leave India? Can we take the beaten path or will we have to reinvent? As yet, there is little appetite for this reinvention. Let’s hope that in 2019, protest will lead to the year of the realisation that change must come in the way we do business. Happy New(s) year to you.

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