Democratising a democracy

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Tuesday 15 October 1996

last fortnight, the French organised a mega-meeting of over 400 people, not to discuss 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' but 'Democracy, Governance and Sustainability'. Alain Lipietz, the French Green Party's economic ideologue, says the conference was first being organised with the provocative title of 'Is Democracy capable of managing the long-term?' The argument being that elected leaders will never take decisions that changes the present consumptive lifestyles. They would fear losing the race to those who promise a heaven stuffed with material goods. Thus, democracy is antithetical to the interests of the environment movement. But the scientific institutions which organised this meeting finally chose the following title: 'Environment, Long-term Governability and Democracy -- 21st Century Perspectives for the Environment'. Trust French intellectuals for such mouthfuls!

It was fun, nonetheless, and amazingly, there was considerable agreement about the importance of democracy. I pointed out, for instance, that if democracy is a problem it is also the only solution we have. Sustainability is not a technocratic issue -- it is the end result of a socio-political process which encourages learning from past mistakes and forces decision-makers to change mid-course. Unfortunately, many environmentalists and World Bank experts have reduced it to technical issues like cfc -free refrigerators, organic farming and solar power plants, because then consultancies can be provided and technologies sold.

To wit, the much-derided Green Revolution ( gr ). The devastating droughts of the mid-'60s made India realise that it was neglecting its agriculture and immediately, a programme was mounted to increase crop production. The technology of high-yielding varieties, aided by chemical inputs, was promoted. And it paid off well. It fed a lot of people and made India self-reliant. Without this, India could not have challenged the food-giver of the mid-'60s, namely the us government, on the issue of East Pakistani refugees and create Bangladesh. But soon, democratic India also learnt that increasing food production can fill warehouses but not the stomachs of the poor. The droughts of the early '70s brought forth employment programmes to assist the poorest of the poor to get a survival wage and feed themselves. Droughts have since come to India, but never accompanied by famines.

What India has, however, not learnt is the health and environmental consequences of gr . It is environmentally very destructive but the space it provided was not used to research and develop productive but environmentally-benign agriculture. Here, India's democracy failed because the state which controlled all the agricultural and medical scientists consistently refused to acknowledge the dangers of fertilisers to the maintenance of soil fertility and the threats posed by pesticides to human health. Because of this ignorance, perpetuated by what are definitely undemocratic characteristics of state bureaucracies and institutions, India did not even make an effort to meet this challenge.

Learning and self-correction will only come if democracy goes beyond the election of the country's leaders. It must also promote debate and reflection by making information freely available, letting people speak out without fear and allowing them to organise themselves for civil action. In some cases, even this may not be enough. There, democracy will have to be extended from the top echelons of national institutions to the grassroots. Again, India failed here, which is why there is so little grass today at the roots. Forests is a case in point here. India's economy, especially of the poor living in and around forests, demands that forests be exploited as well as conserved. This means that trade-offs must be decided every time a decision is made about the exploitation of forests. Don't expect a bureaucrat or a minister sitting in Paryavaran Bhawan (which houses the Union environment ministry) to decide these trade-offs in favour of the local people and forests dwellers. This is exactly what the Chipko movement showed in the early '70s and made us realise the importance of local decision-making.

Thus, India has done well because it is a democracy, but it has also failed dramatically because it is not democratic enough. Its bureaucracy-dominated systems, created by a colonial power, remain as colonial as ever and have been so internalised by the elite that they don't even see the real problems. Unless the disinterested and incompetent Indian Administrative Service, Indian Forest Service, water bureaucracy and others are totally shredded and composted, the politician-bureaucrat nexus will not go and India will not move at its roots. The challenge will then be to build participatory and democractic institutions at the roots of the society.

Many global environmental problems also arise and continue only because there is no global democracy. usa and India, like many others, may be electoral democracies at the national level. But discussions between them on environmental issues like global warming take place within the framework of a loose global federation of national governments. But will the us government care much if an Indian, Bangladeshi or a Maldivian were to drown because of rising sea levels? It will demand trade-offs in these negotiations which are of economic interest to its own people, and not accept the high costs of what that does to the poor living in the coastal regions of marginalised countries. But if there existed a framework of global democracy, a Bangladeshi would have the right to stop us citizens enjoying Mother Earth to a point that would threaten the very existence of his/her country. All the environmental talk of Only One Earth remains deeply hollow until such a democratic right is recognised and made legally enforceable. Thus, the long-term can only be protected if democracy is further strengthened at the national level and created anew at the local and global levels.

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