A pandemic of democratic inertia

State, Market, Society
Last Updated 30 May 2020, 20:33 IST

As the economic toll from Covid-19 mounts, there have been a number of people pointing to past failures in funding public health, which has greatly increased our vulnerability. With some foresight, we could have built a healthcare system that is more resilient and able to withstand such large threats. To which it is added, at least now we must make the necessary investments in healthcare for the future.

Health is not the only arena in which this is heard, either. Another looming catastrophe is also receiving attention -- climate change. As in the case of public health, we have gone on merrily ignoring one warning after another about how badly we’re going to be hit by the changing climate, unless we change our ways soon. In fact, we are told, it may already be too late to avoid serious consequences.

But how likely is such a rethink? More than 30 years after climate change news began appearing regularly in the media, should we now be optimistic that coming face to face with a pandemic will finally nudge us into doing things that we’ve refused to do so far? Or is even Covid-19 not enough to rouse us from our wilful neglect?

The first answers aren’t reassuring. Among the big ‘reforms’ announced by the government as part of the package to revive the economy is a large commitment to expanding the coal industry. That’s odd, because even before the pandemic, it was widely understood that fossil fuels are things we should get away from. Boosting investment in them isn’t really the lesson we should be learning from Covid-19.

Another example is the proposed development of the Hubballi-Ankola railway line passing through the Western Ghats. Cut more trees, deplete more pristine habitats -- and even dismay a lot of voters in the process. You’d think this is exactly what a democracy should be able to prevent. And yet it happens.

Why? I think an important part of the answer is that our politics has reached a tipping point of failure -- the democratic processes we follow aren’t adequate to make a connection between the wishes of the people and the actions of our leaders. What we want is incidental, and rarely figures in the calculus of decision-making.

Is the public addicted to fossil fuels? I don’t think so. What it wants is affordable energy prices, and ease of consumption. If that is available from cleaner options, they will switch readily, sometimes even at a premium. But there’s a problem -- the political parties are addicted to fossil fuels, unlike the people they supposedly represent.

Why would any party take positions that are mis-aligned with the way more and more people think? Would that not make them unpopular, and therefore at risk of losing elections? Alas, the answer is ‘no’. What we are seeing, not only in India but around the world, is that political leaders ally with those who fund their elections. And legacy industries that are harmful to the planet are a big part of that funding.

Is there a risk of becoming unpopular by making such choices? Not at all. As political observers have often pointed out, parties have not really needed to earn the support of the public by delivering development. That’s fairly evident -- after seven decades of elections, we’re still in the bottom quartile of the world on many development indicators. Clearly, our one-time ritual visit to the ballot box every five years isn’t connected to making our lives better.

The irony is the public’s endless faith in this level of misalignment. We want something, we elect people to do those things for us, and they do the very opposite of what we want, repeatedly. We tell ourselves that the next choice we make will be better, but that’s not really true -- we’re always expecting basketball players to win cricket tournaments and trying to achieve victory through substituting one dribbler for another. It would be funny if it were also not so tragic to millions of people.

Can we really sleep through a pandemic and wake up with no new commitments to set a different course? Yeah, because that’s easier than taking responsibility for self-governance. Ultimately, the great disasters that loom can only be repelled by a much higher level of personal responsibility, and far greater levels of participation in public problem-solving. By leaving this to others, we find we have left it to no one.

(Ashwin Mahesh wakes up with hope for the city and society, goes to bed with a sigh, repeats cycle @ashwinmahesh)

(Published 30 May 2020, 19:37 IST)

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