By: Ajaz Ashraf
Our past experience in policy implementation underscores the problems inherent in assessing governments on the utilitarian principle, which is precisely what most observers have invoked to judge the performance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first 100 days in power. As has been the case in the past, they have tried to estimate the number of people to whom benefits could accrue from the initiatives of the Modi government or, alternatively, predict their influence on economic growth.
Since the efficacy of any policy depends immensely on its execution and the socio-cultural context in which it operates, what appears imperative in theory can often turn disastrous in reality. Despite the pretensions of those who believe the effects of socio-economic programmes can be predicted with the precision of science, their impact, salutary or not, unfolds only in the future, thus unknowable in the present.
This suggests it might be advisable to substitute the utilitarian principle with an arguably more ethical one to judge governments. What could that ethical principle be? Modern politics revolves around the idea of enhancing the quality of life or ensuring it doesn’t deteriorate. Therefore, it won’t be wrong to assert that governance leading to death and devastation is not only ethically wrong but should also be outside the pale of politics.
Yet, the inscrutability of the future implies we cannot know which of the policies, conceived with the utmost noble intentions today, might wreak havoc tomorrow, demanding corrective measures or even reversal. Indeed, our inability to foresee the future with any precision yields the ethical principle for judging governments, namely, they should not commit to policies whose consequences are irreversible. This is because, should it be realised that the consequences of any policy are inimical to society, their very irreversibility renders the damage permanent.
It is against this benchmark of irreversibility that the Modi government, as also its predecessors, must be judged in the absence of accurate foreknowledge. Undeniably, the verdict is emphatically in favour of the Modi government on issues such as its insistence on bureaucrats attending office punctually, phasing out archaic laws, focus on sanitation, and the Jan Dhan Yojana facilitating financial inclusion. Regardless of their execution, these will not engender irreversible consequences.
By contrast, the government is guilty of triggering irreversible consequences through its environment policies and silence over its party cadres intent on tearing apart the country’s social fabric. Is this assertion justified, given the opaqueness of the future? Yes, just as medical science tells us that a Stage III cancer patient will likely die soon, our contemporary knowledge suggests the Modi government’s actions in the realms of society and environment will lead to avoidable death and extinction of non-human species and irreplaceable rainforests.
It isn’t about the hackneyed but important debate between development versus environment as much as about the Modi government, much like its predecessor, displaying extreme certitude in its own knowledge about the future and disdain for environmental science.
Thus, for instance, it has lifted the ban, imposed in 2009, on new factories being established in eight industrial belts, including Vapi in Gujarat, which were deemed to be critically polluted on the basis of the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index. Again, the government peremptorily reconstituted the National Board for Wildlife and promptly had a clutch of pending projects cleared. Public hearings of affected people are no longer mandatory for coal mines of certain capacity wishing to expand. It’s the district administration, not village councils, which will now certify that the consent of tribals to the diversion of forestland has been taken. Large-scale amendments to the land acquisition act are being contemplated. Incidentally, this isn’t an exhaustive list of “green checks” that the Modi government has worryingly undone.
These green checks were introduced due to looming ecological perils, of which global warming and climate change are only the most deadly. At the nub of it is the agreement that nature doesn’t have infinite capacity to sustain life, that the impact of certain debilitating consequences of human activity on the environment could be irreversible. This, in some sense, was echoed in the “precautionary principle” enunciated at the Rio conference on the global environment in 1992, which asks governments to exercise care and show patience while taking environmentally consequential decisions in a context
India isn’t immune to natural limits, borne out by the devastating floods under which Kashmir is reeling now, as Uttarakhand did last year. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research says India loses about five billion tonnes of top soil every year. It takes millennia to form top soil, which is vital for agriculture. Of the total forest area of 70-75 million hectares in 1981, 1.1 million hectares had been diverted for economic activity till 2011, nearly 55 per cent of it since 2001. An economist friend calculates that this means over 100 full-sized football fields have been mowed down every day over the last 30 years. Aquifers have started to dry up and water tables are plummeting countrywide.
It is impossible to tell how close India is to the “tipping point”, but it would seem the Modi government has adopted a callous approach in hurriedly undoing the green checks imposed after prolonged consideration and debate. It is nobody’s case that clearance or rejection of proposals for industrial projects shouldn’t be streamlined. Nevertheless, considering that the ministry of environment and forests has just six regional offices, each having two to four officers, monitoring thousands of projects that have had to seek environmental clearance, the Modi government has thrown caution to the winds, appearing contemptuous of those who fear irreversible consequences arising from unbridled industrialisation, sought to be achieved through the removal of green checks and lax policing.
The Modi government has certainly violated the ethical principle of avoiding irreversible consequences through its silence on the devious attempts of its party cadres to stoke the embers of communalism. But for suggesting a 10-year moratorium on violence — a strange formulation indeed — Modi has neither reprimanded the Hindutva hotheads nor reined them in.
Whether crafting the narratives of “love jihad” and forced conversions, or the RSS chief demanding that religious minorities describe themselves as “Hindu”, there is no denying that the already frayed social fabric of India might get torn, or even sliced into ribbons, by those who mistake history for a pair of scissors. This is bound to spawn hatred and bloodshed, as happened in Saharanpur recently and Muzaffarnagar last year. It will vitiate the atmosphere all round and provoke other formations to resort to retribution.
In the Modi government’s imagining of the future, there are elements that are indeed frightening because it presages a life likely to be irreversibly diminished from what we know of it today. This imagining is dangerous because it recognises no limits.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist