In a recent article about a High Court ruling on the Sethusamudram canal project, Sunita Dubey pointed to the manner in which environmental clearances for infrastructure development are rammed through by every government, with open discouragement of public participation. Timely public hearings and responses to public concerns are rare; project promoters themselves write impact assessment reports despite the enormous and obvious conflicts of interest; many projects commence even before the necessary clearances are obtained. Recently, we found out that the feasibility studies allegedly conducted for the Interlinking Rivers project were in fact obsolete and incomplete, but various politicians have been exhorting the project, even in the face of opposition from millions of citizens.
Dubey compared such practices in India with the manner in which similar projects are scrutinised in the United States. There, regulations accord a powerful role to the local public. When a dam or a power project is proposed, citizens from impacted regions are invited to have a say throughout the process - from early-stage scoping to final approval. Impact assessment is done by the responsible government agency that either sponsors or licenses a project, and this already leverages a significant degree of political decentralization that simply has not been put into place in India. U.S. law also makes it mandatory for officials to demonstrate consideration of citizen concerns in writing. Projects cannot begin without clearance, as they do in India.
The irony in the Indian scenario is this: the West's largest lending-and-development-advocacy institutions are themselves camped in New Delhi, and even funding so called capacity-building for our environmental governance. And yet, the systems for governance in place in those nations are hardly the inspiration for reforms here. The US-based World Bank funded an environmental management capacity building project that New Delhi 'completed' in mid 2004 at a cost of 65 million dollars. Particularly in a capacity-building project for management, one would expect that the better participative traditions of the funder's home country should have received serious attention. But in fact, as 2004 wore on, the Ministry of Environment watered down regulations even more from their already inadequate state.
Over the years, both Mahrashtra's and the Centre's policies, compounded by corruption, ran the Federation into losses. It defaulted on payments to the growers, driving them into what then became a continuing cycle of debt. Subsequent state government policy dismantling the Federation's purchasing monopoly was timed such that it put farmers further at the mercy of lending and trading mafia for cotton sales. The recent spate of suicides at Vidarbha exceeded a hundred, with many other farmers yet to recover. It may be true that some farmers have themselves to blame, but one gets a sense of how our governments, in New Delhi and the state capitals, end up 'managing agricultural reforms'.
What do these examples - one in infrastucture projects and environment, and the other in agriculture - teach us? We note two points.
India's economic agenda remains deeply selective about ideas from the West; our leaders may aspire to the outcomes of many policies in developed nations, but have not accorded importance to systems that deepen public participation to achieve those outcomes. The American systems themselves were established by the massive environmental movement of the 1960s and early 70s, a phase that saw the passing of the National Environment Protection Act which set the stage for public participation. Thus, the depth of public participation in that country came about through massive pressure from citizens, not merely because it was a good idea already working elsewhere. India's adoption of the US line, on the other hand, often lacks such a foundation in citizenship.
The Vidarbha example points to the second lesson. A government that appoints itself the guardian of the people's economic interests without their participation was always likely to make mistakes, even if its intentions were benevolent. What possible notion of farmers' well-being can be identified and promoted without input from the farmers themselves? Would those same advisors accept direction on their personal finances without their own participation? Playing mid-wife to a new prosperity requires at least a minimum of input from the poor themselves; indeed, in developed countries, even the poor tend to regard elected officials and administrators as public servants, and are quite free in challenging them publicly.
In effect, then, we continuously embrace the capital-forming ideas of the West, without examination of the sometimes invisible support systems. Our governments' propensity to see citizens only as recipients of intellectual and economic largesse completely undermines the alleged goal of improving their social and economic condition. By pre-selecting the preferred outcomes for the people, we have forgotten the essence of democracy as it remains advocated both in our own Constitution and in the West - that it should promote self-governance, not governance from the top only. The predictable consequence of this oversight - thus far at least - has been a direction for our economic development that embraces grand ideas and delivers grotesque outcomes.