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The PM's Trusteeship and our Dharma
My Question this Week
I believe Prime Minister Modi was sincere when he exhorted the world to have a sense of trusteeship in dealing with the planet. An inordinately large part of what we call economic policy plays off private versus public. But a ‘sense of trusteeship’ is neither, or perhaps it is both, where private control is focused on achieving public good. Gandhiji, I believe, tried to get this point across, when he opposed public/government control, but also exhorted against self-serving private gains.
Be it community control over forests (read news on Nepal forests), or philanthropy-driven education and healthcare, a significant part of India has been built under the trusteeship principle. But that was before state ownership and regulation destroyed such institutions. The PM has done well by bringing it up before the world. For, as trustees, it is our responsibility, duty, and dharma to hand over the planet to the next generation in good condition.
But unfortunately, the PM will fail in this, he cannot succeed in implementing it, however sincere he may have been. We are in a hurry to generate wealth to achieve economic welfare. Therefore, given the choice between, for example, leaving Nicobar’s ecology alone and having a strong logistical presence in the Indian Ocean, our government will choose the latter. Or when we need to choose between greater coal power plant capacity and evening blackouts, we all can guess the choice government will make. A state intent on rapid vikas (development) will keep on eating into ecological wealth and environmental assets, it will not be able to help itself.
The key problem, you may believe, is the absence of technologies that can enable both the trusteeship principle and development. I beg to differ. The key problem is not having enough faith in trusteeship as a guiding principle of policy. Technologies develop based on the objectives of the innovator, and they succeed based on the objectives of the implementer. If these objectives are weighed toward wealth creation, the environment will naturally take a back seat. But technologies take a long time to develop, and our society has lost its trusteeship heritage.
What should the Prime Minister and his government do?
My Views this Week
It is amazing how naïve the world is, no one in the developed world will transfer the trillions required for climate change mitigation and adaptation to the developing world. At best we can expect a few hundred billion with minor concessions, but currently, even that is missing. And as climate change worsens, it will be more unlikely for western governments to share their ill-gotten wealth. So, if we really care about the planet, we must stop looking for help and do what we can. As a first step, our leaders must stop engaging with western hypocrisy and ignore them.
Rarely do we find government personnel being punished for a job poorly or improperly done. And more so in environmental matters. But we must celebrate when that happens, as it recently did in Gurgaon. The bulk of pollution and ecological destruction has its roots in poor policy or implementation. Even destructive individual or private sector actions typically have their roots in governance flaws. This may be the first time in India when both the private contractor and the overseeing government personnel have been booked.
Food production harms the environment in many ways, a few key ones are, greenhouse gas emissions, fertilizer runoffs, water extraction, and land exploitation. If you looked at all such aspects, a lot of our conventional wisdom on environmentally ‘superior’ foods and farming technologies may be grossly flawed. Pig farming may be more harmful than cattle, fisheries may be worse than poultries, etc. A highly recommended read for all.
There are increasing reports of a spate of dams being planned in Tibet. And these are not just on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, but also the Mekong, their tributaries, and others. But even India, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos are building large dams on such rivers. While governments are going in for dams, many environmental groups are cautioning against them, in that large dams may be extremely harmful, and also too expensive for what they deliver over a lifetime. However, in India reports indicate that Narmada’s dam-ing has yielded great benefits. Unfortunately, there is no rigorous study that identifies the specific conditions under which dams can yield benefits or cause harm.