Gist of The Hindu: February 2015

Gist of The Hindu: February 2015

Development as a people’s movement

Development was a key issue in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In his very first speech after taking over as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi asserted that his government is committed to carrying on development as a people’s movement. This, he has asserted, will draw upon India’s democratic, demographic and demand dividends. But are we genuinely moving towards organising development as a people’s movement while building on these strengths? To cater to India’s massive population of consumers, people should have adequate purchasing power, such as that enjoyed by people employed in the industries or services sector. Unfortunately, as the malnourishment statistics indicate, a vast majority of Indians are poor, with barely 10 per cent employed in the organised sector. We are being convinced that vigorous economic growth is generating substantial employment. But this is not so.

When our economy was growing at 3 per cent per year, employment in the organised sector was growing at 2 per cent per year. As the economy began to grow at 7-8 per cent per year, the rate of growth of employment in the organised sector actually declined to 1 per cent per year since most of the economic growth was based on technological progress, including automation. At the same time, the increasing pressure of the organised sector on land, water, forest and mineral resources has adversely impacted employment in farming, animal husbandry and fisheries sectors. People who are being pushed out of these occupations are now crowding in urban centres. This is in turn leading to a decline in the productivity of the organised industries and services sector. Evidently, the ship of our development is sadly adrift.

Undoubtedly, people aspire for development. But what is development? Joseph Stiglitz, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics and one-time chairman of Bill Clinton’s Economic Advisory Council, offers an insightful analysis, asserting that development should result in an enhancement of the totality of a nation’s four-fold capital stocks: the capital of material goods, natural capital such as soil, water, forests and fish, human capital including health, education and employment, and social capital comprising mutual trust and social harmony. Our current pattern of economic development is by no means a balanced process resulting in the overall enhancement of the totality of these stocks.

Thus, for instance, mining in Goa has severely damaged the State’s water resources and caused high levels of air and water pollution. The ever-increasing content of metals in drinking water reservoirs has adversely impacted health. When thousands of trucks were plying ore on the roads of Goa, the resulting chaos in traffic and accidents seriously disrupted social harmony. Evidently, the single-minded focus on industrial growth is not leading to sustainable, harmonious development, but merely nurturing a money-centred violent economy.

In Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts of Maharashtra, both of which are Naxal-torn, there are hopeful examples emerging of how development may be nurtured as a people’s movement. A number of tribal and other traditional forest-dwelling communities of these districts now have management rights over Community Forest Resources under the Forest Rights Act. The state retains ownership over such resources, and these cannot be diverted to other purposes. But now these resources are being managed holistically with a fuller involvement of the people. The citizens of Pachgaon, for instance, have, through two full-day meetings of their entire Gram Sabha, decided upon 40-odd regulations. Tendu leaves are a major forest produce, but their harvest entails extensive lopping and setting of forest fires.

So, Pachgaon has decided to forego this income and instead focus on marketing the edible tendu fruit. By stopping the collection of tendu leaves, the trees are healthier and both fruit yield and income from its marketing have gone up. Incomes from bamboo harvest have also gone up manifold, and for the first time the people are moving out of the earlier precarious existence. Notably, they have on their own initiated protecting part of these forests as newly constituted sacred groves. Such community management of forest resources is the only sane way to combat extremism, and I have every hope that the new government, with its commitment to making development a people’s movement, will wholeheartedly support these initiatives.

Furthermore, Goa could revive its currently stagnating mining business through novel people-oriented initiatives such as the proposal from the tribals in Caurem village in Goa’s Quepem taluka. There, extensive community lands that harbour a large sacred grove — lands that ought to have been assigned as Community Forest Resources — have been encroached upon by palpable illegal mining, which has damaged water resources, affected farming, and created social dissonance. The mines are currently closed because of the illegalities, and the Gram Sabha has unanimously resolved that if they are to be restarted, this should be done through the agency of their multi-purpose cooperative society.

An imaginative deal

The 160-member World Trade Organization (WTO) wrote history last week when its General Council approved its first major global trade deal since its inception nearly two decades ago. The WTO got into a logjam when New Delhi put its foot down, and refused to sign the trade facilitation agreement unless a solution was found to the food stockpiling issue. The resultant impasse had even put a question mark over the very future of the WTO. Sensing the disastrous consequences of a WTO failure, Washington swiftly went into a bilateral huddle with India. Once the two sides agreed on a solution to the contentious issue, the decks were cleared for the WTO to ink its maiden trade agreement. Quarantining the public food stockpiling issue has ensured that the members’ commitment for a multilateral trading system remains intact. India and others felt that the Bali agreement put at risk their food security policies.

The WTO General Council has now agreed to keep the negotiations for a permanent solution on public stockholding for security consideration independent of the outcomes on talks on other issues. It has also decided to let the peace clause, agreed in Bali, to remain in force until a permanent solution is found. The agreement clearly addresses India’s concerns. The WTO has set for itself an accelerated time frame of December 2015 to arrive at a lasting solution to the issue. A stricter deadline reflects a sense of seriousness in not letting the issue linger indefinitely. In a way, it also assures the developed world that its concerns over the trade-distorting food subsidies remain a priority focus. With the General Council adopting the Protocol of Amendment, the process of implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement has finally begun. Essentially, it is aimed at modernising the trade infrastructure and easing regulations to smoothen global trade.

Since the Doha Round, the WTO has been struggling to be relevant in the midst of diverse interest blocs. It is hoping to shore up its image with the less-ambitious but procedurally significant trade facilitation agreement. The public stockholding issue almost spoiled the party for the WTO but now there is no need to redo Bali. Significantly, the WTO General Council has also given itself a deadline of July 2015 to agree on a work programme to implement the Bali Ministerial Decisions. If it reveals a prudential compromise, the historic deal also underscores the acute anxiety among members to work towards strengthening the multilateral trading system. Surely, the deal must spur member-nations to discover ways and means to deliver fast on the Bali decisions. The moot question, however, is: will the deal embolden the WTO attempt liberalising the more sensitive areas of trade as was intended by the Doha Round?

No closure for Bhopal

For thousands of residents of Bhopal, the disaster began the night they choked on the air which smelt of burnt chillies, and it hasn’t ended yet. The survivors got a pittance as compensation, thanks to an out-of-court settlement by the Indian government, and the late Warren Anderson, then chief executive officer of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), was not extradited for trial in India. Justice seemed remote then, and 30 years later even more so. Bhopal will be remembered for the horrors of industrial negligence and the havoc caused by methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals, and equally so for its aftermath of apathy and criminal callousness.
Recently, survivors appealed against a court ruling to reverse the decision that a U.S. firm could not be sued for ongoing contamination from the chemical plant. According to official estimates, 3,787 persons died and over 550,000 were injured, while unofficial estimates put the death toll much higher. The affected population continues to suffer from severe long-term health impact. The plant, which has tonnes of toxic waste, is yet to be cleaned up, and various agencies are still wrangling over whose responsibility it is and who will pay. UCIL’s plant manufacturing the pesticides Sevin and Temik was dumping waste on 6.4 hectares on the premises. Tests of the groundwater and waste dumps have shown the presence of mercury and other toxic substances, and chemical contamination has made water in the tubewells around the plant unfit for drinking.

According to the law of the land, UCIL was fully responsible for the wastes and for the clean-up. The question of criminal liability was never really settled, though in the minds of the people there was no doubt about it. Andersen and the company were spared a trial while thousands of survivors continue to lead a life of pain and trauma. Some UCIL employees and its former chairperson Keshub Mahindra were convicted of causing death by criminal negligence and sentenced to two years in prison in 2010, but they were released on bail. If anything, the disaster should have taught some important lessons in environmental protection and law, compensation and criminal liability, but it didn’t.

Bhopal was not a tragedy, it was a disaster waiting to happen. What is tragic is the predictability of events even after the gas leak: the lack of sensitivity and concern for the survivors, not even bothering to clean up the mounds of toxic waste, not attending seriously to the health issues, and making people run around for years for their rights. It is farcical that the government should enhance compensation for the survivors after having shortchanged them in the first place. Thirty years on, it is time for some serious reflection on the sensitivity of the state to such disasters.

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