India’s democracy needs an asterisk when it comes to development

A random bit of news filtered through PTI (government press and re-write bureau): An environmental impact assessment (EIA) of a hydropower project in northeast India is hopelessly flawed. The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People has followed this process and continues to point out irregularities and poor performance in evaluating the effects the dam will have.

From the Business Standard:

A Delhi-based NGO has alleged that the environment impact assessment (EIA) study for 1200 mega watt Kalai II Hydroelectric Project (HEP) in Anjaw district is “incomplete, inadequate and shoddy”.

A recent document released by South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People (SANDRP) has revealed that the “EIA cannot clearly state whether Kalai II is a storage project or a run of the river project and it is also not clear about the height of the dam.”

It might be tempting to see this only as another case of anti-dam activism. SANDRP is likely to oppose most dams, with good reason, and India has a long history of troubling dam building. Sardar Sarovar became the flashpoint for an international movement against both megadams and the World Bank.

But I’m not actually concerned so much with the dam itself (though dams are problematic and we should be skeptical) as opposed to the process of evaluating development. This botched EIA is symptomatic of a much larger problem that is well-known in Indian environmental activist circles:

In terms of environmental protection, the essence India’s democratic credentials are questionable at best.

Let’s start, briefly, with what a democracy actually might be. It’s much more than what your average high school civics class might teach. Democracy is not a binary condition. It’s not a “yes-or-no” decision on whether a country is democratic or not. It’s inherently complex and multidimensional.

Consider that one widely accepted international index of democracy, Polity IV, scores states on six metrics: regulation of the chief executive “recruitment,” competitiveness of executive recruitment, openness of executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, regulation of participation in elections and competitiveness of participation in elections. In the composite index, states are ranked a continuum from completely autocratic (-10) to completely democratic (+10).

What’s more, we can see examples of democracy and autocracy actually coexisting. After all, the U.S. likes to consider itself a gold standard of democracy and yet this happened.

Of course, India’s sycophants like to point to the “hyper competitive” electoral atmosphere and call India the world’s largest or most vibrant democracy. And, to an extent, they’re backed by Polity IV, which scores India a 9 overall, placing it in roughly the same level of democracy as most of Latin America and parts of Europe. However, the latest Polity Global assessment also suggests that India suffers from “serious” state fragility considerably worse than many other countries with its level of democracy.

Yet we know that even the Polity calculation of democracy is far from comprehensive. Other scholars suggest that democracy requires much and more to function. Paul Collier, a relatively conservative development researcher who isn’t always right but has spent a considerable amount of time looking at democracy, strays far from the classic “free and fair elections” description in his popular development treatise (which has its problems), Bottom Billion. Essentially, Collier writes, elections are easy to put together. But, he says, democracy fundamentally requires elaborate checks and balances — what Douglass North or Acemoglu and Robinson might call “institutions.” Though the institutions might look different in different geographies, it’s clear: They are not overnight creations.

Collier goes further to suggest that often elections are all the ruling elite want; they’re easy to compromise and capture. Patronage and vote buying can easily win out (as it does in India). Affinity and class bias frequently overrule debate in the informed consent process (as it does in India and the U.S.). True checks and balances — from a free, fair and thoughtful media (India still doesn’t have free radio journalism despite its usefulness to a widespread village populace) to campaign finance controls — are often not in the interest of power, so they are particularly difficult items to institutionalize (Acemoglu and Robinson have similar conclusions about institutions).

Which brings me back to the check-and-balance system in environmental governance. One key combination for reining in both the de jure ruling political elite or the de facto ruling corporate elite are the joint institutions of public hearings and fair environmental impact assessment (EIA). However, if the latter is a sham, so is the former. And in India’s case, unbiased environmental impact assessment is largely fiction.

The process, boiled down, goes like this: Big developers (often working with/at the best of government) come up with big ideas. They commission and pay for EIAs. EIAs are submitted to Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). MOEF brings these to the Environmental Appraisal Committee (EAC). EAC is to make recommendations on the projects and the politically appointed minister signs off.

Projects are generally cleared, though sometimes with stipulations. Of course, politicking makes it seem as though India’s development is constantly stalled because of clearance; when environment ministers occasionally are shuffled, the new boss has been known to clear a spate of projects to give the impression s/he is working.

Of course, since EIAs are bought by companies who want their developments approved, they generally skew the facts. And because the government desperately wants big construction and neoclassical capital development and FDI and such, officials face all kinds of political pressure to clear projects, despite serious environmental and social concerns (insert something about POSCO and human rights).

The regularly off-the-cuff Jairam Ramesh, when he was environment minister, called the EIA process a farce..

Environmental impact assessment report is a bit of joke. I admit it publicly. In our system, the person who is putting up the project will be preparing the assessment report. I have been very concerned about this. The Supreme Court has also expressed its concern.

And just last month, the Hindustan Times reported that the EIA process has been revised 100 times in about seven years, reflecting political whims, fancies and, sometimes, the desire to squeeze projects through.

Governments even know this but the pressure to approve “development” is great. Here’s a report commissioned by the state of Goa:

The EIAs, ECs and EMPs were found to be highly deficient in information pertaining to major environmental parameters such as land use pattern, water resources, biodiversity, demographic profile, dependency of people on agriculture, air quality and impact of air pollution on people’s health.

A few years ago, activists even found that parts of the EIA for a proposed bauxite mine in Maharashtra were literally cut and pasted from an EIA on a Russian mine. Site specific variables were the same.

I could go on and on. If you’re still interested, try reading here and here and here.

Or consider the facts the dam assessment in Arunachal Pradesh. The report doesn’t even declare the most basic specifics of the project — dam height or whether the dam will actually block the river flow. Perhaps the assessment isn’t sure whether the dam is a dam.

How then do we expect a legitimate public hearing? What happens to informed consent.

That these kind of basics can be left out of the process is laughable. Except that no one should be laughing.

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