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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Dear State Department: #NOKXL

There are only a few more days to submit comments to the State Department regarding its draft environmental impact statement on the latest version of the Keystone XL nightmare pipeline. Following the closure of the comment period, the state department may make revisions to its currently flawed assessment of the pipeline, which will ultimately be used to make a recommendation to the president.

[For those folks who are not deeply mired/versed in this debate already, this article, this archive and this video are some places to start. Bonus: If you pause the video at 2:29, you can see me in my white linen protest suit and Panama hat getting arrested in front of the White House.]

The pipeline is a focal point for environmental protest because its construction would be devastating to any attempt to stave off extreme climate change. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has said, the pipeline would essentially be “game over.” I won’t belabor the well established point that tar sands oil is particularly noxious. Suffice to say: We need to stop the pipeline.

Anyone concerned can submit comments on the impact statement to keystonecomments@state.gov. You can also send letters with suggested text via 350.org’s Stop KXL campaign or through other outlets, such as The Nation.

My own comment (which anyone can use):

I oppose Keystone XL because it serves neither our national interest nor the planet’s. The pipeline only returns profits to TransCanada (which has lied about facts and spun the story to suit its ends) while bolstering the incredibly destructive tar sands industry. This extraction is particularly bad for our planet (and hence our nation) and will only deepen our path dependency on an economic mode that cannot and will not survive in the long-run. If we are to transition to a post-carbon economy — which is the only option if we value the future and don’t simply discount all coming generations — we must take concrete steps to move beyond oil. Any economist worth her salt can explain that concept; adjust the discount rate, extend the time horizon a generation or two and there’s no way this pipeline is “in our national interest.”

More importantly, this is no longer just an economic calculus. The president’s “all of the above” energy strategy may be politically expedient and may (but still probably doesn’t) make sense in the very short-run. But expediency doesn’t equal morality, and this is not only an economic decicision. It is also a moral one. Some forms of energy — in this case, tar sands crude — are simply incompatible with a just and right future.

As such, blocking this pipeline is the only moral course of action.

— Adam Jadhav, April 14, 2013

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Semester research: The (de)evolution of Hindu environmental ethics

Pollution

I spent the semester tracing the evolution of Hindu orthodoxy and orthopraxy as it pertains to conservation, resource consumption and environmental stewardship from Vedic times to modern days through several key texts. Of course, the Hindu canon is much too large for any definitive conclusions, but these texts were selected by my professor as representative of the larger (vastly larger) body of texts.

You can read the full draft paper here. The academic abstract would go something like:

This paper examines Hinduism’s evolving attitudes toward nature and prescriptions of ethical environmental practice during the history of the religion. The paper critically considers eight texts that represent major trends in Hindu philosophy and practice, through the Vedic, classical, medieval and modern periods. In early times, Hindu society associated divinity and worship with natural processes. This was soon challenged by a renunciation theology that rejected the material/natural world entirely. Yet as polities and kingdoms swelled and expanded, social organization and material well-being became chief concerns of philosophers; the natural, wild world took on a negative connotation. Hinduism’s complex and changing cosmology further muddied the waters for questions of right action in environmental dilemmas. Nonetheless, there have been various counter trends with religious roots that may serve as a starting point for a Hindu-centric discussion of environmental protection.

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Back to the start

So right, in so many ways.

That this aired in primetime during the Grammy Awards is a powerful statement. I don’t want to see corporate American brand sustainable, simple living as something of its own (hell, I’ve come late to the party). But my heart is warmed over at the thought of such ethics in the mainstream.

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I’m writing to you, Senator #nokxl

Senator Durbin:

This is not a form letter. You and I have shaken hands plenty; for a while we were on a first-name basis when I was a political reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. How many times did I tour the Metro East with you? How many times was I there at town hall meetings in the Collinsville City Council chambers or Edwardsville or Granite City?

Today, I am in graduate school here in D.C. studying environmental policy. I’m an activist. I was arrested for protesting in front of the White House in September. I’m a scholar. I research natural resource policy, environmental degradation and sustainable development.

I’m asking you as a professional acquaintance, as someone who listened for a long time to the political concerns of southern Illinoisans, as a worried citizen and as a registered Illinois voter (my permanent address is in Champaign) to do all you can to stop GOP factions and Big Oil special interests from resurrecting the Keystone XL pipeline.

If you and your allies in the Senate take the time to talk straight to Americans (whatever the hell Fox News thinks), they will listen. If you take a moral stand, you’ll be doing the right thing (whatever the hell the Tea Party thinks).

And if you need help that I can provide, contact me.

There’s so much more we could be doing to invigorate our economy and protect this planet. Think about green jobs in a renewable energy economy. Think solar and offshore wind and green infrastructure. Think better quality of living and public health. Think natural splendor that warms heart and soul.

But if we instead take the cheap (actually more costly) and dirty (yes, really, really dirty) way of burning tar sands, we become that much more path dependent on oil. That’s game over for our planet.

I’ve heard you tell me directly about how Washington needs change, how it’s beholden to special interests, how our government needs bold action.

I say to you, lead the charge.

Adam Jadhav

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Jangal hei

Jangal = jungle

After net gains for several years, India’s forest cover is in decline. The full data is available now from the Forest Survey of India in its newly released State of the Forest Report 2011.

The government writes off any major backsliding, saying the reduction is due to shifting cultivation patterns in the rural northeast, plantation harvesting and Naxal rebels cutting trees. That last one is a dubious.

More likely, there are many factors at play in a complex dynamic that varies state by state. I’m in the process of designing a statistical research project looking for explanation among a number of variables, biological, economic, political and social.

The photo above comes from tropical forest in the Andaman Islands.

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Dear Mr. President…

The President is now apparently waffling on the latest attempts to lay a new pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The administration last month announced it would review the pipeline again for additional social and environmental concerns. Those of us opposed were thrilled; the delay of more than a year would likely kill the pipe. If approved, the pipeline very well could be game over for the battle to stem climate change.

Then the John Boehner-led U.S. House decided to tack a pipeline rider to a tax cut extension. This has become a political wedge and word has it that Obama may now try to use pipeline approval to win other short-term economic aid.

Cough*bullshit*cought

I recognize that while writing a letter feels incredibly empowering it’s still almost entirely symbolic. But I write to the president nonetheless. I’d encourage anyone else who cares about this to do the same.

Mr. President:

I was the 1,253rd person arrested protesting outside your house late this summer. That made me the final person to be cited for civil disobedience — officially failure to obey a lawful order — as we called on you to stem our planet’s addiction to dangerous oil and, in particular, dirty crude from the Athabasca tar sands. Our nation’s foremost climatologist James Hansen has called the Keystone XL pipeline “game over” for the battle to slow the tide of climate change.

Note: I’m not just a fringe tree-hugging hippy. I was a legal and political reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, raised in small-town middle America (central Illinois). I covered your campaign in 2008 as well as your efforts on behalf of others in 2006. I voted for you in your presidential run and your senate bid. I’ve followed you since Springfield and the state senate. I pay my taxes.

And I ride just left of center, politically.

Or at least I did. But the condition of our planet has convinced me to shed my neutral observer hat and don the fighting gloves an activist. That’s why I’m in grad school at American University, researching global environmental policy and issues. That’s why I was happily arrested in September for this cause. That’s why I was shouting “Show me what democracy looks like!” outside your house again in November. And that’s why I expect you to keep the promises you made when you were elected.

Sir, we need a fighter today; yes, the country is in dire straits economically, but you know as well as I do that short, myopic time horizons — the ones that set up the false environment-jobs dichotomy — only cause more problems in the future. Compromise is laudable to be sure, but how far will you bend?

You are a man of faith and morals; you and I pray our creator for the safety of those we love. Well, I believe that if we’re truly made in God’s image then we have a duty to look after our brothers and sisters and the lilies of the field as well. I heard you tell the world that we are our brothers’ keepers. Well, sir, addressing the environmental destruction of our planet is part of fulfilling that responsibility. By helping to look after the planet, you help to look after all its inhabitants.

Please, stop thinking about what Boehner or Fox News pundits will say about you tomorrow or next month. Please, stop worrying about a future date with Mitt or Newt or Rick. Please, instead start thinking about what kind of a world Malia and Sasha and (some day) my children will need.

Respectfully but urgently,

Adam Jadhav

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Panchayats the answer to India’s environmental woes? Not yet…

I spent much the past semester debating all the various ways society and individuals might protect the environment. What else would you expect from a policy program?

One answer I stumbled upon and investigated is India’s traditional form of local government, made constitutionally secure not quite two decades ago: the panchayat — literally the council of five.

Panchayats represent India’s attempts at decentralization, the supposed transfer of powers from the central and state governments down to village-level actors. For the environment, this theoretically promises that resource, conservation and protection decisions are made at the level where they are actually felt. In reality, panchayats today are hardly robust institutions of local governance. They’re mostly used as implementing agencies for India’s development agenda. Meanwhile they face competition from other less than secure or democratic institutions specifically designed to manage resources.

I’m not promising it’s the most riveting read; and I’m not certain I like the final product. This issue could be a much longer paper involving substantial field work. But click here if you really want to know.

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Let’s work in concert

I’m a sucker for well-produced, moving video.

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Footprint, schmootprint… an overconsumer’s confession

Ouch...

Actually, this is somewhat serious. I’m an overconsumer; if everyone on the planet were to live my lifestyle, we’d need several more earths. And yet I don’t own a car, I don’t eat meat, I eat primarily organic and my landlords purchase 100 percent wind electricity. I do fly considerably more than the average person, but even subtracting that carbon output, my lifestyle is still well above the planet’s per capita biocapacity.

While all eco-footprint calculators have serious deficiencies — a finding from my semester science brief (click here for a boring PDF) — the reality is that in America, we use more than our fair share; beyond our personal consumption, our lives are supported by carbon/resource intense infrastructure and government spending, as well as social, medical and commercial services.

Interested in finding out your footprint? Click here for a simplified version from the Global Footprint Network.

I can’t be all doom and gloom — certainly we’ve made some relative strides in recent years, in environmental governance, recycling, personal habits, “green” consumption, reforestation (in parts of the globe). But such incremental eco modernization (Arthur Mol, say what?) does little to offset rising global consumption as more and more countries attempt to mimic a U.S. standard of living (Peter Dauvergne and Gus Speth know what’s up). We see real global warming and resource depletion around the world; denying that is just not an option anymore.

I believe the social scientists who say we face serious limits to growth. We need to make changes, individually yes, but more importantly as a society.

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