PAY ATTENTION: We need the ocean and maybe the ocean also needs us


It’s World Oceans Day, a day to celebrate a fundamental global resource upon which so much of planetary life depends. But this is a rather bittersweet, nominally awareness-raising holiday. That’s because the state of the global ocean — the collection of marine ecosystems from shallowest estuary to deepest trench — is well, abysmal. Cheering on an internationally named “day” then feels a bit like “celebrating” our most prized possessions as we set them on fire.

The ocean from the intertidal-level view

I work in a lightly touched coastal estuary and among small- and intermediate-scale ocean fishers in coastal Karnataka (above photo). My team and I mix research with advocacy. And on a lot of occasions, it feels like we’re losing the battle to protect our coastal and marine commons. And given how mission critical (mission=continued existence) the ocean is, I find myself sometimes quite bleak about the future of our planet.

In my latest project — a study on social ecology and dependence upon mangroves in my estuary/playground — we’re asking people how much compensation they would need to accept a large industrial shipping port proposed by the government. The port would wipe out large sections of mangroves and destroy the healthy estuary. Watching the zeal with which the state government pushes this project is pretty depressing.

But then the research surprises me. Through more than 200 surveys conducted so far (about a fifth of the total target sample), the vast majority of respondents refuse to accept any of the hypothetical compensation bids they’re offered. That includes households offered up to 5 million (50 lakh) rupees. For many of these households that’s equivalent to about 50 years’ income.

So many I don’t need to give up on human-ocean relations just yet.

Happy World Oceans Day.

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Minerals from the sea: Problem closure, neoliberalism and ocean grabbing in the Indian EEZ and beyond


For much of the past 18 months, I have worked part-time on a large review of ocean mineral extraction in Indian national waters as well as by India in the high seas. The present is oil but the future are a host of other minerals that often fall under the rubric of “seabed mining.”

In this mini-book, I propose that by framing development questions as an urgent race for resources (minerals, in this case) the government problem closes and narrows simply to the “next frontier” of mineral extraction: the ocean. This problem closure (i.e. narrowing the definition of the problem that also narrows the solution set) is problematic on its own, but it is further compounded by a penchant for neoliberal policy and ideology that has essentially set off another kind of ocean grab.

The subject matter is at times arcane, dense and, well, boring. But the way ocean mineral extraction fits into India’s larger development-at-all-costs narrative raises serious questions about the undemocratic nature of minerals governance.

So enjoy (if possible).

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The social and political economy of an estuary worth protecting

Oyster mudflats, a political space that also serves hundreds of households

Last week I presented another set of research findings / summaries of my work with Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation. This presentation casts the Aghanashini River estuary as a political economic space, affected by multiple external and internal optics and development trends. This review ultimately ends in a call for robust valuation of this critical ecology (from non-monetary and monetary perspectives).

To see the full presentation which may yet yield a paper, click here.

Note: There are serious critiques to be made of the ecosystem services valuation paradigm. Yet such valuations remain critical for much policy and management. A balance must be struck between pricing everything all the time and pricing nothing ever. On this I straddle.

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When neoliberalism meets legal pluralism

Mangroves that will be lost if the state government has its way.

Mangroves that will be lost if the state government has its way.

Last month I presented an initial salvo of research findings on coastal development in Karnataka. The work primarily focused on my study in and around the Aghanashini River estuary for Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation.

The presentation will eventually be submitted as a journal paper, examining how classical development is clearly neoliberal and privatizing in nature, while so-called alternatives in the estuarine and coastal space are also quite neoliberal, when we consider the legal plural environment that is the coastal commons.

The thesis is still a work in progress, so if you’ve got feedback, e-mail me.

Click here to see the presentation.

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Get it straight, Delhi. That’s not fog. It’s smog.

It’s the time of the year when the Indian media start writing about predictions for Delhi’s winter fog. Poisonous, toxic “fog.”

Which really makes it not fog at all, but smog. This year there may be 100 hundred dismal hours of it.

Delhi, it’s time we owned up to it. Call a spade a spade and start thinking about how to fix the problem. And to be clear, the problem is us.

Yes, weather plays a small part, but as I’ve written before, what makes the wintry choking haze particularly harmful is in fact human pollution. I’m not alone in arguing that we actually need to shift our discourse and talk about the phenomenon as anthropogenic smog, not just annoying wintry smog.

And new research shows it’s worse than you ever thought. During rush hour, pollution (particulate matter) at autorickshaw-level — where most people breathe — is apparently 50 percent higher than all what is measured by those safely cloistered ambient air measuring stations on top of buildings and away from roads.

And, in case anyone needs a reminder, even the ambient air readings aren’t exactly awesome. In fact, they’re exactly not awesome.

At least India can claim to beat both Pakistan and China in this regard:

Delhi’s air pollution levels, which, according to the latest WHO Ambient Air Pollution Database, are at just under 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The world’s second most polluted city, Karachi, clocks in at a little over 250, while the major Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai, internationally notorious for their pollution, clock in a relatively fresh 120 and 80 respectively.

(Really not the race we want to be winning.)

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If @greenpeaceIndia is anti-development, then what is this?

I have largely kept my mouth shut on the Intelligence Bureau (IB) vs. Greenpeace India showdown last month. I guess I’m — surprising even to myself — a little gun-shy.

The leaked report has been posted online; read for yourself. IB has uncovered a large network of NGOs that are attempting to “take down” India’s development.

In the interest of fairness, here’s Greenpeace’s response. You might also want to read some strong reaction here. Or just Google it for all the debate.

As I read it, the IB report (supported by “facts”) says that being concerned about the environment (often in solidarity with other people internationally) and opposing mega projects that sacrifice said environment for questionable, often inequitable, short-term economic gains makes you anti-development and anti-national. I guess that means that substantial numbers of people in our country who stand for inclusive development that doesn’t wreak havoc on people and planet are anti-development and anti-national.

The report makes a stark claim that such opposition knocks two to three percent off of India’s GDP growth. I imagine their calculations must be secret; they don’t cite any numbers but I am sure they exist. This is the IB we’re talking about, and they wouldn’t make such claims if they didn’t know what they were talking about. I certainly don’t believe this guy.

Now, I don’t know what to make of the World Bank report I remember reading a while back that said environmental degradation cuts 5.7 percent off of India’s annual GDP growth. The World Bank is foreign, so I guess it’s probably just anti-national and trying to “take down” India’s development, too.

As I think I understand the IB, having foreign friends or accepting foreign funds, even legally, is questionable. Having foreign ties makes you more likely to be anti national and interested in a “take down” of India’s development. Our current environment minister was the president of a firm that had ties to ClimateWorks, a big foreign NGO, but thank goodness he left that firm as soon as he made the cabinet.

But I’m still a little confused. The IB report makes very clear that big FDI projects like the Vendanta (UK subsidiary) bauxite mine or the POSCO (South Korean subsidiary) steel plant have been held up by all this anti-development and anti-national activity. But I thought the F in FDI stood for foreign. Maybe they’re acceptable sources of foreign money because they support neoliberal, Big Capitalist growth? But then the World Bank supports a lot of that, and I think I’m supposed to be skeptical of that one now.

In the name of full disclosure, I’m an OCI Indian. That means I’m half and half (though I live in India, have Indian family and consider myself Indian). What am I do to? I don’t think there’s an operation for me to cut ties with myself.

The IB report report names a bunch of NGOs other than Greenpeace, including some that sound mostly like poor villagers trying to stop “development” from taking their land or destroying their fishing grounds. I guess they could be threats to national security as well.

I do think this “debate” hasn’t gotten enough coverage. I suspect that our own civil society is scared now that the curtain has been pulled back on their anti-development, anti-national activities that were “people centric,” as the IB put it.

For more full disclosure, I actually do disagree with Greenpeace on some policies/strategies, but I’ve also done consulting work for the organization and I have been donating monthly, because I thought they were protecting trees and fish and the like for poor people who rely heavily on trees and fish and the like. Maybe should I think about putting my money into other investments, like energy projects for the tens upon tens of millions of Indian villagers who don’t have power.

Which brings me to my headline question: If Greenpeace India (or any other NGO interested in protecting the environment) is ant-development or anti-national or both, what should I think about its effort to electrify villages with renewable, distributed technology? IB is telling me to be wary of Greenpeace, but should I be wary of the #bijliforall campaign, which seems to support “development” among some of the poorest members of our nation?

Take Dharnai, Greenpeace’s test village, where residents themselves are buying into a distributed solar micro grid. When I hear their stories, I can’t figure out exactly who or what they are “anti.” Dharnai is a village in Bihar on the Patna-Gaya road. I’ve been to Bihar and seen city and village life. My wife and her family are from Bihar. Large parts of Bihar are very poor and still without electricity.

The general notion behind Greenpeace’s decentralized renewable energy (DRE) pilot is to prove that renewable tech (solar, wind, micro-hydel, biogas, etc.), which are continually decreasing in cost, can be implemented locally and sustainably. More details were unveiled this week, including a Q&A for media, which get into the logic behind DRE.

Thanks to the IB report, I know I should be skeptical; perhaps these villagers are just greedy and want power without paying for it from centralized, large-scale coal, nuclear and megadams. But it really does seem like there might be an opportunity for local solar and other tech to light up villages in Bihar without massive infrastructure, associated costs, subsidies, inequities and environmental destruction.

Maybe another IB report will clear up all of my confusion. Or maybe Prime Minister Narendra Modi could set me straight. He told Parliament last month that he wants to “empower the poor man so that he can fight poverty.”

Solar panels in rural villages do seem empowering. Quite literally, in fact.

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When we actually ask people in SE DC what they think about cycling…

An early table from the 2013 survey

An early table from the 2013 survey

In 2012 and 2013, American University Prof. Eve Bratman and I worked with two of her classes to survey more than 250 commuters in Washington, DC’s Wards 7 and 8. While much of the city — and indeed the country — has seen a cycling renaissance (hooray!), commuters in predominantly poor, predominantly black Wards 7 and 8 aren’t exactly part of the boom.

Above is an early table from the 2013 segment of the survey that specifically asked commuters at a wide range of places what barriers they could identify to cycling. Meanwhile, we note that the overwhelming preference among our respondents in both surveys is still for an automobile.

Ultimately, this leads us to conclude there is more serious work to be done; and we have a few policy suggestions. For a more developed argument, see the initial findings of our exploratory, shoestring research published today by The Atlantic‘s CityLab.

Many thanks to CityLab for listening to us. And thanks to all the co-conspirators (fellow students) in this research. We’re looking at publishing a much more thoughtful, articulated and data-heavy version in the coming months.

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Working/conference paper: The value of schooling in traditional sectors, with special reference to Indian fisheries

Because I’m being slow in getting this in a better state for publication, I’m posting it here now. Trying to light a fire, as it were.

This paper was presented at the symposium Understanding and Eradicating Poverty in South Asia: Lessons and Options at the University of Rajasthan (Jaipur, India, Oct. 17, 2013). This remains in a draft format; please contact me before citing.

ABSTRACT: The international community has enshrined formal education as one of the key tools necessary to alleviate poverty, on par with ending hunger and fighting disease. In addition, education is often considered a key component of the “modern” geographic, demographic and economic transition off the land, out of the village and into wage jobs in cities. But what does education mean within the rural or traditional economy? What does education mean for the legions of villagers who remain poor farmers and fishers in developing countries such as India? This paper examines the relationship between education and poverty theoretically and empirically in traditional economic sectors. First, the paper sketches an outline of neoclassical economic growth theory, with specific attention to the basic Cobb-Douglas production function. Next, the paper reviews literature on the economic returns to education or human capital, with special attention to traditional sectors when possible. Finally, the paper conducts a quantitative analysis of marine fishery census data from India, testing the empirical relationship between poverty and education within a traditional sector.

The paper ultimately finds evidence to support the idea of returns to education even within India’s coastal fishery economies; in other words, education need not simply be a ticket out of the village. In line with much development literature, female education may have an inverse relationship to poverty stronger than male education. Furthermore, the effect of education can rival that of mechanized capital, often thought to be the key to improving poverty among fishers. However, the results may be attenuated both by the structure of the economy as well as socio-political institutions. Finally, the findings have a spatial quality to them. Some relationships shift when controlling for the fixed or unobserved effects of place, and the effects of education are not uniform across geographies. Taken together, these findings suggest the need for education that is locally tailored, decentralized and relevant specifically for traditional economies.

Click here to download.

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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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Time to pull the plug on Delhi’s colonial heart

Delhi's colonial planning (hexagonal street patterns, upper right) vs. reality (everywhere else)

Delhi’s colonial planning (hexagonal street patterns, upper left) vs. reality (everywhere else)

Word is circulating that 516 of the colonial-era bungalows (read: small palaces) in the planned center of New Delhi (Lutyen’s Delhi) may be renovated/rebuilt over a period of 20 years. The state-owned bungalows house India’s political elite — ministers, judges and other top officials — and are largely a perk of official power.

The price tag for updating the bungalows with so-called modern conveniences? Three thousand crore rupees, or about $482 million by today’s exchange rate.

Think on that. That’s not nearly half a billion dollars for public infrastructure (which is sorely needed around India). That’s not even half a billion dollars for an illogical mega dam, which Indian officials have also been fond of building.

No, that’s almost half a billion dollars to essentially redecorate the halls (bedrooms?) of power.

The bungalows essentially represent a faux suburban space — broad roads, leafy overhangs, large plots, individual manses — built in the middle of one of India’s densest cities. The Business-Standard has a fine editorial calling out this ridiculous plan.

But more than illogical urban development, the bungalow zone represents a classist geography that replicates and reinforces both social stratification and power, reserved as they are for officials and regulated by state rules. To live in Lutyen’s zone is a pipe dream for many; claiming an address there requires access and influence. Such is the attraction of this “neighborhood” that in 2012, when a private bungalow (there are a few) was for sale, it was priced at 600 crore rupees — about $96 million.

Meanwhile, most of rest of the city lives in ever densifying and increasingly over-crowded warrens. For a stark comparison, check the satellite imagery, courtesy of Google.

Lutyen's Delhi, marked by green streetscapes and dotted with bungalows

Lutyen’s Delhi, marked by green streetscapes and dotted with bungalows

Old Delhi, which was specifically rejected by the British planners

Old Delhi, which was specifically rejected by the British planners

Certainly, all cities contain prestigious addresses. But few are so overtly the result of statist development and control. Yes, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue or Gold Coast might indeed be the result of capitalist development (encouraged and aided by government) that benefits the already rich and richer. And, yes, such posh strips certainly represent stratification and gentrification.

Yet they do not approach the neo-colonial classism of Lutyen’s Delhi, which is explicitly intended to benefit a ruling political elite. It’s notable that such absurdity is a holdover from the British that independent India’s rulers have not so subtly clung to.

I quote at length from celebrated scholar James C. Scott’s wonderful treatise on state planning in development.

“Capital cities, as the seat of the state and of its rulers, as the symbolic center of (new) nations, and as the places where often powerful foreigners come, are most likely to receive close attention as veritable theme parks of high modernist development. Even in their contemporary secular guises, national capitals retain something of an older tradition of being sacred centers for a national cult. The symbolic power of high-modernist capitals depends not, as it once did, one how well they represent a sacred past but rather on how fully they symbolize the utopian aspirations that rulers hold for their nations. As ever, to be sure, the display is meant to exude power as well as the authority of the past or of the future.”

Scott is writing about the state development project and its faith in legiblility, clean lines, rigid planning, bureaucracy, rules, universalism and top-down design. The state, as often as not, has seen itself as the propagator and guarantor of such a high modern order.

And to be clear, Scott had New Delhi in mind when writing.

Colonial capitals were fashioned with these functions in mind. The imperial capital of New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens, was a stunning example of a capital intended to overawe its subjects (and perhaps its own officials) with its scale and its grandeur, with its processional axes for parades demonstrating military power and its triumphal arches. New Delhi was natural intended as a negation of what then became Old Delh. One central purpose of the new capital was captured nicely by the private secretary to George V in a note about the future residence of the British viceroy. It must, he wrote, be “conspicuous and commanding,” not dominated by the structures of past empires or by the features of the natural landscape. “We must now let [the Indian] see for the first time the power of Western science, art, and civilization.”

Standing at its center for a ceremonial occasion, one might forget for a moment that this tiny gem of imperial architecture was all but lost in a vast sea of Indian realities which either contradicted it or paid it no heed.

The organization and development — and continued maintenance — of the Lutyen’s area represents a lingering official faith in high modernism in urban planning. The “neighborhood” is guarded by police and development is highly restricted; order is, under Delhi development policy, practically required and enforced.

Aesthetically the bungalow zone certainly seems more organized and tidy that most of the rest of Delhi. This is in stark contrast to the more organic/functional if seemingly chaotic development elsewhere across the city. I’m not arguing that the riot of construction that is Delhi doesn’t have its own problems, nor am I arguing against urban planning in theory. Plans are needed to address Delhi’s mounting challenges with illegal land grabs, environmental cataclysm, corruption at all levels of development, the list goes ever on. But I am arguing — as Scott did — that Lutyen’s plan had little relevance to local conditions, needs, utility or desires.

What’s more, the mandated order and seemingly elegant functioning also remain ironically dependent on the very chaotic geography Lutyen’s Delhi rejected. Though haphazard to the planner’s eye, the slums and ramshackle development of other neighborhoods provide the service labor to the elite. (This is generally the case in India where elite neighborhoods are served and serviced by a servant class that lives in slum or almost-slum conditions.)

Of course, it would be nice to dismiss the bungalow zone and Lutyen’s Delhi as simple anachronism or architectural heritage. But they’re not just history (or even a nice perk for underpaid public servants). The bungalows by their existence are an example of the state replicating class division and reinforcing geographies of inequality.

As such, the Business-Standard rightly argues that the bungalows don’t need renovating/rebuilding.

They need razing.

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