The Thin Edge

Modi and Trump may come from vastly different backgrounds, but in politics they are twins

Both have tapped into, and capitalised on, the majority’s deep resentment at their perceived suppression.

An identical target audience, an obvious majoritarian bend, fear-mongering a common tool, copybook tokenism towards minorities overflowing with condescension, an intentional jingoistic national fervor, and the result: A Gemini-like twosome, political twins blowing identical horns.

I speak of two very different personalities – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US Republican presidential aspirant Donald Trump.

As Modi completes two years in office, across three oceans Trump has reached the magic number – support from 1,237 delegates. And unless the Republican Party stages a coup at its convention, he will be the Republican presidential candidate for the upcoming polls in the United States. What began as a humorous sideshow in the US primaries has ended up being the most shocking or pleasing (depending on which side of the fence you sit on) development. Closer home, in Bharat, the Bharatiya Janata Party has converted its government’s second anniversary into one of the most extensive and expensive PR campaigns we have seen.

So different, yet alike

As individuals, there is nothing that brings the Republican outsider and the Hindutva insider together. Modi belongs to the Other Backward Classes; he comes from a poor background, an untiring hard worker, who joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which trained him brilliantly in cultural-politics. This ambitious young man used all the opportunities he got to become a mass leader of India’s Hindu majority. Here is the classic, political rags-to-riches story – a tea vendor transforming into a national figure. The final step, his anointment as India’s Prime Minister, made him the single most powerful symbol of this nation.

Trump’s pedigree is diametrically opposite. Born with a golden spoon in his mouth, Trump has always associated with the famous and powerful, and boasts of little real political experience. Yet he stands within inches of becoming the 45th president of the United States of America.

As personalities too, they seem to have very little in common. Modi is a seasoned politician, shrewd, tactical, unfazed, clear, measured and ideologically grounded. You will never find him overtly displaying power. He is acutely aware of every word he utters, and those that he consciously leaves out. Trump seems careless with his comments, there is no clarity regarding what he wants to do, he is brash, uncouth, flaunts his wealth, carries an “I care a damn” attitude on his sleeve, and shows very little care in general.

And yet, Modi and Trump stand twinned. They are both, by their natural chemistry, crown people – one has determinedly got to wearing it, the other has angled his head to its rim. Both of them have triggered in their respective societies support from similar vote banks. The middle and upper middle class conservative, Christian white community has come out lock, stock and barrel to cheer Trump along. In India, the middle and upper middle class, conservative Hindu, largely OBC and forward caste community voted Modi into power, and continue to be his largest base. In both these cases there is a consolidation of a specific section of society – of course, its largest section.

A buried anger

But what we need to watch is the tone in this political surge. This cheering community in general is displaying a great deal of bitterness, anger and frustration towards every other group whose affinity can range from mildly conservative to the ultra-left.

Its members feel strongly that they have not been cared for and are blamed for all of society’s problems, and that the others (read minorities) always benefit at their expense. They do think that their freedom to express themselves has been largely curtailed, since society is unwilling to accept them as they are.

What is deeply worrisome is the texture of this sudden awakening. We are witnessing extremely volatile, abusive socio-political activity from this specific section of our societies. And let me be categorical: this is not about thoughtless screaming.

Even the so-called intellectual arguments emanating from politicians, religious leaders and academicians are primarily hostile, old right wing postures that use selective historical recounting for substantiation. But the difference now is that many people are listening, finding them convincing and are reacting positively. The general feeling is: “We have been quiet for too long. Now our time has come, let us show it to them.”

There is one specific idea that is tied in closely to this, and this is ultra-nationalism. The middle class conservative majority around the world strongly believes that it is the moral and cultural soul of their nation, and that the present downturn that society is going through is a result of the suppression of their class. Both Trump and Modi have tapped into this dangerous thought and are cashing in.

When the present dispensation in India, on an daily basis, tries to portray the last 60-odd years of freedom as a disaster that needs to be wiped out from our memories, one may wonder whether we were under the brutal Khmer Rouge all this while.

But many do share this perception of disaster and see Modi as the messiah. Trump hasn’t got there as yet, but he is tapping into the same sentiment, the glorious white-dominated Christian past versus the concession ridden pro-minority present. What works even more for him is the fact that many have holed up deep inside a grudge that a black man occupied the White House for eight years. Though Trump’s lifestyle has been anything but traditional, it does not bother his supporters. Somewhere he has struck a chord, and to put it bluntly, angry bigots are coming out of the closet.

Time for introspection

But, we have to ask, is there truth to the feeling that is shared by the conservative majority in both societies? Have they been unfairly targeted? There is a lot missing in this discussion from both sides.

There is very little introspection by the conservative middle class over their role in society. There has to be a realisation that piety and religiosity do not give people natural goodness, as much as being a communist does not make you obstructionist and violent.

Learning about society beyond one’s little circle or putting oneself in another’s shoes does not seem to happen easily in this world. This group wants to stay far away from the poor and minorities since they are seen as pitiful. And they definitely do not want to be like the upper classes since they are cultureless vulgarities. Nevertheless they are secretly envied. The larger construction of people’s problems really does not reach this section. They are trapped, sandwiched and strongly believe that they are the ideal.

This is such a complex suppressed, aggressive, victim-superiority syndrome. The conservative middle and upper middle class do not recognise their own cultural religious power, which exists even today. They gloss over it, describing its nobody-ness in political and economic terms.

On the other-side, left-liberal-secular activists, socialists and the politically cosmopolitan have no real understanding of the conservative middle class, never really conversing with them. Even the most liberal social activists rarely use the culture of this section as part of their work. They are always seen as culturally oppressive. We can always dig up the past and find a lot of muck, but doing only that does not help anyone. How can we enable a community to see beyond its own self and recognise that beauty everywhere must be treated with equality and not just acceptance? And how can cultural conservatism be used to enable social connections, even if it means creating a problematic discourse.

Political reformists have never really addressed these issues. Either you are an un-yielding conservative, or you have to be like us. So I point fingers at you and take away something that you control, or I reject and discard all that you stand for.

This bipolar view has damaged society and crippled everyone’s thought process. And what is even worse is that the powerful among minorities and repressed sections behave like the conservative middle and upper middle classes once they have made it. This only further reaffirms their sense of cultural superiority.

The problem we face today is real. Modi and Trump have kindled all those suppressed feelings and, even worse, are now symbolising them. The conservative middle-class now believes that society will be far better under these leaders because more people will become like them. The scarier fact is that the extreme right the world over is gaining power, making the need for socio-cultural intersections not just vital but urgent. Time is running out.

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We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

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Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

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Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

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Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.