Our first protagonist is an average middle-class urban city-dweller – let’s call him Akash. Akash has recently finished college and has received an offer with an IT firm working in analytics. He drives to work and lives in a flat with three of his friends. He enjoys going to the movies. He is asthmatic. Akash pays his taxes (it’s deducted from his pay cheque every month, so he does not have much of a choice). He’s also amongst the tiny fraction of Indians who do pay direct income tax…
Akash never went to a government school. He has never and does not ever plan to go to a government hospital. He does not take public transport. He does not receive any food from the public distribution system. He somewhat trusts that the FSSAI stamp on the food he buys makes it safe to eat, but he nurses his doubts. He likes the peace the nation enjoys and is proud of the Army. Last year, when floods devastated his city, he was rescued by the Army, and he is grateful to them. He likes the fact that he has not been robbed or assaulted (as yet) and for that he is thankful to the police.
Akash has never voted.
None of the candidates appeal to him. And, to be frank, he feels society does not do much for him. The politicians appear to be aware of this: He is not courted before elections…
Enter Muniammal, our second protagonist. She is a 55-year-old woman who lives in a ten-by-ten illegal shanty on the banks of the Cooum river in Chennai. She does not pay for her electricity. Her children went to the corporation school, for which she did not pay any tuition. When she is sick, she visits the government hospital, which is free, in theory. She depends heavily on the Re 1 per kg ration of rice for her sustenance.
But Muniammal has little control over the quality of the services (or products) she receives. Indeed, she often needs to grease many palms to get what she is entitled to or what she needs to get away with: to the policeman to look the other way, to the ward boy at the hospital so the doctor will see her, to the ration shop for preferential access. In fact, when there was an assault on her daughter-in-law this past month, she could not get an FIR filed without her local councillor’s help.
The system, which is supposed to work for all citizens, is often broken for her. Raghuram Rajan, India’s former RBI governor, has been widely quoted as saying that “the tolerance for the venal politician is because he is the crutch that helps the poor and underprivileged navigate a system that gives them so little access”.
But this “crutch” comes with a big caveat: Muniammal , the 55-year-old woman, cannot hope to command the attention, let alone the assistance, of the local councillor.
Only Muniammal, who belongs to Caste A or Religion B, can. Especially if Caste A is a large voting bloc. And Muniammal gives her vote as her caste leader directs. This means caste definitions and ethnic divisions need to be highlighted to command attention and delineated to create a unique power base – an interesting thought.
Now take Rajiv, our third actor. He’s the hot-shot heir of a large business family with interests in construction, steel and retail. Rajiv would not dream of taking public transportation in India, and would not venture near a government hospital or school. He does not even know where a ration shop is, or what he can get there. He has never seen his ration card. He wants the government to keep multi-brand retailers out of the country and he wants high import duties on steel. Thus far, he has got what he wants.
If we were to look at sheer numbers, the Muniammals of India overwhelm the other two in numbers.
What are the characteristics of such an equilibrium? What kind of social contract would manifest here? The provision of services of the society needs to be broken, or at least flawed. Both Akash and Muniammal, for different reasons, cannot really influence the service quality they receive from the government.
Why? Public provision of services is sometimes flawed because of the incentives of the constituents, the vacancies within several essential departments, such as health and education, and the complete lack of competition…
Thus, Akash cannot shift his custom to another when the government has a virtual monopoly and Muniammal cannot afford to do so. Little competition means the “badness” of the service can persist. Muniammal cannot command better service; she can influence the process only through her politician, and that too as a member of a specific caste or ethnic group. This is important because otherwise the politician loses his meaning to the Muniammals of the world….
Add to this a tremendously delayed judiciary process – we have more than 26 million pending cases as on February 2018 – which imbues the politicians with the power of ad hoc decision-making. For instance, if someone beat up your son and the case dragged on and on, wouldn’t it be simpler (and more gratifying) to approach the local politician for speedy street justice?
Lastly, data is crucial. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, which perhaps explains why departments are shrouded in relative opacity and data seems to be unavailable, hard to access or outdated….
Why do we allow slums to creep up on flood plains?
Muniammal needs inexpensive housing close to where job opportunities are. It’s illegal, so the politician leans on the policeman and the judges to look the other way. Muniammal is grateful and rewards him with her vote. And because she overwhelms the Akashes in numbers, her writ prevails. The slums encroach on the river and reduce its carrying capacity. Of course, cheap housing cannot come with underground sewage, so the waste – both solid and human – finds its way into the inviting river, further reducing the river’s carrying capacity. Naturally, when it rains heavily, the river is more likely to flood.
Moving onto the second question, why do we dump construction debris into our drains and canals with impunity?
To answer this, let us come to Rajiv. He wants to rebuild the city in his way. Naturally, that involves acquiring buildings on the cheap. He leans on his brother-in-law, the MP, to ensure other builders cannot buy old buildings easily in “his” part of town. He then breaks down the buildings. Carting the waste would add to costs, and why should he do that when the river lies so invitingly close? Who will stop him? Any official who dares to will get transferred or worse. In his book, When Crime Pays, Milan Vaishnav talks about the link between builders and political houses, and the increasing criminality in politics55. To highlight his case, Vaishnav shares data that shows cement prices go down just before elections because builders divert funds to the campaign.
Meanwhile, Rajiv’s first venture does so well that he wants to build the second one. The only problem is there is an old lake there. Earlier, the lake had farmers around it with water rights. But farmers have sold their land and moved as the city has developed. The corporation has taken some of it over, and the rest is too inviting for Rajiv to pass on. Not to worry, dump some earth and debris there, and there is a new site in place.
The unholy alliance between the Rajivs, who promote rule‑breaking to make a quick buck, and the Muniammals, who require rulebreaking as a fiendish substitution to the provision of good services, overwhelm the wishes of the Akashes of India.
Moreover, the Muniammals vote and, very often, the Akashes don’t. This results in the trampling of our common goods like air and water – of our environment, in short. And because the politician – who gains his power from the broken system – is the one who can fix it, we need to look at addressing the underlying equilibrium instead of merely spouting platitudes.
But as they say, every cloud (or worsening climate) has a silver lining.
As the frequency of floods increases, Muniammal’s satisfaction with her housing falls. It made sense when it was close to her place of work, and she was willing to put up with the sewage and the lack of water. But when it floods every year, she loses the few possessions she has, and the relief doesn’t cover it all. Moreover, Muniammal’s son has done well, relatively speaking, and he does not want to live in a slum anymore. The vote bloc is beginning to crumble, and a new vote bloc, the “development” vote bloc is becoming viable.
Also, once in a while, the system throws up a hero – whether a bureaucrat or a vibrant politician – who wants to make a difference. There are recent examples in India – a bureaucrat who heads the irrigation department of a state, or one who ensured a public transportation project was completed on time and under budget, or politician who revamped the department he was charged with, and delivered results.
Typically, this happens when outsiders – either politicians or lateral entrants into the bureaucracy – take charge. They don’t benefit from the equilibrium, so they are happy to make the change. There are usually tell-tale signs of these heroes – the data will speak for itself. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that climate change throws into strong relief the fissures in the Indian system.
Excerpted with permission from The Climate Solution: India’s Climate Change Crisis And What We Can Do About It, Mridula Ramesh, Hachette India.