Developing politics: Election 2004 is not the end

  • 14/05/2004

Elections always teach lessons. The outcome of the 2004 polls is still a few days away but we have already learnt from media reports that the water scarcity has left a countrywide imprint. The crying need for water reverberates in villages of the water-stressed regions in central India, in rainfall abundant villages of states like Kerala and Meghalaya and in cities across India. Reports suggest that the scarcity of water is crippling much of our country. We know that each time rural communities suffer a drought, it further erodes their ability to cope and makes them weaker. It leaves them incapable of dealing with the vagaries of the monsoon, making the drought a permanent reality. A perpetual drought then eats away at the very insides of the country. To avoid this snare people across the country are demanding that their politicians deliver on this one promise: provide water to drink and to irrigate.

So when candidates go sparring with each other in the relatively rich suburbs of Mumbai, the one thing the voter is keen to know: where is the water to drink. Politicians, off course, have a readymade counter plan. Accuse the opponent for delaying the sanction of the large water project. Blame environmental concerns for impeding the project. And, finally make the grand promise: vote us in and we shall veto the environmental regulations out.

This is not surprising. Most political leaders view environmental concerns as constraints that impede the pace of development. They are blind to the fact that environment has already become a key issue in the ongoing polls. I say this because besides water scarcity, the two other big, all India issues - captured in the media, in surveys and opinion polls - are unemployment and power. All three issues are clearly linked to abysmally poor resource management and governance.

Too often we forget that the shortage of power shortage is linked to the shortage of water. The households and the industry need power, but the agricultural sector's need is dire. Channelling groundwater into irrigation ensures over 80 per cent of Indian agricultural produce. With water tables falling precipitously, farmers need more electricity to pump the water out. More importantly, they need assured electricity at the right time: when crops need water.

Unemployment may not be directly linked to environmental degradation. But the solutions to unemployment lie in the better management of natural resources - land, forests and water. Let us be clear. India's formal industrial sector has never been the provider of employment. As the sector achieves greater economies of scale and mechanisation in the years to come, its employment rates will only plummet. The service sector - outsourcing included - will grow but it cannot really absorb jobseekers in a country the size of India. The key to employment lies in building productive and sustainable livelihoods based on natural resources. The potential is enormous. Plant trees for pulp, rear animals, run dairy farms, rear worms for silk or grow medicinal plants for pharmaceutical industries - these are but a few livelihood generating methods to break India Shining's growth-without-jobs syndrome.

But, even if we agree that these are election issues, the question is will these issues also determine the result? That is a difficult one to answer. Politicians learn too fast. The pre-election rhetoric may be full of the 'development' word, but I would argue, development is still not on the election agenda.

I say this because, very little has yet been done to deliver on the promise of development - the promise of food, employment, water, education or health services. Politicians know that real development requires serious reform of the way in which we do business. They also know they face a serious governance crisis. The abilities of the state to deliver meaningful change have been consistently and successfully disabled. Politicians also realise that they don't have the ability to handle our rigid and won't-do bureaucracies. The resolution of this institutional crisis is essential for development, they know.

For instance, they know that solving the water crisis demands policies and practices that optimise the water endowment of each region, so that the water management system at the level of each settlement harvests the maximum and uses the precious resource in the least wasteful way. This can only be done if local communities are involved. But building local interests and institutions requires serious and effective institutional reform. Governance has to be put into the hands of people. That is a formidable task. So the politicians instead promote a futuristic project to link Indian rivers, which even by their own estimations will 'solve' water problems in over 10-15 years.

There is a pattern to selling the 'idea' of development as a dream. To bypass the problem of governance, politicians are now working with private capital, focussing on what is mutually beneficial - power stations, software parks, industries and large roads. This way, politicians tide piggyback on efficiencies of the private interests and market themselves as effective. But private interests do not produce societal goods so this 'feel good' is limited to areas of mutual convenience and not societal good.

But elections, as I said before, have a habit of teaching us lessons. Whoever wins this election, let me forewarn them. When the next election comes around pani, bijli and kaam (water, electricity and work) will be more exigent. Delivering on them will require greater reform, not less.

- Sunita Narain

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