Tikender Singh Panwar
The pandemic has exposed our hollow development strategies significantly aimed at achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs). This hasn’t just brought to the fore the need for revisiting our strategic ways of moving forward for a better and equitable world harmonious with nature, simultaneously it has also thrown light on how the present processes will not help in achieving any landmark advancement in attaining close proximity to the SDGs.
What we are witnessing is a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions?
To elucidate further, there are a few important areas of immediate understanding and intervention:
Climate change, a topic assuming increasing importance in the present times, requires wilful interventions across the world. Anatomy of a silent crisis quite vividly explains the challenges that we face around the world. Half of the world’s human made atmospheric carbon dioxide was emitted in the last 30 years and in this period 20 companies that produced 33 per cent of world historic emissions period 20 companies that produced 33 per cent of world historic emissions (energy and cement) are still at work and even grabbing subsidies for fossil fuels, etc.
Losses of biodiversity and of redundancy, which I call mutual living together of species is accelerating at a rate not found in any record since the cretaceous extinctionsome 66 million years ago. And then we have pen pushed scientists of capitalism who say that we should not worry about the loss to biodiversity,
To a point raised that if the honeybees are extinct the human beings will also be lost from the planet, these scientists say, “Not to worry, even if they lose them, we can have robotic honey bees!” What can one imagine from such people?
Vast excesses of nitrogen through fertilizers run off etc., polluting water odes and soil and risking anoxic extinctions.
Land use patterns:
Change in land use patterns for industrial growth is also causing water scarcities. The mainstream argument on climate change is often suggested as rather paralysed with theories of reductionism. Many parts of the complex interactive systems that overplay such a change are being negated and solutions apart from hitting the system are suggested
Take for example the changes brought out in the Andaman and Nicobar islandswhere land use change is proposed for real estate development; or in the new laws promulgated in Lakshadweep island one of the changes suggest for real estate development in the tiny island; or the changes brought in J&K; the redevelopment of central vista or the changes in the Environment Impact Assessment making the environment a laughable commodity; all are interplays of a system that need to be taken into consideration and all of them are linked to the issue of climate change.
The Green New Deal which is gaining ground in the US and the push for democratic control of companies in the UK led by the Labour parliamentarians all suggest that the climate change issue cannot be limited to mere reductionism rather a system different from the present system of neo liberal capitalism based on accelerating production has to be sought.
And this was pointed out by John Closs in the UN Habitat III at Quito in 2016 stating that the laissez faire system of planning and building our world and cities is absolutely unsustainable. We must go back to the basics of planning and ensuring that we build a free and equitable world. Why? This leads me to build my second argument that, there is a strong relationship between climate change, demand for climate justice and the sustainability of the people, inequality and gender parity. The last four decades of unbridled neo liberal capitalism of which privatization was a key driver along with commoditisation of use value items has been a big reason for widening this gap of inequities in the world.
Let me explain how. Things and utilities that were of use value for the people and society, were systematically converted into exchange value. That is to say that commoditisation of such utilities that were a part of public good earlier. Take for example water, now do we consider water a right or a need.
The Washington Consensusone of the big pushers for such an argument would make us believe that water is a need and anyone in the market can provide that. Slogans and fancy jargons like 24*7 water supply etc., became the hallmark of such campaigns and the public utilities were asked or were motivated to abandon this important responsibility of providing water and thus was handed over to the private.
Likewise health, education and many other sectors of utilities that were considered to be the responsibility of the State or its apparatus were systematically handed over to the private corporate giants. And in health we find the worst crisis hitting us and reminding us that privatization of health cannot be a sustainable model ofdevelopment. Thousands of crores of rupees are amassed by such methods of privatization or the withdrawal of the state from these sectors.
According to Ursula Hews, an economist, nearly 20 large TNCs shifted their portfolio from finance to utilities realising massive wealth in these sectors.
The second area of phenomenal wealth generation or as I say, accumulation of capital has been the changed nature of city governance. The city governance which has metamorphosised from managers to entrepreneurs has serious repercussions on the inequity indices in the urban world. The cities were asked to compete against each other and their land laws were made flexible for the private and venture capital to enter and make substantial gains.
The major area happened to be real estate. Instead of taxing the capital it was allowed to make huge dividends at the cost of the public assets. Take for example the privatization of the urban commons. In India it would mean open spaces, water bodies, parks, etc. These were handed over to the real estate capital at throw away prices and now we find a situation where instead of solving the housing crisis we are in the midst of its severity.
Likewise, the cities were systematically asked to shift their planning process which even earlier they hardly had in their hands, to large corporate consultant giants. They would come and prepare plans on city development, city mobility, city sanitation, solar city, smart city and what not. And if a cursory review of these plans is made instead of giving directions towards sustainability, most of these plans smack of capital intensive technologies to be employed in finding solutions. And the nexus exists from the top to bottom.
These are completely unsustainable ways of development and in no way can we reach the SDGs with such unscrupulous nexus driven strategies.
This leads to a situation where the massive surplus gets generated from the people and they are hit severely by not just getting robbed off their assets but even their capacities to fight. The shape of the Indian cities has changed considerably.
From 75 per cent the informal sector has jumped to 93 per cent. In simpler terms, it means that we forget to have a decent living even to sustain their livelihoods as a big challenge. The Oxfam report stated that the gap between top 10 per cent asset holders and bottom 10 per cent asset holders in rural India is 500 times, whereas in urban India it is 50,000 times. One can just imagine the hollowness of the slogans of sustainability in such grim realities.
On top of that because it is the large informal sector where 85 per cent of the people have no contracts to maintain their services and nearly 90 per cent sustain on less than Rs. 8,500 per month one can realize how the pandemic has shattered their lives and livelihoods. Women are the worst affected.
The other big divide that is going to happen is through the great digital gap. The much hullabaloo created by the technological giants, that it is the digitisation of the services that is going to bridge this gap is completely erroneous. We can witness this gap in the form of students taking classes online, people applying for vaccination and not getting slots are a few examples of such gaps. Above all IT is viewed as an industry and the internet of things is supposed to be a market of nearly $ 5 trillion according to Bloomberg report. How do we democratize the gains of technology is rather more important.
This leads me to the third argument that pertains to the unsustainability of urban governance. Because the pace still happens to be neo-liberal capitalism guided urbanisation where one cannot imagine the resolution of challenges in urbanisation and urban governance.
The democratic structure of elections poses a serious threat towards this march of urbanisation and hence a novel way of bypassing the elected councils is sought. The SPVs in the smart cities are a way to bypass the elected councils and these vehicles decide which form of development is to be prioritised. To say the least it is not just an alienated form of work style but also increases inequity amongst the regions and people.
And finally coming to the gender inequity which is linked to all the above is at its worst. India is marred with twin forms of gender inequality, the vestiges of feudal forms of mindset continue to treat women as second rate citizens never meant to equal and the path of economic development treats them as larger commoditised subjects. No wonder that India slipped 28 places to the 140th rank among 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, becoming the third worst performer in South Asia. This decline took place on the economic participation front, widened by three per cent.
On the political empowerment front India regressed 13.5 percentage points; and this comes from the decrease in labour participation rate which fell from 24.8 to 22.3 per cent. Estimated earned income of women in India is only 20 per cent of men’s, and we are at the bottom 10 globally on this indicator. Discrimination against women is also reflected in the health and survival front. India ranks in the bottom five in the world with 93.7 per cent of this gap closed to date.
All these data collated screamingly is pointing out that this inertia cannot be broken by the present capitalist order as we found in the Ease of Living Index which further reinforced that it is capitalism that needs to be built with a human face. But we have seen how erroneous such subjectivity is and continues to be.
These alternatives flow from various interventions. These interventions have to be in politics, politics of participatory mode, and model of governance; in democratizing the surplus back to citizens, fighting for the commons, collectivization, alternative planning in mobility, city development etc.; decentralization and democratization of various processes of planning and decision making; and so on.
Else we will falter and all, i.e., nature, planet, humanity and biodiversity will be at loss. We cannot afford to be smug, complacent, and indifferent about this imminent threat waiting to crumble humankind and humanity at its doorstep. It is time that we rectify this by looking ahead with corrective measures for the collective failures that makes us look behind in shame.
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The article flows from author’s lecture in a training programme organised by IMPRI, NIDM and on a three-day online training programme on Gender Equality, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Goals on May 29th, 2021.
YouTube Video to his lecture
About the Author:
Tikender Singh Panwar
Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla; Senior Visiting Fellow, IMPRI