It is an imaginative advertisement that conveys the power of communication. Reliance Communications’ ad on television uses three distinct frames—a majestic, snow-clad mountain, a vast desert with an insect moving across, sprawling sea with a swinging boat—to mirror the absence of air, land and water. It conceals more than it reveals. If clean air is not a marketable item with a price, the market doesn’t value it, the ad seems to suggest! If land and sea could fit into the corporate balance sheet the same must be appropriated using the emerging ‘network’ of politicians, bureaucrats and businesses.
From the Tatas’ controversial mini-car project in Singur to the Sethusamudram canal, the fissure between what is good for ‘growth’ (read ‘network’) at the cost of ‘people’ has been widening by the day. Yet, each of these projects and several upcoming ones being cleared by the ‘democratically’ elected governments across the country claim big gains for the poor. Despite the fact that doubts about benefits from such projects remain unanswered, bad policymaking and insouciant politicians always pull off such projects against all odds in India, purpotedly to nurture the fledgling ‘network’.
Skim through the published reports and it would be hard to get a single credible one on the benefits of the Sethusamudram project, the project to dredge sand across the so-called Adam’s Bridge in the Gulf of Mannar region. Yet, there is unstinted support to the project from the powers that be in Delhi and in Chennai. One wonders if the Union shipping minister and the Tamil Nadu chief minister have access to information that most others don’t or haven’t they read most of what is available in the public domain? It is either a case of hiding strategic information from the public or making ill-informed decisions at someone’s behest, a shameless breach of trust of the public by elected representatives that may hold the livelihoods and the region’s ecology to ransom.
Politicians may play ignorant to published facts, but do bureaucrats help doctor such project reports to suit the vested interests? Whether or not they do so, the babus form an important link in the policy planning process. The critical question is: are they better informed than their political masters? N.C. Saxena, a respected former senior bureaucrat, considers bureaucrats to be as poorly read, if not worse.
Does democratic governance not survive on people’s faith in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance? Painfully so, even when we are living in a knowledge society where information and knowledge are only a button away. Yet, it’s ignorance that wields power. No wonder, as Saxena echoes the widely shared belief among the political and bureaucratic elite, the powers that be use the state as an arena where public office is used for private ends. As corporations enter the public arena, the network is not only expanding but getting strengthened, too. Conversion of public resources into private goods is exchanging hands faster than ever. Sethusamudrum and Singur reflect the tip of the iceberg. As neo-liberal economic views become central to political, judicial and executive thought, street vendors will only get displaced on the pretext of protecting people’s health and neighbourhood shops will face sealing to make way for glamorous malls. The recent trend of converting community assets such as land and water into commodities for trade in the garb of ‘growth’ will not only be anti-poor in the short run but also ecologically irreversible in the long run. In a market-driven economy, environmental assets will need to be fully incorporated into the market for their transformation into marketable goods—generating profits for its stakeholders.
Sudhirendar Sharma is a development analyst. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org