Politics in the Age of Digital Technology


Every ordinary mortal is a potential giant killer

In the last week of 2016 when the world was busy making New Year resolutions or was out celebrating on the beaches or in the hills, a low ranking Indian para-military officer stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest. He uploaded a small video clip on Youtube and on Facebook citing pathetic conditions in which he was being kept thanks to the alleged negligence and corrupt practices of immediate seniors. As if on cue two more such videos surfaced, followed by rant through video streaming by a very high ranking military officer who was superseded for the post of chief of Indian army.

The central government panicked. It resorted to quick and clumsy denial. Casting aspersion on the character and mental state of the soldiers and swiftly acted against them. Simultaneously soldiers and their seniors were transferred from their posts and an inquiry was ordered into the allegations levelled by the soldiers that raised a storm in the virtual world. It also openly threatened the senior officer of dire consequences.

The sudden information ambush by “lowly” and lonely soldiers elicited a predictable and interesting government response. Initially it was baffled and confused, then irritated and embarrassed and finally it regained its poise.

The initial confusion was due to the fact that the extremely hierarchy conscious security apparatus was suddenly, simply but brilliantly out manoeuvred by a single soldier. Thanks to Facebook a foot soldier who would have thought twice to even knock on the doors of his immediate superior was effortlessly connecting with a large audience. He made his misery a talking point among the people. The minister of internal security, belonging to a party that rode to power at the centre on their patriotic plank, balked under intense public gaze. David had humbled Goliath.

Tsunami of sensory stimulus

This is not the first time when social media has helped under-privileged or “weak” to take up cudgels with the high and mighty and come out trumps. And it won’t be the last.

Since the beginning of the 21st century and especially after 2006 with the spread of internet and digital technologies the political landscape has witnessed a quiet but decisive shift.

Politicians are realising for the first time that the digital technologies are breaking down hierarchies and making it difficult to control information flow. The proliferation of digital technologies, particularly in the field of communication like social media platforms and Youtube have created a situation where it is both very easy to create an image as well as call the bluff.

As politics is in most parts but the art of managing perceptions, to that degree conducting their affairs seem like a tough ask these days for the practitioners of this art.

Historically the channels of information were limited. Information dissemination was through the word of mouth or through king’s decree. During these times a politician could invest time in building their image by withholding inconvenient truths about themselves and accentuating their positive aspects or successes. As access to the tools and sources of information flow to the people could be easily controlled, most of the politicians kept a distance from the people and this gave rise to myths about a person. Dedicated team of story tellers would fan out in rural heartland or in city squares and narrated stories glorifying the person and his achievements.

Folklores would be created around a person and his or her ideas would be presented as revolutionary. Perceptions would take time to build and then grew and endured. People would be slowly worked upon and around an idea where it became an article of faith for a huge majority or a committed minority with enough power to change the tide of time.

In the 20th century the first wave of mass media – newspapers, radio and television – offered politicians a very powerful tool. The first generation mass media was a misnomer in a sense that masses had no control over it. It was under strict control of either governments or powerful business elites. However, they were deemed mass media as they could connect with a large number of people at the same time. This form of mass media was a one-way-traffic. Especially tailored information could be dished out to everyone in the society.

There was no way the public could participate in it. Newspapers had their letters to editor columns, radio and television too had their people’s comment programmes but they were heavily edited and controlled. Anything that didn’t fit the neat narrative of the ruling elite, seldom found voice on these mediums.

At times there were attempts by people to raise their voice by starting community radio, or small television channel or small scale newspapers but they were no match to the over arching power of the organised mass media. It was very efficient at muzzling the alternative voice.

The one-size-fits-all information packets that these mass media organisations were adapt at churning out were a terrific tool in the hands of the politicians to perpetuate a carefully crafted mono-focal perception among the masses.

For example during the Cold War both the US and Soviet Union employed mass media, first the radio and then the television, very successfully to vilify each other and project each other as villains in their respective societies.

However, during the last decade of the 20th century the rise of internet brought about a subtle change in the way things were being run around the world. During the last 15 years the spread of internet and the digital technologies it brought in general and three instances in particular have given the world a glimpse of what lay in store for the future.

The new mass media

In the early years of the 21st century the war in Iraq witnessed for the first time the power of digital technology called the blog. While the mass media was reporting a sanitised version of the war the soldiers on the ground who were given access to internet and were allowed to maintain their own blogs to remain in touch with their family members started using the platform to air their doubts, anger, frustration, dejection and general state of degeneration that accompanies any war. They started questioning the rationale of the war and brought the firsthand accounts of its horrors to the general public. It shattered the dominant narrative peddled by the “embedded” traditional mass media in the US and the West European nations.

Four years later during the presidential elections in the US a rank outsider called Barak Obama first upset the apple cart within his own party to win the presidential nomination and then out smarted much well heeled Republicans by marshalling the power of the social media and digital technologies. His Twitter, Facebook and web-based outreach programme gave him an edge in both reaching out to people as well as collecting donations. The small donations from a wide base of the society added up to make a big difference to his campaign kitty.

As the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close the regions of Middle East or West Asia witnessed people’s uprising against their autocratic governments in what is now know as Arab Spring. The people’s movement was spearheaded by young who were using social media, especially Facebook, extensively to connect with each other, informing people about impending government crack downs and deciding upon a venue. It was also used for impromptu meeting on a spur-of-the-moment decided venue.

These three examples have been replicated since in many societies and in different circumstances with varying degrees of success. These events also teach us lessons in the emerging social and political realities.

They tell us that the new wave of digital media technologies is actually the “mass media”. Here the masses fully participate in generating information and accepting it. They are no more just passive consumers of information which is handed to them in top-down approach. They actively generate it and also reserve the right to listen, read or view it. In that sense they also have the power to be either a part of or the orchestrator of genuine or false information. They can be a tool or source of information, mis-information or dis-information.

Spectacles and echo chambers

This democratisation of levers of control in information generation and dissemination has hit the perception building mechanism created by traditional media. The oligarchy of control of traditional mass media made it easier for the politician to perpetuate themselves, black out others’ views and project their ideas as the ultimate truth. As crowding out the uncomfortable truth, a personal flaw or a group’s misdeeds was easier it helped the politicians in enduring their favourite perceptions for generations.

However, in the digital age and the social media perception management is becoming difficult.

Politics is a game of creating, managing and enduring perceptions. It makes personality cults and enduring ideas.

In mass media that was controlled by the few it was easy to maintain it for long but in digital real time technologies it has become difficult. It was visible during the recently concluded US presidential election where both the Democrat and Republican candidates faced extreme scrutiny and public opprobrium for even their slightest slips.

Republican candidate and now the 45th President of the US, Donald Trump, was specially targeted on Twitter and social media for his blunders. Even after his inauguration ceremony the controversy surrounding the number of people attending the event painted him in a poor light. His team tried to counter the claims of the media by putting forward bogus facts and when they were caught they said they were presenting “alternate facts”. The euphemism for lies was quickly denounced by Twitter and social media trolls.

As has been visible in the US elections as well as in other full, quazi or faux democracies around the world keeping people’s outburst under control in the age of digital technologies in general and social media in particular is becoming increasingly difficult. Similarly maintaining a perception for long is also turning out to be far more challenging than any other time in history.

To the curious onlooker it may seem that the age of politicians and politics is over. For the politicians and their spin doctors it may be trying times as they try to grapple with altered realities of their playing turf. But that’s just a part of the entire reality. The other side of the coin holds lot more promise than we think.

The idea that politics is nothing but management of perception has gained currency during the last few centuries. However, if we look at the classical meaning of the word politics it says, “The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power. Or it means activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization”.

This definition emphasises the role of action in the form of debates, positions taken in a debate and the follow up action taken on it. During the last two hundred years politicians have mistaken the call to action as just creating and managing perceptions. Too much emphasis has been laid on only one aspect of the political action. This has led to employment of subterfuge, double speak and deception.

Integrity the new currency

But the digital technologies are making this kind of politics of difficult. Now the space of saying something and doing something exactly opposite is shrinking.

Take the case of India politician, Lal Krishna Advani. Belonging to the right wing Hindu Nationalist Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, he cultivated a hard-line Hindu image. He projected himself as someone who was opposed to alleged Muslim appeasement practices of the more liberal Congress Party. After investing 50 years in that persona he tried to change it when he realised that strident positions will not earn him the coveted post of the prime minister. On a visit to Pakistan he praised Jinnah the father of Pakistan and a much reviled figure in India among Hindus. Within moments his comments went viral and people’s reactions came equally fast and thick. Fifty years of assiduous efforts in cultivation of an image went down the drain. In a matter of few hours he lost the plot and his core constituency deserted him. He became a pariah and his political career was gutted.

It served as a reminder to the rest of his ilk and when his protégé and current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was nominated as the prime ministerial candidate he didn’t make any mistake of being too many things to too many people. He stuck to a definite agenda and won. Later he tried to move away from his development plank and indulge in communal politics with disastrous consequences in regional elections.
These examples may make a person wonder that the space for politicians is shrinking as they are inherently unabashed liars and masters of subterfuge. But there is another aspect that reflects an equally interesting fact. The digital technologies are rewriting the rules of the political game and fundamentally altering the political landscape.

As the gap between the perception and the person is now easily visible and even easily exploitable it is creating a space for more honest and open politics. The new rules of politics are more upfront and the leader has to walk the talk. In that sense it is now demanding more accountability.

But people must not confuse accountability with morality or goodness of purpose but it means delivering and being what you promised.

In this game the right wingers are first off the block. They have understood the power of the medium earlier than the liberals. It helps as their in-your-face style connects easily with the person on the street. This is the reason we are witnessing the rise of the obnoxious and intemperate voices around the world. It’s always easy and spectacular to rouse people’s anger and base emotions than to convince them of cerebral ideas. Yet they will not be in the positions of power forever. Like the principles of yin and yang the liberals will return using the same medium.

However, the digital politics will demand a lot more involvement and responsibility from the people too. They will have to exercise care in choosing their representatives as what they see is what they will get. In a way it would be a fare game. When you choose a villain you will get a villain and will not have the luxury to blame anyone. The people in general will have to understand that those liberals who will work towards inclusive politics will by definition be called upon to find middle ground while managing disparate and at times divergent demands of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and economically stratified societies. In managing these contradictory demands to find a golden mean, at times, they would be seen eschewing populism, cherry picking from a bouquet of demands. People will also need to evolve to offer them that space for the greatest good of the greatest number.

In that sense the digital politics would be more active and evolved politics in which every section of the whole society would participate. Each segment (politician and the public) will have to bring their commitments to the table.

It would usher in an era of politics based on managing reality for a change rather than just perceptions.

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What’s the tearing hurry to dis-invest Air India?

Selling family silver is in vogue these days. Sell your ancestral land. Sell old gold jewellery as it does not fit into the fashion trends of today. The government, media and the consulting companies too have jumped the bandwagon and have been clamouring for selling off anything and everything that has value. This selling mania goes by the name – disinvestment. Editorials are being written as to why the central government needs to sell off Air India.
“The government’s job is to govern and not run airlines,” is smart line thrown at unsuspecting reader. Consulting companies have always been in favour of selling family silver as they have nothing to lose as they have already got their consulting fee for making a strong case for disinvestment. Government too seems favourably inclined towards off loading this so called “Albatross” around their neck.
People in general can be divided into two categories – the intellectual herd and the disinterested fence sitter. The former makes instant opinion based on who has yelled more loudly in media and hogged limelight. Whether there is any merit in their argument or not is not his or her concern. The fence sitters are normally silent lot who feel powerless and seethes within with apparently no voice.
However, two questions that beg answers from the powers that be — why family looms need to be sold? And to whom?
Air India is in deep financial red. We all know that but the question is why and how did it land in this mess in the first place? Why nothing was done to arrest the slide at the right moment? And why an action shouldn’t be initiated against the guilty?
If the news in today’s Times of India is any indication CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) has opened an investigation into how the airlines, which was once one of the top airlines’ in the world, has met the fate it is suffering today. They are focussing on three questions – Why 111 planes were bought when there was need for only 28? Why the profitable routes were given to private airlines? And why domestic and international operations were merged?
I think this is the way the department, ministries and the government should go about in dealing with all the ailing PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings). Government should constitute a committee that should ask questions with all the secretaries and CMDs (chairman and managing directors) of PSUs.
Hindustan Machine Tools bosses should have been asked when there are 67 percent people engaged in agriculture and the government is pushing modern agriculture then why aren’t you being able to make good quality tractors and sell them? Why is it that with a market of 1.2 billion people you can’t sell watches and Titan can? Why is it that when India needs to build infrastructure which is double that of what it has made in the last 70 years in next 15 years then cement corporation of India is struggling? Why do ITDC hotels located at prime locations (Hotel Janpath in Connaught Place, Delhi and Centaur at Indira Gandhi Airport) have to run in loses.
Instead of fixing responsibility and taking the culprits to task the government of the day and its predecessors have taken easy path — to sell the stuff. It’s like throwing the baby with the bath water.
The venerable bureaucrats, technocrats and other consulting agencies as well as political leaders should at least be asked why did they fail? What plans were made to tackle the competition? How did they handle marketing and PR?
Accountability needs to be fixed on those who have failed to deliver. After all these entire edifices are built on tax payers money and you just can’t turn them into dust and walk away as if nothing has happened.
To add salt to injury then the very people who have destroyed a robust marquee organisation turn around, hire a consultant and make a case of selling them saying it’s a drain on government exchequer(Oh really!).
They should be the ones who should be taken to task. They should be fired or their pension benefits should be curtailed or some sort of punishment should be meted out.
Secondly, the people should also pressurise the government that these organisations were built from their money. They have been around for the last 50 or more years. They have created a wealth of experience, a brand name, huge and talented workforce as well as immense real estate around the country.
After putting in that kind of resources and time and building a brand it would be sold for a song because a handful of people who were tasked to run it failed due to their ineptitude and total disregard towards the opportunity and responsibility they were entrusted with.
We all know that bureaucrats and political bosses have for long used these PSUs as personal fiefdoms. But these fiefdoms can also be profitable while serving your interests. Take the case of Emirates Airlines. It’s run by the royal family of UAE and so it’s a government enterprise. But in less than 25 years of its operations it is the most successful airlines in the world which earned a profit of $2 billion in 2015-16. It made the royal family richer and their airlines a feather in their cap. Their international reputation has soared too.
Even in India with online shopping portals gaining ground among the new buyers the postal department has seen a resurrection as their unmatched reach and workforce is acting as a backbone to the portals’ delivery operations in rural and small town India. The department which was close to declared a dinosaur is now alive and kicking and may soon be contributing to the government exchequer as a profitable venture.
The government should abandon the idea of selling the family silver and instead tweak its approach. They should hire professional bosses from the market at market price or on a retainer basis (with attendant perks of house car and other things) and link their financial emoluments to performance linked bonus. The same should be done with the IAS officers who are appointed during their tenure.
Retired IAS officers shouldn’t be a natural choice in any case. They may be great administrators but they are not necessarily the best of managers. Even if they have done their MBA from IIM Ahemdabad (which these days many of them have) their training as administrator comes in the way of being a cutting edged marketing person who understands the quick changing world and the power of quick decision making, risk taking and constant communication.
Government or rather political bosses who fear losing control can create a safety net for themselves by insisting that the CSR spend would be only in government run programmes and they can also ask for a 5 to 10 percent quota for government officers and political bosses for hotel rooms, airline tickets and other products or services.
This much flexibility is available even in private sector. With their pie secure the government should then transfer the operations, goal setting and vision planning of the PSUs to world class professionals driven by market realities.
Government can remain the majority stakeholder and the company can still run like a professional enterprise, nimbly negotiating the twist and turns of the market and earn profit for the state. With little tweaking in their approach and enthusiastic support from an emerging economy these mature and powerful companies (PSUs) can script a formidable story of success and quality and can also create opportunity to absorb large workforce.

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Sustainability: Drought is Straining Society

When a 10 year old Dalit (traditionally oppressed section of the society) girl fell into a well while fetching water for her family all hell broke loose. The local community accused the more well off neighbours for putting up restrictions on getting water from nearby well and demanded police action against the village head.
In another incident in the same region a Dalit woman was again stopped from fetching water from the wells of well healed. Her husband was so enraged that he singlehandedly dug a well in 40 days flat. Now his entire community depends on the same well to quench their thirst.
Incidents like these aren’t an aberration but slowly becoming regular as droughts intensify before the promised “good monsoon rainfall” arrives this year.
Two years of indifferent rains and continuous droughts in India has been straining the human life to its limits. It has led to a widespread water shortage across the country. The economic impact of drought has been carefully documented across many states. Even corporate India has calculated the cost of its plummeting sales in rural markets, but one aspect that has consistently slipped from policymakers and thinkers have been the social impact of drought.
The traditional water scarce zones are feeling the heat and age old social rifts and community hurts are rearing their ugly head. This has led to worsening social and law and order situation.
The case mentioned above is from Marathwada area of Maharashtra state, one of the most industrialised and prosperous. The area is traditionally drought prone and even good monsoons don’t firewall it against drought as there are chances that rains may give a miss to the area due to its geographical situation.
The same holds true for the Bundelkhand region in North India. Spread across two states – Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — the region suffers from extreme drought conditions.
In such a parched environment a jail in Bundelkhand’s Banda district has thrown jail manual out of the window and asked even those criminals to fetch water from outside who face serious criminal charges. The outlawed on the other hand are not running away, not till now, as anywhere they go water shortage will chase them like their shadows. So for now they are staying put but the threat of their escape remains.
For both the states the region is synonymous with backwardness and crime. However, people of this region are very hardworking and self respecting. Nearly 40 years ago in another prolonged drought period, my father visited the region as a government officer to take stock of the situation. He found that in one village the people had got together to clear the silt from their pond and were patiently waiting for the rains to arrive. When my father asked what they wanted from the government, their reply was an emphatic, “nothing”.
A few months ago my friend again visited the same region and met an 80 year old who was busy tending his barren field in the hope of rains. He too told my friend that government can’t bring rain and right now anything other than water is of no use. He told my friend that he believes in god and not in any human intervention anymore.
As the water shortage spreads even this faith in celestial power is waning and with it the patience is running out too. The self respecting are now ready to take law in their own hands. As the reports suggest water trains (trains carrying water tankers to the parched areas are a regular features for decades to meet local water needs) are being guarded by the policemen from the marauding gangsters who loot water trains, fill their tankers and then sell the free water at a premium.
While this is blatant loot, in Maharashtra few days ago a TV sting operation showed that the municipal officers and the local bureaucracy was selling water earmarked for the poor to rich and powerful.
The political leaders aren’t far behind. When a Maharashtra Minister visited a drought hit area 10000 gallons of water were used to irrigate his helipad. Similarly a lot of water was wasted to clean the roads where Karnataka Chief Minister visited to see the impact of drought.
This is a telling commentary on the lackadaisical attitude of our ruling class that fuels lack of faith among people in the government machinery.
Marathwada and Bundelkhand are two extreme cases from where journalists are sending hundreds of stories of lack and suffering. However, there are other regions in India where the problem is intensifying.
Water wells, ponds and tanks were treated as community centres during good old days. However, today they have turned into flashpoints where every drop counts and any delay or denial, real or perceived can trigger vicious physical violence.
Showdowns are just one aspect of deteriorating social conditions. Another silent but far more sinister problem is of distress migration. Left with no work marginal farmers and landless labourers are migrating towards urban areas.
Lack of employment has a direct bearing on the economic and educational background of their children. Many have to drop out of their schools as their parents are out of work and can’t afford to send them to school. In urban areas they would initially be used to earn money to supplement their family’s income. Each one will have to earn their keep.
In such a situation children especially girl child and women are at risk of exploitation. This is the reason many villages in Marathwada and Bundelkhand have witnessed a re-emergence of child marriage. Daughters, as young as 14, are being married off to get rid of liability and offload another mouth to feed.
Media intervention like the story of Sonali Rathod, in Times of India, a few weeks ago saved the girl from forced marriage but for every rescue there are hundreds who succumb to their wretched destiny.
The promised rains will arrive within a month and parched tales of suffering will be drenched by the heavy showers all around. However, beneath the sheets of water and showers the threat of drought returning with vengeance within months will remain potent.

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Climate Change: India, China should move away from rhetoric

Negotiations have entered the final rounds in Paris to strike the deal of the century to save the world from the ill effects of climate change. The goal is to inspire all the 195 member nations of the United Nations to pledge carbon emission cuts to arrest the global temperature rise within the 2 degree centigrade of the pre-Industrial Revolution level. This will help in avoiding catastrophic changes in climate and their disastrous impact on human civilisation.
During the course of negotiations India and China, large Asian economies, have taken a stand that developed countries should share the bigger responsibility of cleaning up the environment. On the face of it the argument is just and valid. Developed countries have been the major polluters historically and are still the biggest emitters in the world.
The top 10 percent of the population or one billion inhabitants living in North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand share 50 percent of the total carbon emitted around the world. While the bottom 3.5 billion people in developing nations contribute only 10 percent of the emissions.
So the insistence on developed countries sharing their responsibility is right and logical. However, this is where the insistence should end. When India and China insist that they will retain the right to develop (read pollute) then the argument starts souring. Right to development as propagated by them still means right to pollute and follow the trajectory of development that was pursued by the developed countries during 19th and 20th century.
These nations should take a hard look on their own development trajectory. The policy planners, opinion builders and the leaders should ask one question, will finances and technology transfer from the developed countries be enough to meet the local adaptation and mitigation goals? Isn’t there a need to rethink their development model? Is it not the time to tread a different path when new technologies, management tools and business options are available?
Take the case of India. Last week while the negotiations were on in Paris heavy rains brought flash floods in a metropolis – Chennai. Negotiators were quick to use it as a tool to launch an emotional plea that we are now suffering the worst impact of climate change. The ill effects are no more a distant threat but a present reality.
The tone and tenor was of a helpless victim at the receiving end of extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change which is the result of centuries of carbon emissions caused by the rich North.
An emotional and slick argument, apt for grand standing except that it’s flawed. Chennai floods, as it is now emerging, are a manmade disaster. Extreme climate events have been happening in the past and will keep happening in the future. But the way in which all the environment considerations were throw to winds, all the rules were flouted in building roads, bridges, airport and in one case an Oceanographic Institute, suggest that it was a handiwork of short-sighted politicians, conniving bureaucrats and greedy developers.
It is true that the rains in late November and early December broke all records for the last 100 years, the reality is when that kind of rain lashed the coastal town 100 years ago the devastation was far less as the natural landscape had the ability to absorb the sudden shock of deluge. However, today things are different. Chennai had 600 water bodies in 1980s. Today only 27 are left. Rest have been degraded or completely usurped by the building mafia.
It is because of callous disregard towards natural drainage that today the city suffers the wrath of the rain gods. Chennai is not alone. Mumbai suffered the same fate 10 years ago for the same reasons.
These are the examples from India. China is no different. The same nexus of power elite, builders and bureaucrats have wrecked havoc on their own land. Close to 1.5 million people were displaced to build Three Gorges Dam. Government spin doctors said that the hydro power plant will meet 7 percent of China’s electricity needs. However, today it only meets 1.7 percent of the needs and is becoming a huge environmental challenge. Cases like these are dime a dozen in China and people’s anger is spilling on the streets, something unheard off till recently.
While pursuing this kind of development paradigm and insisting on polluters pay principle is like the pot calling the kettle black. It is like a new criminal insisting that the older one should be penalised as he is new to the game and should be given his clutch of chances to perpetuate the same crimes and then later society can take a call whether it’s time for the new criminal to undergo jail term or not.
China and India are making two grave errors. One by insisting to follow the same model of development and secondly complicating matters further by subverting policy guidelines, flouting norms and mindlessly breaking every law whether natural or manmade.
India and China should understand a historical truth. When developed nations embarked on their journey of development their populations were small, resources abundant and they had leisure in terms of time to make mistakes and learn from them. With us (India and China) none of these things apply.
Our populations are huge, resources limited and stressed and we don’t have the luxury of centuries to make mistakes. We may crib about this historical unfairness but that’s the reality.
India and China should go deep down within their own indigenous knowledge base and timeless wisdom to evolve a new paradigm of sustainable development. They should tread that path with purpose and integrity, show some concrete results and ten ask the developed countries to pay for their historical responsibility.
It is then the rhetoric will morph into a powerful moral argument, something even the most partisan of negotiators will find hard to turn down.

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Solar Alliance: A promising future full of challenges

The 100-nations Solar Alliance launched by the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, and French President, Francois Hollande, has the potential to kick start the much touted era of green and low carbon economy.
Most of the member nations fall within the two tropics (Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn) and as such receive abundant sunshine (in access of 300 days of uninterrupted solar irradiation). These nations which include sub Saharan and Saharan countries can become the new hot spots for 21st century clean energy.
Solar power technology is versatile in a sense that it can be utilised to generate huge amounts of electricity and process heat and also compressed in bite size to build torches and lamps. This versatility offers a chance for many poor nations which are part of the alliance to embrace the technology for the purpose of energy access to its poorest sections of the society.
More than 100 nations offer huge market for solar manufacturers, battery developers, LED bulbs producers etc. It will unlock a market that would rival any in the energy space. Just how big the solar market will be can be gauged from the fact that just one country – India – alone offers a multi-billion dollar market.
India has been among the few countries working towards mainstreaming solar power in their energy mix. In 2009, just after the failure of Copenhagen Summit, policy planners unveiled an ambitious plan to install 20000 MW of grid connected solar power by 2022. Christened Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) it was one of the biggest project of its time.
However, that plan dwarfed in front of the revised ambition articulated by the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government at the Centre. Now it wants to install 100 GW (gigawatt) of solar power by the end of the 2022. It means that India needs to install 95000 MW in a span of just 7 years.
Each MW of solar installation costs Rs 7 to 8 crore. It means installing 95000 MW will need an investment of more than Rs 6650000000000 or close to a trillion dollar. Similarly, LED bulbs, batteries, new sockets, fittings, wires, transformers and trained maintenance staff will all create a huge opportunity for employment and economic development.
While this is the sunny side of the story, let’s also take stock of the odds stacked against the sunrise opportunity. Most of the nations in the alliance are either developing or desperately poor. All they have is sunshine. What they lack are funds, trained manpower, access to technology and a deep appreciation among its ruling elite as well as policy planners about the advances made in the renewable energy space.
They are also woefully unaware about the various new business models that have emerged to harness the technology at a local level as well as its strength in meeting greater demands for higher load.
It means that the alliance will have to work on many fronts right from the start. Policy planners will have to be convinced. Developed nations who hold all the aces in terms of technology and finances will have to be engaged and cajoled in sharing technology and coughing up some money. Receiver nations will have to use that money and technology judiciously. They will have to promote home grown research and create a policy and regulatory framework which understands that the technology is still a work in progress and will keep updating and hence making the benchmarks created today irrelevant within a short span of time. Space will have to be created for constant reviews and up-gradation. Also funds will have to be generated within the country to meet the challenges of constant up-gradation and maintenance.
Enthusiasts say that cost of solar power is already coming down so this is the right time to move towards solar. They cite the example of India where the Power Purchase Agreements signed between the solar power producers and the power utility firms have seen a constant decline in per unit of power — From a high of Rs 17 per unit just seven years ago to Rs 4.2 per unit today.
However, this is a case of competitive bidding and does not necessarily reflect the true cost of production in the market. It is yet to be seen whether the producers will be able to sustain and generate quality power over a long period of time or not.
Also a part of declining cost of solar power can be attributed to very high inventory piled up in China, Germany and the US. During the first few years of JNNSM the cost declined as Independent Power Producers (IPPs) bought cheap thin film technology as well as solar panels from China and Germany. These two countries were more than willing to offload their piled up inventory as economic slowdown of 2008 had depressed the demands in both the countries for solar panels.
Now when the markets in 100 nations will open up it will lead to shortage and prices will escalate. It can be rightly argued that due to economies of scale the prices will not hit the roof but some kind of course correction is in store.
However, this is just a small challenge. The bigger problems lie in execution and maintenance of the new power system.
The Alliance secretariat that would be headquartered in Gurgaon, India, will have to work with all the participant nations in evolving a consensus on the quality of equipment that needs to be installed in the first place. Secondly they will have to take a call about which technology to pursue and which one to reject while negotiating technology transfer.
For example in the case of pager technology – it was introduced in India in 1995 when it was almost on the verge of being discarded in the West. Two years later mobiles came in and the entire infrastructure used for pagers was rendered useless. Many people lost their jobs and the equipments were reduced to junk.
The policy planners will have to be careful in weeding out such technologies to save their precious finances.
Massive efforts will also be needed to train our workforce. South Africa and an Indian Province Chhattisgarh have instituted right to skill development. It is a good beginning which should be replicated elsewhere and under this initiative people, especially, in rural areas should be trained to maintain and fix any problems that the solar plant will face.
The Solar Alliance nations will also have to pool in their own intellectual, scientific and corporate resources to slowly but steadily move away from borrowed technologies and financial models.
The national governments will have to take their own provincial governments and urban and rural local governing bodies into confidence and move forward. If they can achieve the goals mentioned above, Solar Alliance will become the trigger to usher in the age of sustainable development.

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Climate Change: Stop Humbugging

Right now there are two kinds of people populating the mother earth – climate change believers and climate change deniers. I am not going to talk about climate change deniers. This post is all about the believers, those who make impassioned speeches and talk of taking affirmative action.
I ask these believers who and what stops them from taking urgent actions to save the Earth from the catastrophic temperature rise? Ever since Copenhagen Summit in 2009 the world of believers has been dragging its feet on taking concrete actions. The believers are divided along many fault lines – developed vs developing, right to development vs historical culpability, common but differentiated responsibility etc.
It is safe to suggest that the campaign to save our earth from the ills of climate change has suffered more due to the believers than the deniers. At least the denier is clear and honest about his or her stupidity or lack of information or both.
The same can’t be said about the believers. They believe in climate change, fund huge and sophisticated research projects, debate about how to tackle the problem, pledge money and then at the 11th hour shy away from any commitment or bold action.
Take the case of the pledge to provide $30 billion for adaptation to the developing countries by 2012. But that money never saw the light of the day. Charges have been levelled by the receivers about being short changed. The most high profile of such spats happened when the Prime Minister of Surinam accused the Norwegian Government of not paying a single penny, as promised, to keep their forests intact.
Many different accounts say till date $9 billion have flowed in and that too is modification of various grants and not the new money as was made to believe by the leaders of the developed nations.
Similarly, commitments about bringing the carbon emission below the 1990 levels as enshrined and accepted in 1997 at Kyoto have all been forgotten. The new baseline now is 2004. A fact that is seldom discussed is COP 3 had decided that the global carbon emissions should come down by 5 percent of the 1990 level by 2010 to save the Earth from irreparable damage to climate systems. However, despite pledges the emission increased by leaps and bounds and by 2010 instead of coming down by 5 percent it had increased by 50 percent.
All the top economies – developed and developing – have been using the UN forum to create groupings and use it to pressurise the other to take the lead, “increase their ambitions” for emission cuts and also “foot the climate bill” in terms of providing the hard cash. Each one is dead set against any binding commitment, verifiable and measured by any international agency for its authenticity.
If the future of the Earth is as grave as mentioned by the scientists that are funded and promoted by the same concerned climate believer governments, than why the intransigence on undertaking any bold action? Why squabbling over every single word, comma or full stops of every draft resolution? Why the sabre rattling every time just before the negotiation starts and why the need to throw “walkout” tantrums?
The whole world and especially the believers knows that out of 195 countries that are part of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 20 of them that form the G-20 Group accounts for more than 80 percent of the present global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 80 percent of the entire present carbon emission and consists of nations that shoulder 100 percent of the historical responsibility. These 20 nations, almost all of them led by believer governments and opinion builders, can sit across the table and achieve a far more effective and ambitious plan to decarbonise the economy and move on the path of sustainable development in much less the time.
They can then jointly appear at the UNFCCC Summit and present the plan as their collective commitments to save the mother Earth. Scientific data, emerging technologies, hundreds of business, management and social initiatives around the world are pointing towards an emerging opportunity that suggests today is the best day to take that elusive but important affirmative step towards low carbon economy that will ultimately deliver a future where temperature rise would be arrested within 2oC of the pre-industrial level.
If these 20 countries can bury their differences and take collective action than we can safely say they are climate change believers and really care for the Earth and its environment and also of our future generations. However, if in Paris they keep hiding behind clichés of “everyone-should-be-on-board” and “Nauru” should also have its commitment, “Burkina Faso” should also pledge something, “Polynesian Islands” should shoulder some of the blame and Bulgaria should do some more for the larger economies to convince their leaders to take some action than we are looking at believers who are worse than deniers.

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Clean Ganga: Where experts fail politics deliver

At times political showmanship does more to improve environment than mere expert opinions. Nowhere it’s more visible than in the efforts to clean river Ganga. Last year while campaigning in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (two of the most important political provinces that can make or mar the fortunes of any political party in India) Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had promised that he would do anything to clean the river Ganga.
This is tricky pledge. It was first made by another Prime minister in bygone era. Late Shri Rajiv Gandhi, initiated the programme – Ganga Action Plan – to clean the river of its pollutants. However, 15 year long project ended achieving most of its objective expect for one – cleaning the river. Sewage treatment plants were in place. They were treating the sewage. Other actions like shifting polluting industries and closing down polluting units were undertaken but they didn’t produce the desired impact on the quality of water in the river.
The reason was simple and was echoed by all the environmentalists. They maintained, from the beginning, that a basic minimum flow of water was needed to ensure the river will regain its natural cleansing property. In the absence of natural cleansing property the river shall not be in a position to sustain its aquatic life (flora and fauna) which would further help cleanse the river and improve its water quality.
This simple but crucial fact was deliberately overlooked for the last three decades. The water from the river Ganga, Yamuna and their tributaries in the high hills of Himalayas were diverted for dams and canals.
A couple of chief ministers in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand recklessly pursued a dam building development path which was disastrous for the Himalayan region as well as alluvial plains downstream.
Now the new government after 14 months of planning and preparing for cleaning river Ganga has realised the simple truth of maintaining a minimum flow of water in the river. This has brought them face to face with an age old riddle – development or conservation.
The government and the policy planners have realised that to maintain minimum river flow in Ganga and improving its water quality it will have to stop construction of six dams that were given a go ahead in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand.
It has already ordered that any more dam activity should be undertaken keeping in mind the clause of minimum flow. It effectively means the dams will not be pursued as ground hasn’t been broken for all the six proposed dams.
How and from where did the government get the determination and clarity to pursue the path of conservation? The answer lies in the game of electoral politics. The cold calculation of numbers to ensure your pre-eminent position has forced the government to take such a bold step.
On the one hand is the state of Uttarakhand, the source of river Ganga and the site of dam building. It represents four parliamentary seats. While the lower riparian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar represent 120 parliamentary seats.
The river needs to be cleaned at least visibly in the next three years as the general elections would be held around that time. It is a short duration by any standards and minimum river flow is one of the easiest way to achieve it. The low hanging fruit that can be plucked right away.
The political cost of upsetting voters in 4 seats far outweighs the cost of alienating voters in 120 seats. A visibly cleaner Ganga ensures, at least theoretically, a favourable response from the voters during elections in these two states.
This calculation has given the government the courage to shut the doors on dam developers.
What lesson does it hold for the conservationists? Work on the people to make environment conservation issues vocal enough to catch a politician’s attention. Work on him to bite the bullet and commit himself or herself for a cause. Make the cause as emotive as you can and once committed to it they don’t have any option but to deliver.

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