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Is democracy cleaner?

Sunday, Aug 09, 2020 15:30 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, Aug 09, 2020 10:01 [IST]

Is democracy cleaner?

Two ideas- citizenship and environmentalism- at first glance have barely anything to do with each other; citizenship refers to human society, environmentalism to nature. Human spaces and nature are two worlds that are separated by the remarkable economic and technological developments of the last two centuries. This separation is practically wrong and poses a great danger to democratic institutions and civil society in general because humankind is the product of its natural environment and is one link among many others in the vast living world. Damaging the environment could, in fact, lead to violations of human and civil rights. In the time of a severe and systemic crisis (climate change, emergence of diseases, flood, draught etc) on account of destroying environment and social ties for more than a decade, there is emergent need to take up new ways of thinking that combine protecting both the environment and democracy. In this context it is pertinent to mention that democracy can only be robust if society’s natural environment is healthy.
Unfortunately an anti-democracy and an anti-environmentalist wave of nationalism is spreading over many countries in the world. Many politicians all over the world do not take in to account the most invaluable advantage of democracy  that allow for peaceful conflict solving according to the rules laid down in the constitution. Moreover democracy can ensure  the citizens’ right to voice their opinions freely,  a free press to raise awareness and to report on political achievements and failures as well as on the people’s demands. The Government in any cleaner democratic country needs to ensure sustainable development maintaining equilibrium among environmental, social and economical aspects by framing cleaner production policy based on sound scientific evidences.  Thereby the citizens’ demands for a cleaner environment would be better reflected in the political process. This is the essence of the ‘clean democracy hypothesis’.
According to this hypothesis, there are five related causal mechanisms through which democracy leads to a cleaner environment: First, democracy allows a freer flow of information so that environmental lobby groups can raise awareness among the common citizen. Second, democracy protect the rights of civil society that exert influence on the political process. Third, democracy is  more responsive to demands of the electorate and takes effective measures to avert life-threatening environmental degradation. Fourth, democracy is more cooperative and tend to honour environmental agreements as they are bound by the rule of law. Fifth, the members of the ruling elite in autocracies are less inclined towards environmental protection than the democratic public.
India is the world’s most populous democracy but the recently released Draft EIA Notification has witnessed that government is less inclined towards sustainable development by reducing the scope and effectiveness of Environmental Impact Assessments, which is the main option to protect the environment. This draft clearly reveals that democratic politicians are probably not willing to implement strict environmental restrictions on “so called” development (industrialization, mining, intensive farming, roads, pipelines, housing complex etc).  Obviously democracy also has features that may counteract stricter environmental policies because  politicians are short-sighted and may refrain from making long-term investments in environmental quality. The possible reason is that the costs of environmental protection are borne today, while benefits may accrue only with a significant time lag, when incumbents may no longer be in office. Moreover, powerful industry lobbying groups may counteract environmental interests and shift the balance towards lower environmental standards. Often, the electorate in democracy doe not  care systematically more about the environment than autocratic elites that have to please their ‘selectorate’. In the end, it is an empirical question whether democracy is indeed cleaner.
The liberal democracy is  more willing to regulate the environment and provides supportive evidence for regulations of pollution from different sources, deforestation, and land degradation with emphasis on conservation of natural resources. In India, recent EIA draft allows more and more industries to operate without taking the environment into account as well as people’s life and health. Moreover, the Draft Notification is weakening the freedom of citizens’ protest on decisions and activities that have a bearing on their lives by limiting public participation in EIA.  Another major barrier to formulate, effectively implement, and monitor the success of environmental policies is the  corruption. Policy-makers can be bribed by business interests not to enact environmental laws against their interests. Even if stringent laws were passed, corruption might prevent their effective implementation, as the implementation of regulations, their monitoring, and the prosecution of violations could be bought off.  Moreover, corruption may reduce trust in the government and impede voluntary compliance with the environmental standards. Corruption may reduce investment and growth  and therefore reduce the state’s capacity to mobilize resources for environmental protection.
if corruption levels are low, emission of gases and discharge of waste water can be easily controlled and also  material, energy and water flow substitutions between firms, collective waste collection and other measures may provide direct economic advantages by generating additional income and reducing production costs. Increasing economic activity, especially energy production and industrial output, initially causes environmental degradation (per capita). When economic activity grows further, pollution per capita is expected to be declined because the economy becomes more advanced and people become richer. In this situation, concept of cleaner production can be implemented using advanced technologies to fulfill demand of the people for  higher environmental protection. Moreover, as trade liberalization increases the average per capita income, people will value the environment more highly and demand better protection. Most importantly, success in achieving sustainable development ultimately depends on the governance and political will if democracy is cleaner.
If we critically evaluate the procedure and processed adopted to restrict pollution originating from  both point and non-point sources, it can be inferred that  democracy is not cleaner and thereby society’s natural environment - the very basis of survival and citizens’ health and welfare  are in danger.  But in many national and international platform, top politicians  stronglyadvocate  their progress towards development and are proud of  India being world’s populous democracy. But what “progress” and for whom! 
In this piquant situation, If the political will  cannot solve the problems effectively that affect democracy and the environment, the civil society must take the reins with clear understanding that there is a clear link between defending democracy and the environment. Many initiatives are to be developed to raise awareness of democratic and environmental issues, to create connections between the two. The discussion forums will not be the only places where change can be brought about; the streets and public spaces are all the more important since ‘democracy’ means ‘power of the people’.  It is the high time to ensure that democracy is cleaner.

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi