Democracy in our hands

Pramila Irudayaraj

January 31, 2022

There is a pattern in the trend of environmental degradation and destruction occurring all over the world. Large corporations pay political parties/ government officials in the bureaucracy to alter laws/policies such that they can take on environmentally harmful projects and function in a destructive way. They profit from this way of functioning. Sometimes the level of corruption is so high that even if they don’t function profitably on their own, taxpayer money is siphoned off through the project such that the officials and corporations make their money either way. In some cases, political parties and government officials set up companies themselves and follow the same process.

This pattern started through colonialism and large corporations carried it forward. It’s apparent that movies like ‘Avatar’ and more recently ‘Don’t look up’ paint a clear picture of the consequences of this trend continuing unchecked. Avatar speaks to the plight of indigenous communities who own resource-rich land and corporations/ governments waging war on them because the tribes choose to protect the land whose “ wealth is all around us ( in symbiotic life ) not a rock in the ground “. Whereas ‘Don’t look up’ holds a mirror to humanity allowing our own destruction because of certain twisted narratives/ thought processes related to the wealth generated from mining and other industries that drive climate change.

We are mining coal for electricity, destroying forests and mangroves in the process of this mining and infrastructure (highways, dams, etc). But it all comes down to the most basic logic, how useful is your phone/ any electronic product, if you can’t breathe? 16.7 million people died from air pollution in India in 2019. Basically, the health and well being of all people in the present matters most. There is no life without clean air, water and healthy soil. These are human rights.

Technology has (decentralized solar power, hydrogen fuel, etc) and will adapt over time such that we can generate electricity and travel efficiently but in the meantime, we can’t allow present destructive methods to destroy all our natural ecosystems. The sad part is that the majority of people know this. But the few people with money and the assumed power i.e. the corporations and politicians, create a David versus Goliath situation when it comes to fighting climate change and trying to maintain a healthy quality of life in the present for everyone equally.

We ask ourselves, what then is the solution? What can we do? As stated earlier, the majority of people know what is happening. We have eyes to see and understand what changes in the environment affect us. Even in the remotest villages, people will talk of changes they observe in the water and or air, changes in the plants and animals and the sicknesses in themselves and their neighbours. First, we must recognize our power and then participate. Then the question arises, what causes us to fail to recognize our individual and collective power and what inhibits our participation?

In India, we witnessed the farmers’ protests. More than one year with thousands of farmers protesting by facing both natural (continuous exposure) and man-made ( police brutality, covid pandemic, false accusations on national television channels, condescending and hard-hearted politicians pretending to listen to them but instead following the will of corporations) elements. The farmers acted like they had nothing to lose because they understood the consequences of these bills being passed literally left them with nothing. Farmers are their own bosses. They have unions and co-operatives as community support. Setting aside other issues of government-backed agro-businesses pushing for genetically modified seeds, chemical pesticides and fertilizers (another climate change pattern causing low nutrition in food and land degradation across the world) creating high input costs in farming and thus poverty of the small-scale farmer, we learn from farmers, the power and independence of such a worker. They determine their own working hours, land use and finances.

In cities like Mumbai, BEST public bus drivers and chartered accounts in big companies work 10-12 hours per day, sometimes 6-7 days a week. Where then is the time and energy to participate in the decision making processes of the community? Pope John Paul II, was a champion of the worker. He wrote ‘ Yet the workers’ rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers’ rights within each country and all through the world’s economy.’ Babasaheb Ambedkar fought for workers’ rights in India with working hours in all sectors to be no more than 8 hours per day many decades ago, yet policy changes and union discouragement lead to current forms of exploitation.

We must avoid the extremes of capitalism and communism from its past effects on individual choice/expression and thus the clear path is the strengthening of democracy through public participation in the decision making processes. Democracy and environmental protection are interdependent. Along with worker rights, other ideas to strengthen the democratic process are 1) Increasing the transparency and accountability of government institutions/departments and their officials by creating better feedback systems for citizens to voice ideas/concerns (similar to feedback mechanisms used in service sectors, schools, etc) 2)Political candidates and parties cannot accept corporate money 3)Putting half or larger percentage of public funds in the hands of the public, for example, national funds meant for indigenous communities to be held in trust by the indigenous community itself and not by government officials only. Another example is from the UK where residents of particular zones hold 50% of their Municipal funds and determine projects useful to their area.4) Project work cannot start without the written consent of the local people living in the area. 5)Citizens decide which government programs to fund through their individual tax payments. Cap on funds that can be given to each program to avoid wealthier citizens taking advantage of the system. All the ideas have their share of weaknesses and hence must be improved by keeping in mind inclusive collaboration in the decision making process and protection of biodiversity.