22 july, 2009 :Global Warming and the Democratic Paradox:

Much of my attention of late has been directed towards the monumental waste of resources that I see around everyday, in Durban, with its first world cities (and third world villages – but thats the topc for another blog altogether), correlated with images from the US and the UK on my brief visits there in the past.

The amount of waste that is perpetrated by the developed world is staggering in the enormity of scale. Paper, electricity, water, petrol, diesel, edible food, the list is endless. It seems to me that being “developed” essentially means going to an incredible amount of discomfort in order to ensure comfort to yourself.

Maybe that is not exactly true, after all. The paradigms of reference vary, certainly. So while the discomfort is relative (the trouble of having to pay for purified drinking water- purified with an immense amount of energy expenditure and cost – just so that you can wash your clothes and flush it down ure drain), the comfort is a no-brainer, designed to make life simpler, easier, hassle-free, and predictable.

this perhaps explains why traffic rules work so well in the developed world, with drivers’ absolute willingness to stand in long queues behind capricious traffic lights just so that they may be able to travel at great speeds with the promise of increased safety.

This philosophy, however, does not seem to work for global warming. And herein lies the rub. the reality of our age is that global warming and large-scale environmental degradation are realities that are projected to take place in a foreseeable future, with largely uncertain effects. Yet, the irony is that their extent and actual impact are matters of projection, at best. The effects of environmental collapse can be only appreciated by a person who has spent sufficient time imagining the future, and who is able to have a very sophisticated understanding of the “if-then-else” loop of reasoning.

Simple though this reasoning may seem, it is sadly not very common.

Again, changes, if and when they come, would happen at a gradual pace – effecting a gradual erosion in our quality of life in a way and so as to allow for enough time for civilisation to adjust to it.

What this does mean is that in the case of environmental protection, people will very often be willing to disregard the long term deleterious effects of their actions if they imagine that the short term benefits are attractive enough.

It also makes the process of educating people difficult because all that you have by way of reasoning is the vague threat that things may slide into a dystopic future where matters will be out of hand, and that responsible behaviour will help you to live a vastly less profligate lifestyle for a longer time frame.

Maybe, if you’re lucky.

This is where systems of governments come into play. And where democracy tries so valiantly. And fails: so completely, so pathetically.

Democracy has the reputation of something of a sacred cow in the world we live in today. It is seen as the best system of governance, and countries have been invaded in its name. Regimes have been toppled, rulers deposed, and the will of many people squashed because of the modern  (essentially wetsern) belief that democracy will solve most of the nation’s worries.

I do not want to go into the relative merits or demerits of the system. That is the topic of another post.

But democracy, as we know it: a system of government consisting of proportional representation of the citizens of the country, who are assisted and guided by the executive and judiciary, is not a system that is known for its long-sightedness. One of the important aspects of democracy is the fact that governments have a finite lifetime, after which they have to seek the approval of the electorate again. It follows, therefore, that to retain the favour of the electorate, a government shall have to take popular decisions that shall ensure another term in office.

It is within the dictates of electoral compulsion, and onlycorrect within the mandates of a democratic election, that a group of elected representatives should strive to take the decisions that the majority would support.

Herein lies the rub. So while elected governments will see it as morally justified, even pertinent, that they safeguard the immediate interests of their citizens, the long-term decisions (that may be uncomfortable in the short term and may have questionable effects in the long term) may be put on the back burner.

And why not? Governments do not fret about the world that they are handing down to their successors, 20 years into the future. Hell, the incumbents don’t even bother about the poor gits who’re coming in after them in a month’s time! This is is entirely different from, say, a monarchy, where the king has a vested interest in preserving and nourishing the kingdom for future generations, since succession is most often lineal.

This does not in any way mean that I am suggesting that monarchy is better or worse than democracy.

In fact, it does not even mean that I am suggesting that democratically elected governments are incapable of saving the environment.

But it certainly means that there will need to be an incredible amount of vision and concerted effort, and a will to think beyond the next general elections, if a democratic government based on popular consensus is to have a realistic chance of making long-term decisions that improve conditions and forge a new way forward.

That takes courage, and maturity, and selflessness. Because after all the considered thought and concerted action, the opposition may just win at the hustings by trumpeting the obvious current shortcomings of the government. Charges which would be impossible to disown, without scare-mongering about a nebulous future.

This is the democratic paradox, and it will be interesting to see how we shall negotiate it in the years to come.

16 Jul 2009 : :the unbearable heaviness of being (indian) part 3

It has been a long time since I have written, and while that may not mean anything to you, o occasional reader, o itinerant wayfarer, to me it represents a great departure indeed, after months of indolence. The motivation to stretch and move, to coax my tired digits to clatter over the keys and beat out the tattoo of a new blog post, is one that does not come easily, which requires practice and regular effort.

Yet this is here, and I am in Durban, and the excitement of a new universe opening itself before my eyes like the petal pink folds of a nautilus shell, is one that has to be discussed, and shared, and written down for future perusal, and reflection.

Durban is a port city, and home to a fascinating mix of people: of Indian, African, European and Mixed descent. Indeed, one of the first things a Durbanite will enquire after referring to a person will be the appropriate racial box that you can check them under (like “…so this is your family friend? Her name’s Barbara? She’s white, eh?”)

The totally unselfconscious way in which these people seek to know the racial origins of everyone they interact with is disarming in its directness. To people used to the almost aseptic political correctness of the United States or the UK, it represents the conversational equivalent of a loud fart (with concomitant malodorous accompaniments) in a packed elevator. There is a sudden widening of the pupils, and an effort to keep the twitching facial muscles under check.

It is interesting for me to see this, coming from an Indian perspective, and watching the racism from within the view of the community that identifies itself as Indian.

The Indians in South Africa are different from the expatriate Indians in the US, or say, the UK. And while this can be said of Indians in almost any part of the world, the south African Indians are reportedly the second largest concentration of Indians in any place outside of India, (till recently, the largest).

This makes them a group certainly worthy of attention and study, and their difference from other expats is thus significant.

Yet, it is this terminology of being Indian that is problematic. Because of course, “Indian” is not a racial type exactly, and though there might be an overall way of behaving and of dress and culture and attitude that is prevalent among people from the subcontinent, it is sufficiently diverse as to render any common grouping fairly irrelevant.

To elaborate on my favourite thesis, India is like Europe, and to think that there is a commonality to all of Europe that manifests in ways besides the Euro and EU summits would be a little simplistic.

Anyway, all that is neither here nor there, because the Indians in South Africa came here when India was not the nation we now know, when it was a huge conglomerate of colonies administered by the British. So all people of South Asian origin, from present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka, are identified as Indian. The majority of Indians came in the 1800’s, brought in by the british, as indentured labour to work on the plantations. Following this, they set up shop, as small businessmen and traders in the cities, and proliferated and grew.

There was also a smaller community who came about a century before, but the overwhelming majority today are the 1800-ers.

anyway, after 1948, the South African government banned the further immigration of Indians into the country, following which India also passed an embargo against them. It got messy, and there were situations where people who married women in India (as indians are wont to do, of course 🙂 were not allowed to bring their brides into the country.

All this changed in 1994, when the country became a democracy, and equality was ensured by law. But not before ensuring that the primacy of racial identity was forever ingrained in the worldview of the south African Indians, without a commensurate level of contact with the subcontinent.

So we have here a situation where the India that the south africans were forced to identify with was a country that was carried forward in the collective consciousness in a group of immigrants, about 100 years before, and with all the resulting bastardizations of the process of migration and settling.

It created a fascinating mix, and thus we have the Indian community here, which barely speaks any Indian language fluently, and have not traveled to India in the past 2 generations at least. But a community which identifies fiercely with India, and what it sees as common Indian values and traditions.


(next post: marriage laws in pre-’94 South Africa)