Now that our prime ministerial candidates have started setting their agendas, we may also ponder what issues we will vote on in 2014. A no-brainer, most would say. We want better policies and governance. We want the economy revived, poverty reduced and lives valued. Corruption must end. Price rise checked. And Pakistan must not be allowed to get away with killing Indian soldiers.
But how are our choices — the Modis, Gandhis, Advanis and Singhs — differently placed to achieve all that? Have we ever heard them spell out their respective stands on building dams in every corner of the Himalayas or on acquiring every slice of forest or tribal land that sits atop a mineral bed? Are the thousands killed in manufactured disasters not Indians? Is handing over finite resources dirt cheap to big corporations by dispossessing thousands of poor not corruption?
Of course, we may disagree on the answers to the last two questions. But have we even heard about the recent Supreme Court judgments upholding the landowner’s right over minerals beneath his or her plot or stopping clearances for new dams in Uttarakhand? If we have, we moved on unconcerned to do what we love doing: crib about the sorry state of the country and play blame games, damning every political outfit in power, only to re-elect them as able political alternatives at another point of time.
This is like a game of musical chairs played to an occasional tune with an exasperated and yet strangely malleable audience in attendance. The crowd seethes watching the wayward ploys of those on the seat of power and yet back the same lot when they are unseated, in the strange belief that they will somehow do better next time. The unscrupulous, horse-trading Congress of the early-1990s was brought back within a decade. So will be, grows the clamour, the vain BJP of shining India shame.
If bad economics has landed the country in such a mess, it is inexplicable as to how a mere switch between known political entities will help. There is nothing fundamentally different between the economic policies of India’s two principal parties; or, for that matter, all principal parties, such as the NCP, AIADMK or BJD. On paper, the Left claims a different position but the comrades exposed themselves on the bloody fields of Singur and Nandigram.
Yet, the national debate over the competitive merit of our political choices hinges on make-believe promises such as “dragging Dawood to India” or “apna paisa apne haath”. Indeed, we love the shrill back and forth so much that issues that cannot be readily broken down into a Congress-BJP or Modi-Rahul or UPA-NDA face-off, hardly register on the public radar.
On 8 July, the SC overruled a 1999 Kerala high court judgment that subsoil minerals belonged to the government. In a meticulously explained ruling, the apex court held that there was nothing in the law “which declares that all mineral wealth sub-soil rights vest in the state”. The state, the order said, has regulatory powers over extraction but no propriety right and “the ownership of sub-soil/mineral wealth should normally follow the ownership of the land”.
This order can potentially change the rule of the game in a country where economic growth largely depends on extraction of mineral resources. Will this empower the landowning communities to negotiate price rather than settle for shoddy rehabilitation package? Will they be able to monetise their mineral assets themselves through co-operatives? Will a rash of small-scale mining be operationally or economically feasible? Will big corporations find a way to acquire mineral-rich land and contest the government on payment of royalty?
Whichever side of the debate one would take, it should have been an engrossing and important exchange. If only there was a debate. News agencies and a number of media outlets did carry the news but it did not attract even a hundred shares or comments on all websites taken together, considering that social media engagement is the yardstick of interest and engagement these days.
Coming last week, the SC’s directive to the Centre to stop clearing any more dams in Uttarakhand and assess the impact of the hydel projects on the Alakananda and Bhagirathi attracted a little more attention. On the CNN-IBN website, the news was shared more than 500 times. On all other top news sites I scanned, the combined social media thumbprint has not exceeded 200 yet.
Given the mass outcry we witnessed two months ago when thousands perished in the hill state due to unplanned construction of hotels, roads and dams, this indifference to the first real corrective action is inexplicable. Again, one can respond to the measures differently depending on where one stands on the debate. Should the SC also stop the existing projects pending a thorough impact assessment? Or should we consider the loss of few thousand lives every few years a legitimate price for growth? Perhaps we don’t care either way.
It says a lot about us when not even a thousand of the big fat web warrior brigade, that tweets and comments 24x7 on everything that mentions a Modi or a Gandhi, apparently in the interest of a better India, could not find the two landmark judgments significant enough to merit any attention.
However, the news of farmer’s agitation against the proposed Maruti plant in Gujarat – potentially Modi’s Singur moment – attracted more than a thousand shares and comments on a single website I checked this morning. But that is possibly due to the magic of the M-word; the same reason why even this article may not go unnoticed.
Frankly, will we again decide who to vote for on flimsy, undeliverable rhetoric? No leader or party, thankfully, will ever wage a war just to teach any neighbour any lesson. But should we not demand to know who will show the rulebook to big money and safeguard the country’s resources and its people? Or we can keep carping.