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World Election Week

They don’t hold world elections, but this is the week when around a third of the planet’s voters get the election results for their country or region. In no case are the results a cause for jubilation.

The headline vote, of course, has to be India’s election, a six-week process in which the country’s 900 million voters went to the polls one region at a time, but all the results were held back until this Thursday. The outcome was a landslide win and a second five-year term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s ‘Trump before Trump’.

India is a far more complicated country than the United States: 22 official languages, more than 2,000 ethnic groups, myriad divisions of caste and religion. But Modi powers through all that with a simple nationalist message, delivered mainly in the single most widely spoken language, Hindi, and focused on the promotion of the majority religion, Hinduism.

Like Trump, he is vociferously anti-Muslim. (200 million Indian citizens are Muslims.) Like Trump, he governs an ostensibly secular republic on which he is trying to impose a specific religious identity (although unlike Trump, his religiosity is genuine). Like Trump, he talks up foreign wars and threats all the time, although so far he has managed to evade a major war.

In other words, he is the very model of a modern populist, and the model works. It worked in the Philippines, too, where mid-term election results, declared this week, gave President Rodrigo Duterte an absolute majority in Congress and the ability to change the constitution at will.

Duterte’s first constitutional change will be to bring back the death penalty, but his death squads are already inflicting unofficial death penalties on hundreds of alleged drug-users each month. Then he will abolish term limits, so that he can stay in power indefinitely, and lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12. All of this is making him wildly popular with Filipino voters.

The news is rather better in Indonesia, where election results announced on Tuesday gave incumbent President Joko Widodo 55% of the vote and a second term in office. But while he has been an honest and effective leader, there is a darker side to the story.

Growing Islamist extremism forced ‘Jokowi’ to prove his religious credentials by choosing an elderly Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-presidential running mate this time. And when Widodo’s election victory was announced his main opponent, former general Prabowo Subianto, claimed that he had cheated, denounced the result, and unleashed protesters in the streets of Jakarta. Six died in the first day.

And how about the Europeans? 400 million citizens of the European Union are eligible to vote between Thursday and Sunday in elections to the European Parliament, and it looks like ultra-nationalist populist parties will win the most votes in three out of the four biggest EU countries: the Lega in Italy, the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France, and the Brexit Party in the United Kingdom.

Other racist, anti-immigrant nationalist parties will also do well, including Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, VOX in Spain, Golden Dawn in Greece, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Alternative for Germany (AfD). If this is what democracy gets you, are you sure it’s a good idea?

Yes, it is. Democracy is not a tool for delivering good political decisions. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Living in a democracy doesn’t automatically free people from all the old divisions of ethnicity and religion and class and caste. It sometimes mutes those conflicts, but it’s not a magic cure. Democracy is about equal rights, and that’s all.

Democracy has spread all around the world in the past two centuries because it acknowledges and embodies the basic human value of equality. All human beings lived in tiny hunter-gatherer societies that were obsessively egalitarian for several hundred thousand years before the rise of civilisation, and that is who we still really are.

Equality disappeared with mass civilisation, because we couldn’t crack the problem of large numbers. Some self-nominated god-king or emperor had to make the decisions for a million people, because there was no way they could get together and do it for themselves in the old way.

But then, a couple of hundred years ago, we got technologies that enabled the millions to re-connect: printing and mass literacy. As soon as we got that, the demand for equality re-emerged, and it proved irresistible. You just had to invent some system for measuring the opinions of those millions (let’s call it elections), and lo! You have a democracy.

You don’t have paradise. Human beings are still made of the same old crooked timber, and their collective decisions can be ignorant and sometimes calamitous. Equal rights do not equate to universal love and brotherhood, but democracy does restore our ancient heritage of equality, and that does imply mutual tolerance.

The process of civilising ‘civilisation’ will not be completed in this century, but we have come a long way already.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“India…Hinduism”; and “In other…voters”)

Vegetarians, Carnivores and Technology

“Right now, growing cells as meat instead of animals is a very expensive process,” said Yaakov Nahmias, founder and chief scientist of Israel-based startup Future Meat Technologies. But it will get cheaper, and it probably will be needed.

Global population is heading for 10 billion by 2050. (Current world population: 7.7 billion.) Average global incomes will triple in the same period, enabling more people to eat meat-rich diets.

“We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before,” says Professor Tim Lang of the University of London, one of the 37 scientific co-authors from sixteen different countries who wrote the a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health that launches in Jakarta on Friday. But we’ve heard it all before.

It takes seven kilos of grain to grow one kilo of beef. 70% of the world’s fresh water is used to irrigate crops. We have appropriated three-quarters of the world’s fertile land for food production, and we’ll need the rest by 2050. The world’s stocks of seafood will have collapsed by 2050. It’s all true, but we’re sick of being nagged.

And still they bang on. The EAT-Lancet Commission even has a diet that will save the planet. Cut your beef consumption by 90% (i.e. one steak a month). Eat more beans and pulses (three times more) and more nuts and seeds (four times more). Going vegetarian or vegan will help even more. That’s all true too – but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Or at least, it’s not going to happen by everybody turning vegan, vegetarian, or just ‘flexitarian’. No doubt there will in due course be high taxes on meat and fish, and official propaganda campaigns to persuade people to change their eating habits, and some people will change.

Some people already have: the Vegan Society in Britain claims that the number of vegans in the country has quadrupled in the last four years. But not enough people will switch to a plant-based diet soon enough, or maybe ever. We need to bring the rest of the population along, and few things are more persistent than cultural dietary preferences. Like eating meat.

India is home to almost one-third for the world’s vegetarians, but the local variations are immense and deeply entrenched: 75% of people are vegetarians in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, but fewer than 2% are in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

The most enthusiastic meat-eaters are in the richer countries, and as other countries join their club (like China), they start eating more meat too. So clearly there would be a huge market for real meat that didn’t come from cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens, but tastes right, feels right in the mouth, and doesn’t trash the environment.

We’re not talking about the famous $325,000 hamburger patty made from beef cells immersed in a growth medium that was triumphantly cooked on television six years ago.

We’re talking about a proper steak with muscle and fat cells and the right shape, taste and texture – but not one produced by the familiar process that uses huge amounts of fertile land, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, and involves slaughtering live animals. That is Yaakov Nahmias’s goal, and he’s pretty close now.

Future Meat Technologies produces its ‘cell-based meat’ in bioreactors, growing it on lattices that give it shape and texture, but we’re not talking about giant vats in a lab. He plans to give small units to existing farmers, who might still be rearing some beef cattle too for the luxury end of the market.

“With these two plays–a more efficient bioreactor and a distributed manufacturing model–we can essentially drop the cost down to about $5 a kilogram [$2.27 a pound],” said Nahmias. Meat giant Tyson Foods recently put $2.2 million of seed money into his company, and a dozen other start-ups are chasing the same goal: Memphis Meat, JUST, Finless Foods,
Meatable – a total of 30 labs around the world.

How big a threat is this ‘cell-based meat’ to the traditional cattle industry? Big enough that the US Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the government to restrict the words ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ to products “derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered.” A tricky definition, since it would mean that wild deer are not made of meat, but the ranchers are clearly running scared.

Coming up behind cell-based meat there’s the even newer concept of ‘Solar Foods’: a Finnish company called just that is using electricity from solar panels to electrolyse water and produce hydrogen. The hydrogen is fed to bacteria, and the product is an edible food that is half carbohydrates, half fats and protein.

It is just as good as soya as an animal food, and it uses no land at all. No greenhouse gas emissions either, and the first factory producing it opens in two years’ time. Technology alone can’t save us, but it can certainly shift the odds in our favour.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 14. (“India…Bengal”; and “How…scared”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Populism: It’s the Automation, Stupid

Five of the world’s largest democracies now have populist governments, claimed The Guardian last week, and proceeded to name four: The United States, India, Brazil and the Philippines. Which is the fifth? At various points it name-checks Turkey, Italy and the United Kingdom, but it never becomes clear which. (And by the way, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is not a populist. He’s just a nationalist.)

It’s embarrassing when a respected global newspaper launches a major investigative series and can’t really nail the subject down. Neither can the people it interviews: Hillary Clinton, for example, admits the she was “absolutely dumbfounded” by how Donald Trump ate her lunch every day during the 2016 presidential campaign. She still doesn’t get it.

“We got caught in a kind of transition period so what I had seen work in the past…was no longer as appealing or digestible to the people or the press. I was trying to be in a position where I could answer all the hard questions, but…I never got them. I was waiting for them; I never got them. Yet I was running against a guy who did not even pretend to care about policy.”

Yes, Trump is a classic populist, but why did he beat her two years ago when he wouldn’t even have got the nomination ten years ago? She doesn’t seem to have a clue about that, and neither do other recent leaders of centre-left parties interviewed by The Guardian like Britain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s Matteo Renzi. So let us try to enlighten them.

Populism is not an ideology. It’s just a political technique, equally available to right-wingers, left-wingers, and those (like Trump) with no coherent ideology at all.

In this era, populism seems to partner best with right-wing nationalist ideologies like those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Brexiteers in England, but even now there are populist left-wing parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

How does this tool work? It claims to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’ and against a ‘corrupt elite’ that exploits and despises them. It’s light on policy and heavy on emotion, particularly the emotions of fear and hatred. It usually scapegoats minorities and/or foreigners, and it only works really well when people are angry about something.

We know that a politically significant number of people are angry now, because populism is working very well indeed, but people like Donald Trump can’t take the credit.

In politics, as in ecology, every niche is always filled. There are always dictator-in-waiting, would-be martyrs, and everything in between, but they only get a chance to shine if the political situation creates an opening for their particular kind of politics. So what is creating that opening now?

The anger is about the fact that the jobs are disappearing, and what’s killing them is automation. The assembly-line jobs went first, because they are so easy to automate. That’s what turned the old industrial heartland of the United States into the ‘Rust Belt’. What’s going fast now are the retail jobs, killed by Amazon and its rivals: computers again.

The next big chunk to go will probably be the driving jobs, just as soon as self-driving vehicles are approved for public use. And so on, one or two sectors at a time, until by 2033 (according to the famous 2013 prediction by Oxford economist Carl Benedikt Frey) 47% of US jobs will be lost to automation. And of course it won’t stop there.

Why don’t clever politicians like Hillary Clinton get that? Perhaps because they half-believe the fantasy statistics on employment put out by governments, like the official 3.7% unemployment rate in the United States. A more plausible figure is American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt’s finding in 2016 that 17.5% of American men of prime working age were not working.

That’s three-quarters of the way to peak US unemployment in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it goes unnoticed because today’s unemployed are not starving and they are not rioting. You can thank the welfare states that were built in every developed country after the Second World War for that, but they are still very angry people – and they do vote. A lot of them vote for populists.

Populism thrives when a lot of people are angry or desperate or both. Donald Trump and people like him are not the problem. They are symptoms (and beneficiaries) of the problem – yet they dare not name it, because they have no idea what to do about automation.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“We know…now”)

Pakistan: Dammed If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

“India is shrinking the flow of water into Pakistan,” said Pakistan’s Chief Justice Saqib Nisar on Saturday, renewing a ban on showing Indian TV shows and Bollywood films on Pakistani television. “They are trying to [obstruct the construction] of our dam and we cannot even close their [television] channels?”

On the face of it, this is a decision that invites ridicule. Let us suppose for a moment that India really is stealing Pakistan’s water. How does banning Indian content from Pakistani television hurt India back?

The Pakistani public loves Bollywood films and Indian TV shows: despite their religious differences, these are two closely related cultures. The Pakistani channels pay very little or nothing for the Indian content, but the ban will deprive Pakistanis of stuff they really like.

It’s self-defeating and stupid – but the quarrel behind it is deadly serious. The planned Diamer-Bhasha dam on the upper course of the Indus River will be the third-largest in the world if and when it is completed, and the 4,500 megawatts of electricity it produces would almost double Pakistan’s hydro power. That would help a lot in a country so short of generating capacity that it has ‘electricity riots’.

The big dam has become more urgent, as Pakistan’s new prime minister Imran Khan pointed out recently, because without it there may be a serious shortage of water for irrigation by 2025, leading to drought-like conditions in most of the country. But construction on the dam has still not begun because the money is not there.

Pakistan’s previous big dams have all depended on huge investments by international organisations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. This time they are not forthcoming, because the projected dam would be in the part of Kashmir province that is controlled by Pakistan but still claimed by India.

Pakistan seized the northern part of Kashmir when the British-ruled Indian empire was partitioned in 1947, while India grabbed the southern part including the densely populated Vale of Kashmir. For all practical purposes the Kashmiri border is permanent, but India’s persistent claim on the northern part scares international capital away.

That’s what made Chief Justice Saqib Nisar so cross. It’s also why Prime Minister Imran Khan has launched a campaign seeking contributions from Pakistanis at home and abroad in order to get the dam started. The renewed ban on Indian TV and film is really a way of getting the Pakistani public’s attention for this campaign.

Like everything else about this dispute, the appeal for voluntary contributions is mostly symbolic: you can’t raise the $12 billion needed to build the dam that way. What is not symbolic is the 2025 deadline for more water storage capacity to avoid a collapse in food production in Pakistan.

It’s not clear from the public debate in Pakistan how much of this expected water shortage is due to climate change, and how much to the relentless growth of Pakistan’s population. (Pakistan has one of the highest birth rates outside of Africa, twice as high as India or Bangladesh.)

Back in 1951, shortly after Pakistan was created, the country’s 34 million people had 5,300 cubic metres of water per capita available to them. The rivers still contain the same amount of water, but there are now 210 million Pakistanis, so there is only 1,000 cubic metres per capita – and falling. The population is still growing fast, and climate change is coming.

The future of the Indus river system’s six tributaries in a warming world is to flood for a decade or two while the glaciers that feed them melt, and then to dwindle in volume when the glaciers are gone. Five of those six tributaries (though not the one the Diamer-Bhasha dam would be built on) cross Indian territory before they enter Pakistan.

The 1960 treaty that shares out the Indus system’s water between the two countries never foresaw that the flow might drop drastically. It just said that India could take out a fixed volume of water for irrigation and other purposes before letting the rest flow onwards to Pakistan.

If the flow should drop drastically due to climate change, therefore, India would still be entitled by treaty to take the same amount of water as before from those five tributaries, even though that would leave little for Pakistan. If India did that, however, Pakistan would start to starve, because 85 percent of its food production depends on irrigation from the Indus system.

It’s hard to believe that an India which was also facing food shortages – a predicted 25 percent loss in food production at 2 degrees Celsius higher average global temperature – would voluntarily give up water it is entitled to by treaty. It’s equally hard to believe that Pakistan would let its own people starve without threatening war with India.

Both of these countries have nuclear weapons. Their problem-solving abilities, as currently displayed, do not inspire confidence.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3 and 11. (“The Pakistani…like”; and “Back…coming”)