Saturday, November 5, 2011

Protests, Protests, Protests… this what democracy means?

A few months back, we had the Anna protestors throw the government into disarray. Their demand: their version (every word, every sentence) of JLP be passed. Nothing less would do. Over the last several months, we have seen the Telangana protestors bringing Andhra to a grinding halt. Their demand: immediate establishment of a new state. Or else…..Today, protestors at Koodankulam are demanding that the nuclear power plant there be scrapped after 99.5% of the investments have been made. The loss to the country: Rs 13,000 crores. There are hundreds of other similar protests going on all around the country.

Is this what democracy means? The right of a group of people to bring the government of the day to a halt? One can understand the movements of Anna and Telangana in that the demands relate to the future – the enactment of the Lokpal Bill and the founding of a state. But what about Koodankulam – the protests here relate to investments already made in the past. It’s about scrapping a project that is nearly complete. Can 700 odd people (or a best a few thousand) decide whether a project should be operationalized or not? On complicated matters like nuclear energy, are we ready to let a mofussil crowd of ill-informed protestors decide?

Besides, no one is thinking of alternatives. Which form of energy generation is without its own risks? Hydro-electric plants lead to submersion of huge tracts of land. Protestors protest against these plants also. What about thermal power plants? They pollute the environment and lead to slow death – not to a few people, but to the whole of humanity (effects of global warming). Are we saying then that all three – hydro, thermal and nuclear – are unacceptable to us? Because there will be protestors against each of these projects. Should we then rely only on non-conventional energy sources – and be content with a few hundred MWs of power generation? Is that going to be enough for our desired industrial growth? If growth suffers, unemployment rises and poverty continues forever, are we ok with it? If we start listening to every bunch of protestors, how do we take care of our energy security?

I would believe that in a democracy, every section of the society has a right to be heard. Heard through the elected representatives; heard at specific forums (like the Standing Committee); heard through the media etc. But “being heard” does not mean that all demands of the people have to be met. The government of the day eventually has to decide what course of action to take – if it tries to heed every advice it gets, it will never be able to take any action at all. Democracy does not mean that all decisions should be taken by majority votes – it being practically impossible to have voting on every matter. What democracy means is that representatives elected by the support of the majority decide on behalf of the people. Decisions have to be taken by these representatives. If the people think they made a mistake by supporting their representatives, they can throw them out the next time. The fear of being thrown out will make sure the representatives keep public opinion in mind. Today, we have a situation where protestors believe they can decide on behalf of the entire country….

Fortunately today, the TOI has carried a front page story raising the spectre of Rs 13000 crores of investment going waste. There is need for all right-thinking people to put a stop to these protests in Koodankulam. There is need for political consensus on this subject. The project was first signed by the Congress (Rajiv Gandhi in 1998), but the project only started in right earnest during the NDA rule (1998 onwards). The AIADMK and the DMK have at various stages partnered with the Congress and the BJP since 1998 when the project began. No one raised any objectcions then. Now no one wants to go against the small bunch of protestors. Shouldn’t all political parties unite at least on some matters of national importance?

Would it be too much to suggest that the state must use a little force to protect the country’s interests? As a citizen of this country, I am awfully concerned about scarce financial resources being wasted in this manner. Isn’t my voice also important? By not using force, are the Central and State governments not failing in their duties to protect the country’s resources?

Should the media not take a more progressive stand on this subject? Even as a debate could and should be started on the future role of nuclear energy in the country, shouldn’t media strongly support the completion of a project that is nearly finished? After all, it’s not as if India is the only country building nuclear plants. There are tens of countries that use nuclear power. France generates 70% of its total power using nuclear sources. China is building massive nuclear power plants. We ourselves have so many power plants operating safely in our country. Yes, there can be more safeguards put in place everytime we learn something new, but how can such a massive investment be scrapped – simply because a small bunch of people don’t agree with it?

The governments today are very weak. This is true of all governments of all political parties. They are worried of every decision they take. They are under constant scrutiny of the media – and even using the slightest force against people is a no-no for them (take the example of slums in our cities – no government has the guts to evict even the illegal slums preferring instead to legalize them). Our media prefers sensationalism rather than playing a responsible role (how many media groups have tried to discuss options that India has on the energy front? Instead they are willing to give front page coverage to the protestors). For media companies, protests are great content – but the content of the protests is irrelevant. No news is bad news for the media business – hence media is happy to fan any protest. This rotten mix – weak governments, irresponsible media and parochial opposition – this is what democracy has now become in our country.

My serious recommendation on the Koodankulam plant to the central government and the TN state government is that they should act tough with the protestors. My request to the opposition is not to oppose the government on this. How can Advani make a statement that “safety is important”….of course it is. One assumes that the NDA had safety in mind when it continued building the plant during its six years of rule. My request to media is to support the government on this matter. Without media support, no government will ever be able to take tough decisions.

The real truth is that we have become a country of protestors. We protest against everything. Small interest groups – with media support – can bring a full state or even the country to a halt. Just like the labor union politics of the 1970s disrupted the industrial sector, we are now seeing protestor politics disrupting everything…..we have to put a stop to this

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