The state of Himachal Pradesh is environmentally fragile and ecologically vulnerable to the occurrence of natural hazards emanating from the effects of climatological variations.
Apervasive sense of socio economic disintegration, unravelling of institutions and structural strain can be seen in practically every country around the world. Some of us may not agree with such a pessimistic perception, after all many of us are doing pretty well in life, some even exceedingly well. These select few would like us to believe that our systems of governance, our regulatory bodies, our administrative and law and order structures were archaic, had outlived their utility and needed to be rebuilt, and even destroyed. A new order is taking over and smart ways of human development are being created ~ we are passing through a phase of constructive destruction! So, am I totally out of step and all is well with the world? I wish I were. Unfortunately, the upbeat perspective is the creation of a post truth world in which fake news gets far greater traction than the unpalatable reality.
All vehicles for disseminating the truth have been subjugated by big money and most journalists find greater rewards in gaining access to power instead of revealing the truth. False stories are transformed into imaginative news to be lapped up by a gullible people who want their information in two-line snippets. With so many dysfunctional institutions around us and a growing sense of inability to correct the false narratives, the easiest way is to slip into the comfort of denial. In my several articles published over the last two years, I have dealt with many of our policy mistakes but still don’t know where we should start. We need to identify a root cause, which could be responsible for the gradual erosion of democratic frameworks over the last fifty odd years, especially in the last two or three decades when the balance appears to have tipped, seemingly irretrievably.
The law breakers and power brokers have not only taken control of nations, they have also subverted the peoples’ imagination to an extent where growing numbers are incapable of comprehending the consequences of their silence and acquiescence. My considered view now is that our problems start with our understanding of what constitutes ‘success’. To start with, it is necessary to pin down the inflexion point on a date line, when a new definition of success started destroying societies. I find this point at the fall of the Berlin Wall, when after decades of post WW-II competitive welfare policies, we suddenly landed in a unipolar world order. Overnight there was no need for social security ~ what could people compare themselves to? There were no policy alternatives because there were no competing ideological perspectives. It was then that a lie of cosmic proportions was foisted on the democratic world ~ nations must allow the rich to get even wealthier for the benefits to trickle down to the common man.
In addition to tax cuts, the choicest morsels of our national assets had to be sold off. The big corporates demonised the public sector and pushed for austerity in governance and cutting expenditure on education, housing and health care. The bigger crime was that they also taught us to believe that they were doing it for our good. The super-rich were successfully defining a new ‘success’. The symbiotic relationship between big money and the peoples’ representatives started gaining strength and there are now portents that we might be nearing the eventual death of liberal democracies. How? With the worsening economic condition of the common man, defanged trade union activity and weakened political opposition we are already seeing increasing levels of strife and unrest in many parts of the world. Educated people in some countries are still trying to push back but there are few signs of a roll back. There seems to be no traction for reversing the rot and entrenched rulers are instead conspiring to use the growing anxieties and unrest to stoke hate and fear, ethnic and religious divides as part of their strategy to stay in power.
The relentless plunder of nations by a handful of ‘successful’ people is the driving force behind the rise of right-wing political takeover around the world. Good education, a steady job, raising a family and contributing to the development of the community, region, country and the world have traditionally been the markers of a successful life. The laws were written by the people through their elected representatives and citizens abided with them believing they were good, and necessary for development of their societies. Institutions were established, and provided a degree of autonomy, to ensure compliance without fear or favour. These bodies provided the bulwark against politicisation of the law and enforcement agencies, and everyone had come to trust the fairness of the system. Over the last half a century this confidence has been shaken. Today if I can subvert the law of the land and destroy competition using money and political heft, I have arrived and am successful. I have often written about education being the foundation for sustaining democracies.
State funded, universal and liberal education was meant to develop critical thinking and a scientific temper which could stand up against the first signs of misappropriation of power. Multiple democratic institutions, insulated against religion, parochialism, and communalism had autonomous and independent roles to ensure that no one could gain absolute control. With the suborning of public education and degraded quality of education, the poorly educated masses have now been made to accept that they are indeed incapable of understanding complex issues of nation building. They have conceded their power to demand probity and transparency in public life. They don’t know what questions to ask. The game has changed. Corporate funded education encouraged promotion of students without competitive testing and poorly developed minds have been lulled into a survival mode where people have lost the will to work hard and attain excellence. Young people have been conditioned to accept mechanical jobs or occupations which give them subsistence wages.
Worse, increasing numbers are learning to live on government doles and corporate charity. How come government institutions meant to uphold the laws failed to stem the rot? Simply put, it started with corruption being normalised as a prerequisite to economic development. Yes, there were corrupt officers even earlier, but post economic liberalisation the bureaucrat was given the policy cover to cohabit with the business community. Many forgot their oath of office and started serving the capitalists instead of the common man. Corruption grew exponentially and the guardians of the nation’s rules and regulations became accomplices of big money. Soon large numbers became vulnerable to black mail by the same hands which had corrupted them. So, were these ‘babus’, as the corporate media started calling them, mere babes in the woods? No, most of them knew what was happening but chose to ride the tide instead of using the grey matter they were recruited for.
Leader after leader, worshiping at the altar of big money, would divert criticism against corrupt practices in their countries by asserting that this was a universal phenomenon, some even going to the extent of claiming that modern nations and enterprises could not be run without a degree of corruption. What was this tolerable degree? Nobody asked and nobody answered. Remember the days when ill-gotten wealth was hidden in lockers, basements, even in mattresses and pillows? Yes, corruption was there but it was despised. No one had the courage to flaunt tainted money. It was shameful. Slowly we saw a transformation. We started seeing growing number of expensive cars on our roads, airport bays choked with private planes, glitzy malls with top-end luxury merchandise and multibillion-dollar homes. Money was being flaunted as never before. The narrative was, however, focussed on how the middle class was breaking out into prosperity and millions of poor were being lifted out of poverty.
Was this ‘visible’ prosperity a result of monetisation of national assets and the country’s natural wealth? No one questioned. It was like the brokers had taken over. No one wanted to build. They only wanted to trade, buy and create share-holder value. The worker had been rendered toothless and turned into a commodity for exploitation. As more and more people accepted corruption as a way of life, the stage was set for exploitation of the growing numbers of responsible people with their hands in the till, who could now be easily blackmailed into fall in line with the new masters, who had created the corrupt system in the first place.
Thus, political leaders, bureaucrats, journalists, judicial bodies, educational institutions and every social, cultural or security structure could be coerced to serve the objectives of big money, under pain of exposure, public humiliation and threat of incarceration. All those who had reaped personal benefits from the corrupt systems and had partaken from the bountiful fountain of illgotten wealth, happily joined the bandwagon, merrily singing paeans to the God of success. A new kind of success which was independent of ethical behaviour and social responsibility. The definition of success had changed and the world started changing too.
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the August 30, 2022, issue.