Sunday, January 29, 2012

The exacting price of democracy in India: Mullaperiyar and Kudankulam

Mark Twain famously observed that water in America’s west was for fighting and that whiskey was for drinking.  Here in the southern part of India, while Twain’s whiskey might not be applicable, fights, though, are in plenty!

A significant fight is over a dam that is located in the border areas of two southern states—Kerala and Tamil Nadu.  The Mullaperiyar Dam is in Kerala, and provides much needed water for irrigation in neighboring areas in Tamil Nadu too, especially during the drier months.

The dam itself is more than a hundred years old, and there are concerns over its structural safety.  Kerala, whose towns and villages lie downstream from the dam, is worried that the hundred year old dam might not be up to contemporary standards.  Public policy in contexts like this dam is about first evaluating costs and benefits, and a political decision later.  However, the feuding politicians in both the states seem to be operating only with votes on their minds.  But then, aren’t such intentions fundamental requirements to be a politician?     

The dam(n) water conflict is more than mere war of words.  Largely goaded by the histrionics of politicians, protesters in the border areas of Kerala and Tamil Nadu severely affected trade and commerce as well.  The region around the dam is known for its cardamom production and, India is the dominant global exporter of cardamom, with Guatemala a distant second.  Yes, Guatemala, which is half way around the planet from this dam!  The Economic Times reported that “the inferior quality of Guatemalan cardamom” cannot compete with the spice from India.  As one can imagine, the suspension of cardamom auctions for two weeks quickly amounted to losses that have been estimated at more than 1,000 million rupees (about $20 million.)  Thankfully, trade resumed after a two week standoff, preventing further losses.

Even as the war of words has abated over the dam conflict, another project continues to be a huge headache for the government at the federal level, and for the state of Tamil Nadu.  This is over a nuclear power generation plant located at Kudankulam.  India faces severe energy shortages, and has been pushing nuclear power for electricity generation.  The Kudankulam project has a capacity of 2,000 megawatts, and the first phase was scheduled to be commissioned in December 2011.

With the construction work practically completed, and with various pre-operation tests underway, quite suddenly extensive protests have been launched against the facility.  Here too, as in the case of the Mullaperiyar Dam, rhetoric has preceded reasoning. It appears that there was little to no protests right from the project planning stages, and all the way through the ten years of construction, for which work began in September 2001.  It is rather ironic that opposition has been vigorous only when the power plant is a metaphorical switch throw away.

Commentaries and reports suggest that two factors are largely behind why protests have come at such a late stage of the nuclear power plant construction.  The first was, understandably, the dramatic and eye-arresting catastrophic developments at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.  However, politicians and activists, more than experts themselves, seem to be ever ready to offer rhetorical doomsday scenarios of the Kudankulam reactor completely failing.   The second reason for the protests is quite conspiratorial: that foreign money is funding the protests.  Recently, a federal minister stated that "some organisations involved in the protests against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant had received funds to the tune of over Rs. 55 crore from “foreign sources.”" 

The Mullaperiyar and Kudankulam problems are representative of the resource challenges that India faces.  China, too, faces similar issues, but non-democratic politics in China means that rarely ever do such protests ever happen.  Even if they do, the authorities quickly put them out.  India, however, continues to struggle with these challenges through the ballot box, for which it deserves enormous sympathy and support.

But then, sometimes I wonder whether Mark Twain was cynical, or humorous, or being a realist, when he said “Only a government that is rich and safe can afford to be a democracy, for democracy is the most expensive and nefarious kind of government ever.”

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