A matter of indifference

Last October, having spent more than 35 years in work to save the East Calcutta Wetlands, one of my teachers lamented that he had reached his journey's end, but the wetlands were beyond salvation. He saw himself as a failed ecologist in spite of being inducted into the Global 500 Roll of Honour in 1990 by the United Nations Environment Programme, and receiving the Luc Hoffmann award instituted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2016. Both awards recognize environmental achievements of individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to conserving ecosystems. He was pained by Calcutta's indifference, its institutions and citizens. Apparent indifference to the erosion of public or common good in this country is not unusual. But is it a case of citizen indifference or indifferent citizens?

By Anamitra Anurag Danda
  • Published 12.09.18
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Last October, having spent more than 35 years in work to save the East Calcutta Wetlands, one of my teachers lamented that he had reached his journey's end, but the wetlands were beyond salvation. He saw himself as a failed ecologist in spite of being inducted into the Global 500 Roll of Honour in 1990 by the United Nations Environment Programme, and receiving the Luc Hoffmann award instituted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2016. Both awards recognize environmental achievements of individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to conserving ecosystems. He was pained by Calcutta's indifference, its institutions and citizens. Apparent indifference to the erosion of public or common good in this country is not unusual. But is it a case of citizen indifference or indifferent citizens?

Citizen indifference is a case of apathy when autonomous citizens with all the necessary attributes show no interest and are unwilling to take action, especially over something important. Less than autonomous citizens or indifferent citizens do not have the facility for autonomous decision or action because of the lack of one or more attributes, such as, cognitive capacity, emotional orientation and communicative competence. Citizens obviously have fundamentally unequal capacities for logic, rationality and reasonableness and most citizens do not currently have the capacities or orientation required to be autonomous. This is a malady we have carried from the time when about half of the eligible Indian citizens voted in 1951-52, and little has been done to structure social interaction in a manner that addresses persistent unequal capacities and helps develop autonomous citizens. At different times since Independence, the opportunity was not seized.

A few months prior to Independence, the Constituent Assembly of India was constituted which, at the stroke of midnight on August 14-15, 1947, turned itself into the Legislative Assembly of independent India and adopted the Constitution of India on November 26, 1949. On January 24, 1950, 284 members signed the Constitution and two days later brought it to force when the assembly turned itself into the Provisional Parliament of India. During that time, an independent Election Commission was set up to superintend all state and Central elections, and before the end of March, the first chief election commissioner was confirmed. The EC managed to hold the first general and state elections over four months during October 1951 through February 1952. Imagine the amount of work the Central and state administrations and the commission had to put in just to register 176 million voters, most of whom had not voted earlier and were illiterate with little or no cognitive capacity to vote as autonomous citizens. The emphasis was on the speedy holding of elections than on the type of elections. Imagine the consequences of similar zeal and alacrity to address the unequal capacities of the citizens.

In a country previously controlled by an oligarchic colonial administration, elections tend to become the symbol of the complete introduction of a democratic government and, therefore, the emphasis and alacrity seem justified. However, in the rush, probably the opportunity to become a deliberative democracy rather than an electoral democracy was missed, and we continue to live with the consequences - balkanization of society - in which social affiliations, values and trust are limited to one's particular ethnic, racial and religious groups. Elections in India do not yield a shared judgment but produce the victors and vanquished of the moment with no common views being forged; instead, highlighting differences in belief, value, social identity and more. Subsequent opportunities after the eighth and 16th general elections were allowed to slip away. Why? Those who aspire to govern find it convenient if the governed are less than autonomous, the conversation can begin at the top instead of originating at the bottom. The agenda can be as bizarre as people's food preferences.

Recently, while I was taking a long taxi ride, the driver was holding forth on the virtues of vegetarianism. He went on to declare that those who eat meat and drink alcohol are modern day demons and must be vanquished. He did not know though how it would help him if the 'demons' are vanquished. This is a common tragedy, the less than autonomous are unable to recognize and articulate what is good for them as individuals or as collectives. While what is good for an individual may not be good for the collective - tragedy of the commons - the opposite is not necessarily true. On the contrary, if the majority of the citizens were autonomous, collectively and individually, we would be better off. For this, moving away from an examination system to an education system is in order. Had my teacher collaborated with those who could help with this transition, he may not have had reasons to lament. It is easier to collaborate when citizens are able to recognize individual good in collective good. Solving environmental problems then is only a few steps away.