Sunday, November 13, 2016

When netas see votes in clean air, they’ll cut through the smog

Two apparently unrelated events occured in Delhi in the past few days. In the first, Narendra Modi made a tough, risky move — one of the riskiest in his career — against the long-festering problem of black money. In the second, Arvind Kejriwal was seen floundering as he tried to cope with Delhi’s foul air. What connects the two events is the stark contrast between the decisive action in the case of black money and a sense of helplessness in response to pollution. The dissimilar behaviours of the two politicans are explained by the Theory of Public Choice, enunciated by the American economist, James Buchanan, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1986.

At some point in his political career, Modi realised that there are votes in fighting against black money. He made an election promise, and after a series of other steps, he acted last Tuesday to withdraw high-value notes from the market. It was a risky move. It would bring huge pain to the aam aadmi before it brought gains to the economy. It would disrupt trade, slow down business activity in real estate, the largest employer in the nation. It would alienate the political establishment, including his own party, diminishing their ability to fight the next election. But if Modi manages to contain these risks, he would deal a body blow to black money, tipping India towards a clean, white economy. And in the 2019 election he might even be rewarded for it.

Arvind Kejriwal has been unable to see the electoral possibilities in providing clean, healthy air. He lost an opportunity two years ago when World Health Organisation declared Delhi as the world’s most polluted city. There was panic at the time with an upsurge in respiratory complaints; tourists cancelled bookings and diplomats refused to accept postings to India. But Kejriwal frittered away that political moment. Perhaps, he thought that his core constituency of migrant poor was indifferent to pollution. Or he was daunted by the challenge. After all, there is no single pollutant in this case. Road dust, construction, waste burning, vehicle emission, diesel generators, power plants — all these factors play a role. Then there are nasty jurisdiction problems with multiple agencies to cope with. Even the Supreme Court had not succeeded. In the end, he probably concluded that it was wiser to focus his resources on priorities that had a better chance of accomplishment.

Buchanan’s concept of Public Choice throws light on Kejriwal’s dilemma. Many of us are familiar with market failures, but few know about his systematic theory of government failure. We tend to have a romantic view of public officials, believing that they act altruistically in the public interest. Public Choice teaches that politicians and civil servants are just as self-interested as you and I, and they look out primarily for themselves. While Modi and Kejriwal may feel passionately about the common good, their driving force is their own interest — their re-election to begin with.

The key is how do we channel the self-interest of politicians and officials to our desire for clean air? Generally, ministers in a vast democracy operate under the influence of vested interests that are generous in their contributions to the minister’s election campaign. A small lobbying group with a narrow focus always has this advantage over dispersed and disorganised individuals who want clean air but have no voice. How can these individuals come together and persuade their politicians that there are votes in clean air?

One doesn’t know if Modi will succeed in fighting black money. Demonetisation is only one step in a prolonged campaign. But the lesson for those who want clean air is to bring public pressure on politicians so that the subject gets on the national agenda. It is not Delhi’s problem alone, and it not fair to dump it all on Kejriwal. Many Indian cities face this problem. Narendra Modi will have to get involved. It will also not be easy to raise consciousness because of political apathy.

The air improved slightly last week and the subject quickly disappeared from the media and the public imagination. However, the winter is upon us and Delhi’s air will soon become foul, and people will again begin to scream. Success will depend on institutionalising individual screams into a collective scream in order to awaken the political class to the possibility of votes in cleaning up the air.

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