Mahathir and Kerala, God’s own country, up for SALE The trouble of discounting tomorrow

The challenge of sustainability confronts us all. It requires cooperation among individuals and nations in making the sacrifices that are in our enlightened self-interest. Beyond that, however, it also requires cooperation among disciplines and among academic, corporate, governmental, and nongovernmental entities in finding solutions that can be maintained. The prospects are daunting at a time when we are seeing increasing political polarisation within and among nations; but there is no acceptable alternative to finding solutions.Accounting for future generations is perhaps an even greater challenge, because they do not have negotiators at the bargaining table. We in the present must care about future generations, decide how to discount and how to evaluate their utility functions, and develop a framework for protecting their interests

No challenge facing humanity is broader in scope and importance than achieving a sustainable future. Every dimension of our lives is affected, and every discipline and sector of society must be involved in meeting the challenge. Yet we consistently place less importance on distant events than on those close to us in time (as well as in other dimensions). This so-called discounting of our future makes more difficult our ability to achieve sustainability. Although arguments over the correct “social discount rate” have long occupied a central place in economic thinking, too little has been done to confront the issues of equity that discounting implies.

Nizar has a solution for everything under the sun. Even for corruption, that stands in the way of a high speed bullet train or a multi-storied convention centre.

Outside his cabin, a middle-aged woman waits for an appointment. She has been struggling to get an approval to start a small-scale unit in her village for the past two years. Nizar asks her to wait outside, perhaps like every other day.

Poor folks live a life in waiting. Like fire-files, their hopes, flicker and fall dead.

Nizar straightens his polyster Mundu neatly to the left side and chants in Malabari Malayalam: there should be a consensus amongst all parties when it comes to corruption. Just look at our neighbouring states. Both the ruling party and opposition here should emulate this formula. Divide kickbacks equally for every project approved.

The ratio, he says, can be worked out:  15:10:10 for Congress, CPM and Muslim League. We would be happy even if we get  5%, you know, after all corruption should not come in the way of state’s development.

Nizar works as an officer at the District Industrial Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. He offers me Sulemani chai, a symbol of love and Muslim brotherhood.

He and his colleagues at the industry ministry, headed by P K Kunhalikutty, has proposed an out- of –the-box idea to remove the backwardness of the state: construct a multi-storied convention centre in the middle of the iconic Chandrashekran Nair stadium situated in the heart of the state capital.

Chandrashekhar Nair stadium
It is like having a world trade centre in the middle of Wankhade stadium in Mumbai or say inside Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in New Delhi.Investments, he says, will not be problem. Afterall, the project is an integral part of the urban infrastructure project, awaiting for investment in the Emerging Kerala global investor’s meet to be inaugurated by prime minister Manmohan Singh in Kochi next week.

This stadium land-grab is an icing on the cake, like an ultimate grotesque avatar of corruption. Out of the 200 odd proposals awaiting for investments, there are hardly a few worth mentioning, and a majority of them are land-grabs masquerading as development projects.

After Times of India did a campaign against this Tugalkian project there was a hue and cry and Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy was forced to scrap around 50 unviable proposals after an initial scrutiny.

But instead of admitting that Congress was a riding a corrupt horse called Indian Union Muslim league that spares no opportunity to make an easy killing, Chandy defended that these proposals were not final and they were put forward by different companies for public review.  Industry minister P K Kunhalikutty, the wily fox he is, corrected him and said that these were indeed projects put forward by the industry department.

Greed, like Nizar, is a great survivor.

Kerala has been caught up in this mirage of development for quite time now. Planners are clueless on how to chart a sustainable development plan without disturbing the fragile eco-balance of the state, that still has one of the best green covers in the country. The pint-sized state does not have enough barren land to start huge industrial units, so the only option is to develop its coast, like say Singapore.

The state should also promote eco-tourism, like say in Venice and Switzerland, countries which have showcased its shallow network of waterways and blue mountains to weary world-travelers with great success. Kerala, infact has much more to offer. An ancient heritage older than Aryan civilization, organic eco-systems and religious beliefs close to nature; Auryvedic sciences and art forms that evolved over thousands of years. But the Nizars of the state are hell-bent on taking us on a different path.

My colleague, G Rajiv, wrote a piece two weeks ago, on how bulk of the people-centric projects like education institutions and health care hospitals were proposed to come up in Malappuram, a Muslim majority district. The Times of India did not play up the story, considering the fact that we are a secular newspaper and did not want to hurt any particular community.

But the fact remains that Muslims in the state, unlike in the other parts of the country, are well-off.  Malappuram today brings in the maximum foreign remittance into the state. It is districts like Wayand (a tribal district), Idukki and many parts of North Malabar that needs specialty hospitals and good educational institutions.

The ruling, Congress party, is forced to succumb to the bizarre demands of  its ally, Muslim league, to remain in power.

The main opposition party, CPM, has failed to bring up these issues, as it has lost all its credibility and principles, and has degenerated into a fascist monolith, indulging in Stalinist political murders for survival.

Religion based, vote-bank politics overrides everything.

Thankfully, a majority of Keralites still consider themselves Malayalees first, and then maybe think of their religious identity in their private spaces, that is if they are believers.This is no mean achievement, considering communal right wing parties are biding their time, waiting to fill the ever widening secular vacuum in the state.

(Nizar is not the real name of the officer who spilled the beans of the scam. The ministry will make him a scapegoat if his identity is revealed. He is just an echo of His Masters Voice.)

  • Animah Ferrar
  • 2:15PM Sep 3, 2012
Some of the more blatant BN-propagandist newspapers and TV channels are now having to answer in court for their lies. These cases are between the media agency and the aggrieved individual, but I would like to suggest that we, responsible (and disgusted) citizens, should also play our role in putting a stop to this unethical ‘information’.

Recently I did just that.

Recently, I visited one of my regular bookstores, a well-known one in the Klang Valley. As I was about to pay for my purchases, I noticed, prominently displayed just next to the cashier’s desk, several copies of a book entitled ‘Anwar dan Boneka Cina (Anwar and the China Dolls)’.

A quick glance was sufficient to reveal that this book was nothing more than a collection of baseless innuendos, and far from being a bona fide study, was another crude attempt to scuttle Anwar Ibrahim’s career and besmirch his good name – remember ‘50 Reasons Why Anwar Should Not Become PM’ (the ‘50 dalil’ book), which launched the disgraceful saga which then gave birth to the Reformasi movement?

Before paying for my books, I picked up a copy of the offending book, made my way to the customer service desk and asked to see the supervisor. She agreed to meet me and after introducing myself as a loyal book club member of the store, I told her that I wished to lodge a complaint about this book. I presented two arguments.

Firstly, the book was obviously not a bona fide study, and clearly had malicious intent, and it was my opinion that the store was destroying its own hitherto good reputation by carrying such a book (what more having it prominently displayed at the cashier’s counter).

Secondly, I recounted how, after Anwar was released from prison, he sued the author of the ‘50 dalil’ book, and was subsequently awarded damages amounting to RM4 million. On the other hand, all the court cases against Anwar relating to alleged sexual misconduct have been overthrown, revealing such allegations to be mere slander. I told her that the first time around, the ‘50 dalil’ book had been distributed privately, but the bookstore was now putting itself at risk of being sued by carrying this new book openly.

She thanked me for my input and I went to pay for my books. As the payment was being processed, the supervisor herself came and removed all the copies of the book I had complained about.

So there is something you can do.

At its core, sustainability is about living our lives in ways that leave the same or better options for future generations as we enjoy today; and this implies a need to protect the broader environment on which we all depend. The basic problem is that achieving sustainability involves trade-offs. We all discount our own futures, enjoying today’s certain benefits against the uncertainty of what will happen tomorrow. Societies also discount, and do so hyperbolically, which means that they most severely discount the near-term future. From a social-planning point of view, the question of how to discount the future is an open one, involving issues of ethics and basic fairness. Without some form of discounting, we could never use any of a nonrenewable resource, leaving the resource untouched for future generations similarly to leave untouched …obviously a paradox.

Population growth and demographic shifts toward an older population further complicate the issue, increasing future potential demand. China’s population, for example, is aging at a very rapid rate, a result of its one-child policy and lower mortality. Caring for the interests of a large and growing population of seniors will pose great challenges for the Chinese people and will make sustainability even more difficult.

Sustainability is about living our lives in ways that leave the same or better options for future generations as we enjoy today.

Similar problems exist, if not to the same degree, in other countries. In addition to the responsibility of today’s population for future generations, the social contract in the great majority of nations reverses time’s arrow, making younger generations responsible for older ones through social security schemes. Hungary’s National Sustainable Development Strategy, for example, states that “the decreased willigness to have children and the increased life expectancy at birth may lead to a situation where in 2050 one elderly citizen will be sustained by two workers instead of the current four”. Such trends clearly complicate any sustainability strategy and make it essential to find ways to achieve intergenerational compromise.

Discounting is in part a reflection of uncertainty about the future. But what is the right discount rate to use? It would be difficult enough were we contemplating just our own futures, or even those of our children; where concern for others and the future structure of societies is involved, there is no obvious right answer. Indeed disagreement about the proper discount rate to use is what divides those who accept from those who reject the findings of Britain’s Stern Commission on climate change.