Are democracies cleaner?
While it is natural to assume that democracies are more in favour of environmental protection, the ground reality is not quite as straightforward
Human spaces and nature are two worlds that are separated by the remarkable economic and technological developments of the last two centuries. COVID-19 pandemic clearly reveals that this separation is practically wrong and poses a great danger to democratic institutions and civil society in general because humankind is the product of its natural environment and is one link among many others in the vast living world. Damaging the environment could, in fact, lead to violations of human and civil rights. In this context, it is pertinent to mention that democracy can only be robust If society's natural environment is healthy.
Unfortunately, an anti-democracy and an anti-environmentalist wave of nationalism is spreading across many countries in the world. Many politicians all over the world do not take into account the most invaluable advantage of democracy that allows for peaceful conflict solving according to the rules laid down in the constitution. The government in any democratic country needs to ensure sustainable development maintaining equilibrium among environmental, social and economical aspects by framing cleaner production policy based on sound scientific evidence. Thereby, the citizens' demands for a cleaner environment would be better reflected in the political process. This is the essence of the 'clean democracy hypothesis'.
According to this hypothesis, there are five related causal mechanisms through which democracy leads to a cleaner environment: First, democracy allows a freer flow of information so that environmental lobby groups can raise awareness among the common citizen. Second, democracy protects the rights of civil society that exert influence on the political process. Third, democracy is more responsive to the demands of the electorate and takes effective measures to avert life-threatening environmental degradation. Fourth, democracy is more cooperative and tends to honour environmental agreements as they are bound by the rule of law. Fifth, the members of the ruling elite in autocracies are less inclined towards environmental protection than the democratic public.
India is the world's most populous democracy but the recently released Draft EIA Notification has witnessed that the Government is less inclined towards sustainable development by reducing the scope and effectiveness of Environmental Impact Assessments, which is the main option to protect the environment. This draft clearly reveals that democratic politicians are probably not willing to implement strict environmental restrictions on 'so-called' development. Obviously, democracy also has features that may counteract stricter environmental policies because politicians are short-sighted and may refrain from making long-term investments in environmental quality. The possible reason is that the costs of environmental protection are borne today, while benefits may accrue only with a significant time lag, when incumbents may no longer be in office. Moreover, powerful industry lobbying groups may counteract environmental interests and shift the balance towards lower environmental standards. In the end, it is an empirical question as to whether democracy is indeed cleaner.
Liberal democracy is more willing to regulate the environment and provides supportive evidence for regulations of pollution from different sources, deforestation, and land degradation with emphasis on conservation of natural resources. In India, the recent EIA draft allows more and more industries to operate without taking the environment into account as well as people's life and health. Moreover, it will weaken the freedom of citizens' protest on decisions and activities that have a bearing on their lives by limiting public participation in EIA. Another major barrier to formulate, effectively implement, and monitor the success of environmental policies is corruption. Policy-makers can be bribed by business interests not to enact environmental laws against their interests. Even if stringent laws were passed, corruption might prevent their effective implementation, as the implementation of regulations, their monitoring, and the prosecution of violations could be bought off. Moreover, corruption may reduce trust in the government and impede voluntary compliance with environmental standards.
if corruption levels are low, emission of gases and discharge of wastewater can be easily controlled and also material, energy and water flow substitutions between firms, collective waste collection and other measures may provide direct economic advantages by generating additional income and reducing production costs. Increasing economic activity, especially energy production and industrial output, initially causes environmental degradation (per capita). When economic activity grows further, pollution per capita is expected to decline because the economy becomes more advanced and people become richer. In this situation, the concept of cleaner production can be implemented using advanced technologies to fulfil demand of the people for higher environmental protection. Moreover, as trade liberalisation increases the average per capita income, people will value the environment more and demand better protection. Most importantly, success in achieving sustainable development ultimately depends on the governance and political will if democracy is cleaner.
If we critically evaluate the procedure and processes adopted to restrict pollution originating from both point and nonpoint sources, it can be inferred that democracy is not cleaner and thereby society's natural environment — the very basis of survival and citizens' health and welfare are in danger. But in many national and international platforms, top politicians strongly advocate their progress towards development and are proud of India being the world's populous democracy. But what "progress" and for whom!
In this piquant situation, If the political will cannot solve the problems effectively that affect democracy and the environment, the civil society must take the reins with the clear understanding that there is a clear link between defending democracy and the environment. It is high time to ensure that democracy is cleaner.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are personal