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Issue 6

2020: A year to forget or remember?

2020 was poised to be a landmark year for the global environmental movement. The locus of change was supposed to emerge from the United Nations Climate Change Conference (CoP26), which was expected to reverse the trend of inaction in environmental protection by getting countries to pledge to enhanced emission reduction targets and establish clear frameworks and plans for meeting them. Ironically, this much-awaited (and delayed) meeting of world leaders was shut down by a global pandemic whose roots, we are now told, lie in environmental degradation, particularly dwindling forest cover and industrial agriculture

But one must be wary before equating 2020 as solely the year of the pandemic. From bushfires in Australia to oil spill in the Arctic to the series of flash floods that ravaged the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, a flurry of natural disasters have quietly made their appearance in the background, declaring that climate change is here and now.

The past year has shown us just how vulnerable (in all senses of the term) we are to the effects of crises. Not only did pandemic force the world to its knees, it showed us just how much the effects of any disaster will be disproportionately distributed among the global populace. Nowhere could this be more clearer than in India where tens of millions of ‘impoverished essential workers’, a combination to be found only in our times, were the hardest hit from the ordeal.   

But forcing the world to sit at home and question its priorities, it seems, has worked counterproductively. As the world looks to reopen, not by choice but as an inevitable consequence of our economic models which will not allow any break in production, mindfulness and caution will be thrown out of the window.

Countries looking to make up lost money (and time) are already hacking down green barriers and environmental protection laws with increasing ferocity. This trajectory is blatantly obvious in India which unfortunately also happens to be one of the most vulnerable places on earth to the effects of the ecological crisis. Measures to help the country “get back on its feet”, like encouraging greater use of coal, fast-tracked (and often bypassed) environmental clearances and the mindless assault on forests, wetlands and other ecosystems will only serve to ruin us further.

Too little, too late

But despite the extent and seriousness of the crisis, it is staggering how much of humanity and particularly those in power have tended to treat the crisis: unimportant or worse, as non-existent. International negotiations and climate agreements never fail to disappoint. Even if one were to digest the ridiculously conservative estimates and targets set in these pacts, the fact that most are non-binding and do not carry a strong accountability framework demonstrates their seriousness.  

Developed countries or those most responsible for the crisis have failed to pay even half of the annual $100 bn pledged for financing climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in developing countries. This is despite the fact most estimates strongly suggest that we will need to pump in at least twice or thrice as much to make a difference. 

Time and again, the problem of “too little, too late” has been the norm in international climate agreements. It is then hardly a surprise that we have not met (or close to meeting) even a single target set in the last 30 years and have breached almost every limit set by these agreements

Where do we go from here?

What prevents strong mobilization and action towards fixing climate change and the overall ecological crisis? The opposition to the Green New Deal, a pro-environment legislation in America by the Republican party is a strong indicator of what is to come in the coming years. 

Conservative politicians, many of them funded by fossil fuel industries, have gawked at the amount of money required to fix the problems created by these companies in the first place. a climatically unstable world will bring economic damage far worse than the proposed budget. Instead, they have expressed faith in waiting for grand technological solutions that will solve all our problems at the turn of a switch. 

Investing or mobilizing to prevent a full-blown crisis does not make “economic sense” to many. In other words, the present course must be maintained for as long as possible since the crisis is inescapable. 

The problem, however, is that it imagines climate change as a series of apocalyptic and earth-shattering events that we are so used to seeing in popular fiction and cinema. But instead, the effects of climate change will play out in far more complex and perhaps, insidious ways. Its effects will not just be limited to the natural world but will also produce deep schisms in our everyday political, social and economic lives. Further, it puts the lives of billions, mostly the marginalized and the poor at the greatest risk, not to mention the loss of unimaginable amounts of natural, social and cultural capital. In short, hurtling towards a world where natural systems will be fundamentally altered will prove humanity’s greatest folly.

The proposition that climate change is irreversible will be the biggest fight of the environmental movement in the coming years. This fear is reflected in the choice of theme for Earth Day 2021 – Restore the Earth. It draws attention to the fact that enough and more can (and should) still be done to restore the Earth’s ecological balance. Wilfully (and conveniently) ignoring it is to commit an act of grave injustice towards humanity.

A year to never forget

While 2020 has certainly been a long year, it would be a terrible mistake to forget the things it has taught us. For starters, the pandemic has shown our political and economic priorities for what they are: twisted and skewed towards the elite. The climate change movement is gathering momentum and interest around our impact on the environment is at an all-time high. 

Individuals, interest groups, expert coalitions and civil society organizations are finding new ways to think about the crisis, mobilize, generate change and push for sensible, long-term action. Children and young adults, in particular, are finding their voice and seeking answers  to difficult questions in order to secure their future. As with any struggle, there are silver linings, albeit small and scattered. 

The scope for change is massive, but the window of opportunity is limited. As another round of negotiations begin in November 2021, it is up to us to force action and consequently, ensure that by remembering 2020 we do not ever repeat it.

Picture Credit: bertknot

Rohit is student of history and sociology from Ashoka University. Currently he is a Mother Teresa Fellow and working to be an educator at Pitchandikulam Forest Consultants.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 6

Garden of Feedin’

Every night, around 12:30 AM, I’ve been getting a regular craving for something freud and cheesy. Oh, did I say freud? I meant fried. Silly. 

Well, I used to be a master of self-control a few months ago. I don’t care if you’re hungry, I’d say to myself. I don’t care if you’re hungry; pandemic or no pandemic, you are not gonna late-night-snack. That’s illegal. To be fair, many things were illegal on a personal level back then. I had my private Constitution and life was a law-abiding citizen. Eventually, of course, I snapped. Every day is the same day, and that day is Self-Love Saturday. No more denying myself pleasure! I had to improvise, adapt and overcome, and that began with the Forbidden Food. I chomped down on some grilled cheese sandwiches nightly, and added on a sugary bowl of cornflakes for good measure. Sometimes I’d go a little crazy and down ketchup by the bottle. Call me a rebel, I don’t care.

I was living the hedonistic dream, even with all the resulting acne.

The things I do in the name of self-care, I swear. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m in this body, because we both seem to have different ideas of The Good. It’s an ethical dilemma. How far can I take my pursuit of umami without crossing the limits of self-care? Is my Midnight Appetite an omen of the degeneracy that’s to come?

I ought to be concerned about the great decline my lifestyle is taking. Surely this is a turn for the worse, and I ought to fix it. And yet, I revel in it. 

A phase of any sort would be well-appreciated in these times. It reminds me that time passes: a thought that has otherwise been a sore point. At age 12, I decided that I was done growing. It was a conscious exercise of agency. However, time was uncooperative, as usual. It paid no heed to me and moved thoughtlessly onward, dragging me along with it. And conversely, it would trudge reluctantly the moment I’d have an uneventful bore of a day. Such lax behavior is what I’ve come to expect from this stupid dimension.

In light of this, it seems awfully odd that 2020, perhaps the most eventful year of my existence, is passing by so slowly. This year, a teenager from Florida masterminded a bitcoin scam and hacked Kanye West, Elon Musk and Bill Gates’ Twitter accounts. Kim Jong Un supposedly died and came back. Unexplained monoliths are sprouting up and disappearing around the world as we speak. If my past habits are anything to go by, I’m supposed to be binge-watching 2020. And yet, here I am, moping on the daily. Am I facing a genuine lack of stimulation even while living in a political-sci-fi-soap opera or am I just a lil brat? 

Perhaps it’s a bit of both. After all, I’m living a lifestyle that’s been meticulously organized into little unhealthy blocks. I spend all my time at home. I social-distance to the point where I can sense people’s auras from a mile away. I schedule designated balcony sunshine hours for myself. I’m really out here taking precautions like a beast. No wonder I’m not experiencing the craziness that is 2020. I’m too busy sanitizing my hands.

Last year I had an A1 cinnamon roll from a little hole-in-the-wall bakery in a town I’d never been to before. I suddenly remembered this spot of heaven during one particular balcony hour and felt a sudden urge to taste a good cinnamon roll. Where I live, this isn’t easily achievable. After a month or so of regularly remembering and putting the thought aside, I finally found a new bakery nearby that sells cinnamon rolls, and placed an order. Walking out of the lobby to the gate of my apartment complex, I was suddenly hit by this incredibly alien feeling. Oh my god. I’m outside. This feels so foreign. There was wind blowing in my hair and wide open space and glaring sunlight all around, for the first time in 6 months. I felt like the whole world could hear me think “Wow, the ground feels different.” I suddenly remembered my cinnamon rolls. Snapped back to reality. Gathered them and hastened back home.

Picture Credit: ISTOCK/YINYANG

Deepti Jayakrishnan is a student of Philosophy and Computer Science at Ashoka University. She likes windy days and judging books by their covers.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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What do stock market fluctuations in 2020 tell us about human behaviour?

By Srijita Ghosh

If I ask you what’s common between choosing the wrong major and not being able to lose the last 5 kgs that you thought you’d lose by summer, most of you would think there isn’t one. But if I ask you the same question for the stock market behaviour during the dot com bubble (most of you were probably not even born by then) and the same stock market behaviour during the recent pandemic, you can probably name a few. However, the common thread amongst all of them is that they are all driven by incorrect beliefs about future events. 

You were so sure that economics was the right major for you, but at the end of the second year, you realize you have gravely underestimated the technical skills required to finish it and now you wish you had chosen something else. It is natural and quite common to have a wrong belief or estimate about a future event since future events are fundamentally uncertain. 

Economists have been aware of incorrect beliefs and their impact on decision making but modelling them formally has started fairly recently. Taking motivation from psychology and neuroscience, economists have started modelling decision-making under the assumption that the agents are cognitively constrained. They can make mistakes while predicting some uncertain events about the future which can have severe consequences on their life and living. 

It’s the same cognitive constraints that drive the seemingly irrational behaviour in the stock market. But the mistakes that people make in the stock market or most economic context are not random. By studying the patterns of mistakes, we can design effective policies to improve welfare. 

In the context of the stock market, recent studies by Bordalo et al (2020) have found that people overreact to good news and overvalue them in the long run. If we overestimate the long-run valuation of stocks, then eventually we will be disappointed since our predicted value will not be materialized. This can lead to perverse behaviour in the market.

For example, during the current pandemic, the stock market remained more optimistic than what would be expected from the condition of the economy per se. It might be driven by the overestimation of the long-run fundamentals of the stock market. The problem, however, is that the pandemic initiates a “regime change”, which means we cannot be sure where the fundamentals of the stocks would lie in the post-pandemic period.

Another cognitive function that severely affects our belief is that of memory. Various puzzles in the stock market can be related to the nature of memory. There are different features of the memory that affect what we believe. The most obvious one would be the temporal nature of memory; we remember things with more clarity that have happened in the recent past than a distant past. This implies that while forming belief we put more weight on the recent phenomenon that is the underlying trend. This can lead to having an overreaction to bad news. 

The other, more complex feature of memory is representativeness, which implies that different cues about the same underlying object can lead to very different beliefs depending on what comes to mind. In a recent study by Wachter and Kahana (2020) has shown that we often associate two events that are temporally related. If one of these events repeats again we remember both the events, as they are contextually related events. This can lead to further distortion in belief and some examples of such behaviour would be under or over-reaction to news, fear being a leading motivator of financial decision-making, and so on. 

However, we should note that this literature is fairly young and researchers all over the world are trying to understand the impact of cognitive functions on beliefs and subsequently on decision-making. So we should proceed with caution when interpreting the results from the early experiments. Just like any other scientific discipline, we can only conclusively make remarks after several studies have reproduced similar results. 

One major problem here is that human behaviour is complex and when combined with the stock market framework the scope of non-standard (from a neoclassical economics perspective) is large. This makes analyzing and predicting behaviour in the stock market particularly difficult. But one way forward would be to understand how humans form beliefs generally and extend that to the stock market scenario. This will also help us become better decision-makers and be more consistent with our own world-view. 

Srijita Ghosh is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ashoka University and has done her Ph.D at New York University.

Sources:

Expectations of Fundamentals and Stock Market Puzzles by Pedro Bordalo, Nicola Gennaioli, Rafael La Porta, and Andrei Shleifer (2020)

Memory and Representativeness by Bordalo, Pedro, Katherine Coffman, Nicola Gennaioli, Frederik Schwerter, and Andrei Shleifer. 2020

 A Retrieved-Context Theory of Financial Decisions by Jessica A. Wachter and Michael J. Kahana

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Should India’s environment laws give the State so much power?

By Mansi Ranka

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) rolled out the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification in March 2020 and introduced changes to environmental governance for the country. These changes focus on making environmental clearance a swift and easy process while giving public consultation a backseat.

The draft has led to widespread public concern. About 100 environmental groups and individuals have opposed draft EIA 2020, calling it anti-environment and anti-people. One of the main causes for distress in the new draft is an exemption from prior environmental clearance to about 40 different industries like clay and sand extraction, solar thermal power plants and common effluent treatment plants. This ex post facto environmental clearance puts aside the primary goal of environmental protection to focus on achieving ease of business. In April, the Supreme Court held that such practice would be detrimental to the environment and that development must be approached through an “ecologically rational outlook”.

The other main cause of concern is the dilution of public consultation. The new draft exempts projects from the public hearing, an important opportunity for local communities to learn about the project and demand social obligations from them. This gives the corporations power to officially evade local development needs, which were anyway rarely met. environmentalists have accused the government of using EIA to expand their own political control by favouring corporations by legitimising environmentally degrading projects.

The new EIA draft incorporates systemic weakness into the law, making environmental violations the norm for corporations. The Ministry does not even pretend to see EIA as anything more than a bureaucratic instrument to make environmental clearance (EC) easier. 

Environmentalists have been arguing for the need to strengthen environmental law more than ever, as we are already experiencing climate change in the havoc wreaked by floods nationwide. The letter sent to the MOEFCC also proposes that we go back to the EIA 2006 notification. But in reality, that is not all that better either.

The MOEFCC is currently reviewing the public comments that they have received on the draft. Right now, it is important to think about what it is that will really help strengthen the environmental law in our country. How can the law ensure that big corporate profit does not override people’s welfare and environmental protection?

The state controls the distribution of state-owned natural resources. What is the safeguard against the exploitation of this power? What if the government allocates natural resources in a way that contradicts public welfare?

A similar question was brought up before the Supreme Court, in the 2011 public interest litigation after the 2G scam. The PIL raised questions about the State’s ownership of natural resources and their fair distribution. The judgement clarified the Supreme Court’s position on who distributes natural resources by saying, “Natural resources belong to the people but the State legally owns them on behalf of its people and …  is empowered to distribute natural resources.” So, the State has the power to decide what happens to natural resources. But on what basis does the state decide? The judgement goes on to say, “while distributing natural resources, the State is bound to act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust and ensure that no action is taken which may be detrimental to the public interest.”

Thus, as long as we trust the Indian State to “act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust”, we can be certain that it will distribute natural resources for the “common good”. The judgement concludes that the State should be the trustee or guardian of the people in general, and hence be responsible for natural assets.

Trusteeship is a Gandhian socio-economic idea, which holds that wealthy people should be the trustees and ensure the general welfare of the poor people. The theory relies on Gandhi’s conviction that capitalists aren’t beyond redemption and the wealthy could be persuaded to help the poor by becoming more egalitarian.

Now, the Indian State is supposed to act as this trustee and ensure common good. How does the state define this ‘common good’? Historically, the state has not acted in ways that can foster this kind of trust. The state has often wished to ascertain huge profits through corporations by allowing them to monopolise. This is obvious in the draft EIA 2020. The “common” good then becomes economic development by few big players. This is excluding the very people it was supposed to act as trustee for. And yet, the State can claim to handover natural resources for exploitation to a few players in the name of common good and public trust.

Furthermore, the draft EIA is pushing for people to be excluded from participating in this process, making the idea of common good paternalistic. The tilting of the scale to give the trustee unchecked power is possible under this idea of trusteeship. This is because in Gandhi’s theory it heavily relies on subjective goodness in the capitalist, the trustee, to act for general welfare. It is necessary to question this of trusteeship. Can the state function as a true trustee without mechanisms to ensure accountability and transparency?

Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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National Education Policy 2020: Implications for Students with Disabilities

By Monika Bhalvani

Since its inception, the Indian education system has been primarily built on an ableist framework. A multiplicity of factors, including inaccessible infrastructure, lack of inclusive teaching and learning practises, rigid academic curriculum, have played a contributing role in systematically leaving out a majority of students with disabilities from the education system early on. The detrimental effects of these are shown through a steep decline in the enrolment and retention rate of students with disabilities after completing their primary school. Because of this, about 45% of people with disabilities are uneducated and  62.9% of them between the ages of 3 and 35 have never attended regular schools.

While this form of an education system structurally denies students with disabilities their basic right to education, the recently drafted National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) provides a ray of hope. The draft states, “Children with disabilities will be enabled to fully participate in the regular schooling process from the Foundational Stage to higher education.” This focus on creating a thorough support system right from an early age opens up multiple avenues for students with various forms of disabilities to be integrated into the regular schooling system. The new NEP is built on the foundational pillars of access, equity, quality, affordability, and accountability, that promises a learning environment that is conducive to the learning needs of students with various disabilities. 

The NEP 2020 endorses the recommendations from the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016, and states, “Barrier free access for all children with disabilities will be enabled as per the RPWD Act 2016”. This recognition of the RPWD act and its provision to enable an inclusive system that is adapted to meet the learning needs of students with various forms of disabilities is in itself a major form of victory for the disabled community. Along with this, the draft explicitly talks about how the inclusion of students with learning disabilities will also be ensured, and teachers would be helped to identify such learning conditions early on. The emphasis laid on the need for developing an inclusive education system that caters to the needs of students with both visible and invisible disabilities prompts that we have indeed come a long way in our fight to promote inclusion in the education system.

Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons ( changes made)

While laying this foundation stone for inclusion, the NEP 2020  brings forth certain points that would be taken into consideration during the planning and implementation process. Some of the important recommendations include recruitment of teachers with cross-disability training, usage of assistive devices and appropriate technology-based tools to integrate students with disabilities into classrooms, providing flexibility for all students with different disabilities to learn and grow at their own pace with appropriate assessment and certification. While enabling this, it also gives due importance to training teachers on inclusive pedagogies that cater to the varied needs of students. Focusing on the need for implementation of peer sensitization programmes, it says, “The school curriculum will include, early on, material on human values such as respect for all persons, empathy, tolerance, human rights, gender equality, non-violence, global citizenship, inclusion, and equity.” Implementation of all these points could create a stimulatory environment for students with disabilities to integrate and grow in a regular classroom setting. 

While we have come this far in terms of policy documentation and it’s surely a welcome step, there is still a long way for us to go. Given the complex nature of how different disabilities manifest, we need to take into account multiple factors at both the planning and implementation stages in this process. In doing so, we need to take into consideration a lot of issues that the NEP 2020 misses out on, and discuss how it can be tackled and developed further. 

Firstly, the NEP emphasizes on how teachers will be trained and students will be sensitized. However, what is majorly lacking here is the involvement of students with disabilities themselves in the process of devising policies. Time and again, the disability rights campaign, “Nothing about us, without us”, has emphasized the need to allow full and active participation of people with disabilities while developing or implementing any policies for them. Thus, it is extremely crucial to actively involve students with various disabilities in understanding the specific areas of concerns and plan strategies to tackle that during the planning phase. 

Secondly, we need to pay utmost attention to the way the changes in NEP 2020 pertaining to students with disabilities will be implemented. Our existing education structure, built on an ableist framework, provides very limited scope for students with various disabilities to engage and fully participate in any classroom setting. There needs to be due thought and consideration given to how the proposed changes in the new NEP will be integrated into the existing education structure that we have in place. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, the NEP 2020 completely misses out on the various intersections that exist in the disabled community itself in terms of gender, caste, class, and socio-economic backgrounds. While making a comprehensive policy for students with disabilities, it is important to ask questions that cut across all these aspects. For instance, given that gender is one of the big determinants of increase in drop-out rates from school, we need to consider the provisions that will be made for female students with disabilities to retain them in the education system. Therefore, using an intersectional lens to rethink the existing education policies and the NEP 2020 would help in bringing about desired outcomes in the education system. 

It can be said that the quest for developing an inclusive education system has just started, but there is a lot more that needs to be achieved moving forward. After all, it is the inclusive mindsets and increasing focus on grassroots-level research in this area that would determine if we are moving in the right direction in building an inclusive education system– a system that embraces the differences that each student brings and fosters positive growth right from the beginning.

Monika Bhalvani is the assistant manager of the Office of Learning Support at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).