Issue 15

A Litigating Life: Meet the Indian environmental lawyer who won the Alternative Nobel 2021

‘Between January and June 2021, the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife considered a total of 62 proposals in four meetings, out of which 29 proposals were for diversion within protected areas.’ This is from a vigilant status report published by LIFE (Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment), an Indian environment law non-profit. Timely status reports and policy briefs offering accessible legal analysis on the workings of national environmental institutions is a part of their initiative. Winning a landmark case against the British mining company Vedanta in Odisha, the Supreme Court of India reiterated that consent of the local community is key, LIFE has also been instrumental in the setting up of the National Green Tribunal in India. In September 2021, LIFE was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize ‘for innovative legal work empowering communities to protect their resources in the pursuit of environmental democracy in India.’ Meera Anand speaks to Ritwick Dutta, one of the two founding environmental lawyers of LIFE, on a 15-year journey, in providing judicial access to Indians at the climate change frontlines.

Part of Issue 15 of Open Axis, which focuses on interviews with path-breaking Indians responding to climate change challenges.

Video: 15 min

Meera Anand is a third year undergraduate student from Ashoka University. She is currently pursuing Economics as a major and Media Studies as a minor.

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).

Issue 9

The Growing (In)Significance of the Nobel Peace Prize

“War makes for bitter men. Heartless and savage men”, said Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his acceptance speech, while being conferred with the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Merely 18 months into his tenure, Ahmed received the Prize in 2019 for introducing sweeping reforms to undo the authoritarian legacy of his predecessors.  He freed political prisoners, enhanced press freedoms, mediated regional conflicts in the Horn of Africa but most importantly, his historic rapprochement  and resumption of diplomatic ties with longstanding rival and neighbor Eritrea is what fetched him the prize.

Fast forward to present day, the northern region of Tigray in Ethiopia is witnessing a gargantuan humanitarian crisis with 2.3 million people in need of urgent assistance. Surprisingly, Ethiopia’s Nobel Laureate and “Champion of Peace” is at the centre of this. 

Ahmed’s intentions to “unify”  Ethiopia by bolstering federal powers and mitigating regional autonomy caused uneasiness among Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, especially the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF). TPLF, which was the dominant party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition until Ahmed’s election in 2018, openly resisted by defying the government and conducting regional elections despite all elections being postponed because of coronavirus. At the behest of Ahmed’s retaliatory orders post elections, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces have carried out aerial bombardments, sexual violence, ethnic-based targeted attacks and large-scale looting in the region. The government-imposed lockdown and communications blackout in the region has massively affected internet and telecommunications access. Resultantly, the humanitarian aid agencies have been unable to reach the local population that is in dire need of assistance. Media seeking to gauge the extent of atrocities in Tigray has been denied permission. Additionally, journalists in Ethiopia have faced threats, been harassed and  detained

With his cardinal role in the Tigrayan pogroms, Ahmed is the latest entrant in the extensive list of controversial Nobel Laureates that have fetched incessant disrepute for the Peace Prize. Henry Kissinger won the Prize in 1973 for his efforts in Vietnam, despite his alleged ordering of a bombing raid in Hanoi while negotiating the ceasefire. Months into his Presidency, Barack Obama was awarded the prize in 2009 as an “anti-war” candidate in the hope that he would withdraw the United States from its violent commitments in the Middle-east. As it turned out, even though Obama shied away from active military-intervention, he indulged in covert drone-warfare and left an exceedingly controversial legacy in the region. Similarly, Aung San Suu Kyi was hailed as “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless” when she was awarded the Peace Prize in 1991 for her persistent efforts to democratize military-ruled Myanmar. However, in 2017 Suu Kyi disappointed her international supporters as Myanmar’s de-facto leader by not only refusing to condemn the genocide against the Rohingyas but also offering a defence for the army’s actions at the International Court of Justice. 

So, why does the Nobel Committee have a tendency to pick unsuitable candidates recurrently? There is no single explanation to this. Yet, the solution lies in scrutinizing the process that is followed to declare the winner. 

The decisive criteria for the prize are working towards fraternity between nations, abolition or reduction of standing armies and holding and promotion of congresses. The problem here lies in the ambiguity of these criteria. These are open to interpretation for the Nobel committee. Suu Kyi was an intelligent, well-read, articulate and vocal leader who was a perfect symbol of democracy, making her a seemingly perfect candidate for the Prize. To most people, Abiy Ahmed’s vision of medemer, an Amharic word connoting ‘strength through diversity’, sounded alluring and perhaps evoked the hope that he would work towards quelling ethnic strife in Ethiopia. Many argue that Obama’s initial commitment to discontinuing with George Bush’s brutal Middle-Eastern policies is what earned him the Nobel. It is undoubtedly a herculean task to bring about rapid change internationally but making a few impassioned speeches to raise awareness and elucidating on one’s vision without actually having made substantially quantifiable progress could also be considered as “working” towards the aforementioned goals. Therefore, tangible achievements inevitably take a backseat in the selection process. 

Secondly, despite the Nobel Prize’s global significance and far-reaching political implications, the selection process is appallingly exclusive. The award is administered by the Norwegian Parliament through a committee of 5 Norwegian individuals that are understandably oblivious to the deeply entrenched political narratives in different parts of the world as the examples of Myanmar and Ethiopia vividly suggest. Owing to the complex narratives of ethnic rivalries in the country, Suu Kyi’s vision of a democratic Myanmar was bound to blatantly exclude the long-persecuted Rohingyas. Correspondingly, Ethiopia’s rapprochement with Eritrea had primarily to do with Ahmed’s and Eritrean President Afwerki’s common foe, the TPLF, as is suggested by the massacring of numerous civilians in Tigray by Eritrean soldiers. A comprehensive understanding of the subtleties of politics in these regions could have helped avert the handing over one of the most significant prizes in the world to these personalities that have ceased to stay peaceful. 

Lastly, strict rules of secrecy that disallow revealing the details of each round of consideration for 50 years should be removed. It is imperative to transform the selection process by incorporating transparency to ensure the non-existence of any biases or prejudices and to enhance accountability. The lack of transparency makes the process susceptible to international pressures and the furthering of selective global narratives as can be gauged from China’s warning to Oslo against granting the Peace Prize to protesters in Hong Kong. It is also speculated that Barack Obama’s surprise win in 2009 was an international rally to mend America’s international standing that was at the nadir after Bush’s tenure. This unavoidably and unfairly takes away this significant honor from other more deserving personalities. 

Nobel laureates are meant to be harbingers of peace in this excruciatingly peaceless world that we inhabit. In order to set healthy precedents, the onus is on the Nobel Peace Committee to award this significant honour only to the ones that can leave a legacy for future generations to follow, and currently it is miserably failing at that.

Saaransh Mishra is a graduate in Political Science and International Affairs. He is deeply fascinated by geopolitics, human rights, the media and wishes to pursue a career in the confluence of these fields. In his spare time, he watches, plays, discusses sports and loves listening to Indian fusion classical music.

Picture Credits: Wallpaper Cave

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).

Issue 3

How the Economics Nobel Laureates help us Understand the Way the World Works

Image credits: Niklas Elmehed for Nobel Media

When we think about the word “auctions”, we may conjure images of high society bidding for expensive paintings, or banks selling off indebted property. It seems to be a distant phenomenon that doesn’t impact our daily lives. But as it turns out, auctions play crucial roles in our lives – from deciding the price we pay for electricity in our homes, to the limit of carbon emissions allowed to different countries. In a mission to learn more about how auctions work, Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson studied various auction formats and designed an optimal auction mechanism for governments to sell complex public assets. For this, both won this year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Officially the ‘Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel’, this prize has been awarded to researchers in economics from 1969 onwards, to 86 individuals so far. The ideas studied in the prize-winning contributions, and the methodology followed to reach certain conclusions, often tell us a great deal about how economics has been practiced in the respective times. 

As explained by The Economist, the initial winners were often those who tried to model the economy into a few neat equations, while winners in the past two decades have tried to pick more specific topics, and conducted empirical research to back their results. In the course of the past half a century, the winners of this prize have made several contributions to help us better understand the way in which the world around us works; whether it’s auctions, the role of psychology in the making of economic decisions, alleviating global poverty, governing common resources, and so on. In this article, we have a look at some of the recent prize winners, and understand the impact their contributions have had on our everyday lives.

2020 – Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson “for improvements to auction theory and inventions of new auction formats” 

Milgrom and Wilson studied how different formats for auctions–specifically the bidding process, final prices, information available to bidders about the product as well as other bidders’ prior knowledge–all affect the outcomes of the auction such as the revenue generated for the seller, and the broad societal benefit. Through the theoretical study of auctions, they came to design practical auction formats that have real-world implications. In one such instance, they helped the US government auction interrelated objects simultaneously, like radio frequencies to telecom operators. Their contributions ensure that these public assets are sold in the most efficient manner possible, such that buyers (here, telecom operators) get the optimum allocation of their choice, and society’s benefits are maximised (revenue for governments that can be used to fund other public goods.) This auction format can be useful for India’s 5G spectrum auction that is scheduled for next year.

2019 – Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty” 

Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer extensively conducted field experiments using Randomised Control Trials (RCTs), to examine causes and effective solutions to address poverty-related issues such as poor education and health, lack of microcredit, and so on. By comparing a particular outcome (for instance, academic scores or morbidity rates) across two groups that have similar average characteristics, and differ only in having received a particular treatment (receiving textbooks or deworming pills), they try to quantify the impact of various poverty alleviation measures. The results of these experiments have significantly contributed to policy creation in developing countries globally. A series of experiments found that “poor people are extremely price-sensitive regarding investments in preventive healthcare.” This can inform government policies for pricing vaccines (COVID-19 and otherwise); a shift from highly subsidised vaccines to free ones to even giving additional incentives like free foodgrains, can vastly increase vaccine take-up.

2017 – Richard H. Thaler “for his contributions to behavioural economics”

Thaler’s work incorporates insights from psychology into economic models, to create a more realistic understanding of human decision-making. For instance, the lack of self-control that occurs when one’s long-term goals are defeated by short-term actions, such as difficulty in making healthier lifestyle choices, and saving for the future. To incorporate this finding into useful policy measures, Thaler and his colleagues suggested that governments try and nudge citizens in the right direction (provided they are not misled or coerced.) This has been used extensively to improve pension savings, organ donation and even handwashing. His research has also shed light on common marketing practices that take advantage of human irrationality; this includes “overexposing the rare winners and covering up the multitude of losers” in lotteries, to inflate people’s expectations of winning. Such insights from Thaler’s work can thus help us self-evaluate how we interpret information and guide us to make better decisions. 

2015 – Angus Deaton “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare”

Deaton’s work delved into understanding how individuals distribute their spending across different goods and how they choose to save. This is important because until the 1980s, work in development economics was largely theoretical, or limited to aggregate data from national accounts. Deaton’s work paved the way for linking individuals’ choices to understanding aggregate outcomes in an economy. For instance, his analysis of household consumption data in India showed that during adverse periods, there are lesser resources allocated to female children compared to males. This helps us quantify the extent of gender discrimination in an individual household as well as across a country, thus helping us design apt policies to adequately address it. It also informs governments about the importance of frequent and accurate data collection, to track and analyse the micro-level causes for macro-level economic outcomes. 

2009 – Elinor Ostrom “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons” 

Ostrom’s work challenged the traditional economic thought of “tragedy of the commons”, which suggested that common property be privatised or regulated by central authorities to prevent mismanagement. Ostrom studied various common resources from fisheries to groundwater basins, and found that its exploitation could be avoided by collective local action. Her work delved into understanding the sophisticated methods followed by people to ensure the sustainable and non-exploitative usage of common property. She also explored the diversity and complexity of the combined social and ecological world, and stressed the importance of different approaches to problem-solving rather than a one-size-fits-all institutional approach. This has largely contributed to contemporary discussions around issues like climate change.

Through these contributions by economists, Laureates and otherwise, we find important ways in which we can understand the world around us. What started out as a means to model the working of our economy, has now shifted to understanding how humans interact with the world around them, and the search continues for more efficient and equitable ways to do so. This shift towards making economics more human, beneficial and practical is a hopeful and welcome change in the fate of the ‘dismal science’.

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

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). 

Issue 3

Louise Glück Wins a Prize She Never Needed

I don’t know why I picked up The Wild Iris but I did. Maybe it was the shiny stamp that read “Pulitzer Prize Winner” adorning its cover. I’ve always been a sucker for awards of all shapes and sizes. Even awards that I hate. Actually, especially, awards that I hate.

The Nobel Prize in Literature, arguably the ‘O.G.’ (Original Gangster) literary prize, has heard its fair share of criticism— fuel for the flame of my growing disdain for awards of its ilk. The Nobel Committee has been accused of ignoring authors for extra-literary reasons, being too Eurocentric, and being too male-oriented. In the last couple of years alone, we’ve seen controversies surrounding the 2016 prize which was the first to be awarded to a songwriter, Bob Dylan; the 2018 prize which was cancelled due to a sexual assault scandal surrounding an Academy member; and the 2019 prize which was awarded to a prominent genocide-denier, Peter Handke. I bring up these criticisms and controversies because it is important to remember that the Nobel Committee is, at the end of the day, an organisation, like any other, comprised of ordinary humans. They care about their brand.

It is this logic that led many pundits and commentators to expect the 2020 prize to go to a ‘safe’ choice. Now that Louise Glück has won the prize, the reactions, alongside many of celebration and joy, include a sizeable number of folk who believe the Swedish Academy has simply done the expected. She’s a white, American writer who has been perceived as not overtly political; the statement given by the Swedish Academy about her is as bland and vague as it gets, praising Louise for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.  As much as I would like to agree with these cynics and naysayers – walk as I do amongst their ranks too often – perhaps it is my love for Glück, borne solely of the one collection of her poetry that I have read in its entirety, that compels me to pen a defence of her win (although, it goes without saying, it’s not like she, nor the literary community at large, are waiting for me, of all people, to come to her aid).

Let’s start with a common misconception. The charge that she isn’t ‘political’ enough. I think those who bring up this accusation often forget that politics isn’t just the flashy flairs of identity politics laced revolution that permeates a generation of young, slam poets. Politics exist within every relationship of power. And where Glück excels, often, is in using simplicity, wit and vulnerability to interrogate the politics, or the relationships of power, within marriages and love, within loss and grief, and, within our innermost lives. Here’s just an excerpt of one line which illuminates the best of all her biting qualities:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

Who would dare to call this apolitical? A glaring flaw in our evaluation of Glück is the retrospective, ’20/20’ vision which we use, all too often, to judge work being created and published more than half a century ago. Her ability to assert the inner lives of women, the banalities of family and personal tragedy as subject matter worthy of the forefront of the page are political achievements in and of themselves. However, this is not to say that the effect of her poetry is lost on us today. In fact, Glück’s work, old and new, will always be remembered for its seamless, effortless and, almost invisible, quality in its approach to a myriad of thematic concerns. If anything, these qualities make it stand out more today. Reconsider the line presented above with the knowledge that Louise Glück suffered from debilitating anorexia in her youth— to the point of it almost killing her. A poet today would, arguably, waste no time in confronting their suffering on the page. I certainly don’t mean to shame them for doing so, yet, I must appreciate Glück’s restraint. Read the line again:

“But nakedness in women is always a pose.”

How much more tragic is it now? She presents what one can only imagine is a startlingly intimate confession without being confessional. She makes an astute, insightful observation without being observational. She waxes her intelligent, poetic craft into a universal, political statement— without being intellectual or political. Is this not magic?

Louise Glück has spoken about not wanting to be “somebody easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many”. Unfortunately for her, or rather, fortunately for us, she is accessible: understandable, likeable and available. But is any of this easy? No. The experience of reading Glück’s work is far from diluted. It requires an immersion, an imagination and an empathy that will elude not just the instant, clingy, Instagram poets but also many casual readers of all ages who aren’t ready to reckon with the full force of all her meaning. This doesn’t mean Glück writes in riddle or code. She writes, like all the best poets, arguments of the heart. The real question is if you’re willing to engage.

This piece is short and, suffice to say, there is much more to explore about Glück’s work which could not be covered here. In particular, her manipulation of the mythological and the natural are precious, winning parts of the entire Louise Glück phenomena. I would not be able to forgive myself, however, if I didn’t include at least a few lines from The Wild Iris. The premise of this collection, to give proper context, is that each poem is written from the perspective of a flower or a plant. Glück inflicts their inner lives with a devastating level of detail, the closest one can get to granting them a soul. In the following passage, she flips the usual human concern with the transient nature of life and the preoccupation with symbolic immortality – as Shakespeare put it in Sonnet 55, “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes” – into nature’s tale of literal immortality:

“I don’t need your praise

to survive. I was here first,

before you were here, before

you ever planted a garden.

And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon

are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.”

This haunting verse reminds us, or me at least, that Louise Glück, no stranger to awards, – having won the Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, poet Laureate of the United States and many more – does not need another one. Her poetry existed before me, and it will exist long after I am gone. Of course, the Nobel prize will bring her a lot more attention, and that’s a great thing, but I truly hope that it is not the Nobel prize for which she is remembered.

Kanishk, an aspiring writer and filmmaker, is a graduate in political science from Ashoka University. His first collection of poetry, ‘Please Glue This Book Together’ was published by Shubhi Publications in 2016.  He is the founder of the humour and satire publication, ‘Kalinga’, and Ashoka University’s filmmaking society, ‘Navrang’. Along with award-winning short films posted on YouTube, he has co-written his first professional short film, ‘Suttabaazi’, set to release on Disney+ Hotstar.

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).