I have long been fascinated by how history influences the geopolitics of our time. I have been especially drawn by the need to understand the complex relationship between identity and environmental impact and the role they play in our changing geopolitical world. It is on a recent panel where the Foreign Minister of India was speaking, where I came across his insightful formulation of a nation’s progress being defined across three axes. With a little adjustment from my side, I think it provides a good set-up for the rest of the article.
Let us presume that the ascent of a nation or a region can be tracked across XYZ axes. We can say that on the horizontal X axis lies its inherent Capacity, on the vertical Y axis is a nation’s Ambition, and on the lateral Z axis lies its willingness to engage in a specific ideology or direction, i.e. its Identity.
Foreign policy and geopolitics are a complex space and this article will not have the audacity to try and solve the geopolitics of South Asia. Rather, in this two part series — we try to explore what it will take for South Asia to survive and potentially even thrive in the coming age of environmental collapse. In doing so, we will try to address the importance of establishing a coherent Identity for the region in the face of climate change and environmental collapse and how it determines the future of the region and of the world.
Part 1 — Diamonds are forever.
Translated from Farsi, Urdu, or Hindi, it means “A mountain of light”. To someone unfamiliar with the (in)famous diamond, the name would suggest a Turco Farsi concept of some kind, perhaps the name of a poem by Rumi, a Khaled Hosseini reference, or maybe the fancier sibling to the exquisitely titled dish the “Shahi Paneer” (Royal Paneer). To most South Asians however, it evokes strong emotions — equal parts pride and resentment against the oppressors of old. The story of the stone itself is a fascinating one and should lend us insights into what is, essentially, the nature of humanity, a society’s relationship with ‘outsiders’ and the importance of institutionalizing a world view.
The Kohinoor is a 187-carat diamond that is now independently claimed by at least 4 different sovereign nations as their own, 173 years after leaving the shores from which it was first mined. Like any good story, the legend of the Kohinoor is filled with intrigue — its origins vague, unverifiable, and open to multiple claims. Traditional wisdom claims that the story starts in the Kollur mines. At some point in history through the mists of antiquity, this rock was mined on the riverbanks in what is today the southern state of Andhra Pradesh in present day India. Other sources claim that the direct descendent of Genghis Khan, Babur, acquired the gem when looting kingdoms in the sub-continent before establishing the Mughal Empire. Whatever the origins are, the journey of the Koh-I-Noor diamond is a fascinating one, with each emperor that acquired the gem, deeming that stone should be in their worthy hands rather than in those of the weak and lesser.
What we know is that it is the emperor Shah Jahan of the Mughal Dynasty (also known as the patron of a minor marble structure in present day Agra that is also one of the seven wonders of the world) that held the diamond. It is here that it enters written records. So prosperous was the Mughal empire in that era, that, according to some historians, Mughal India’s share of global GDP grew to nearly 25%. That is equivalent to that of the United States today. But all empires fall, and while the heydays of the Mughals brought in jewels like the Koh-I-Noor to their courts and treasuries, they also attracted the eyes of those thirsty for wealth and power.
A further four steps down the family tree from Shah Jahan, was Muhammad Shah, the unfortunate victim of a foreign power’s ambition, who after a short and horrifying campaign, passed the diamond to the blood-soaked hands of Nader Shah of the Afsharid Empire in Persia (from where it got its name). Anywhere between 20,000 to 30,000 people were killed in the sack of Delhi as well as 10,000 women and children taken as slaves. From Nader Shah, the diamond eventually passed to the Durrani empire in Afghanistan, then to the Sikh Empire in northern India. It is from the hands of eleven-year-old Dileep Singh, emperor of the annexed Sikh empire, that the East India Company finally wrested the jewel for their dear old queen.
The diamond’s long and arduous journey through the hands of many men and finally, one woman, to its current resting place, is an excellent lesson for students of history on the dynamics of power, culture, and conquest. As is the case with most stories of colonialism, the story of the Koh-I-Noor is not altogether that surprising. The narrative of the ‘foreign’, ‘western’ powers that took advantage of warring, fractious and weakened local empires to grab what they wanted is very much present and accounted for.
Let us for a moment now take a step back and look at history with a broader view. By doing so you will find that South Asians live in parallel realities. On the one hand, there is widespread condemnation and rightful acknowledgment of the atrocities and theft perpetrated by European colonists. On the other hand, you will see the underlying discord between endemic cultures has existed for millennia before and continues to exist today. This is perhaps not altogether unsurprising given that wherever you go — the acquisition of resources, be they land, wealth, people or kingdoms through force and violence is unfortunately, a seemingly fundamental aspect of human behaviour.
For us today however, these parallel realities do us more harm than good. In many ways, the actions of the East India Company are no worse than the raids of the Mughals against the Central Indian Kingdoms or Nader Shah’s brutality in Delhi, with one major exception. The Company’s conquest of the Indian sub-continent (and other parts of the world) was founded on the success of a brand-new type of geopolitical and economic mode of conquest — Capitalism. The capture and monopolization of trade over raw materials and people not purely for the purpose of some sovereign’s delusions of grandeur, but for profit. This was a model that, for the first time, institutionalized the incentivization of profit, regardless of class or caste.
To students of history, the transfer of wealth, the extraction of resources, and the blood and gore are constants. In almost all cases, South Asians have understood this fundamental lesson of history; talk of reparations has almost always been underlined with a heavy dose of scepticism and mild amusement. However, a peculiar phenomenon occurs in the case of the Koh-I-Noor. At least 4 of the countries still claim the diamond for themselves — India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and of course England. Three of these countries also claim the newest British Prime Minister! (at least at the time of writing). An intriguing phenomenon given that at least 75 years have passed since independence was achieved for the Indian and Pakistani states. Curious, because this particular diamond is not the largest or historically the most treasured of stones emanating from within the subcontinent, and yet, it commands the largest amount of attention.
One could deduct that this is not motivated by some mythical reverence for the diamond, but rather in the utility the British state has served in defining identity in South Asia. Present day Britain serves as the representative for the ideological version of the erstwhile British Empire that lives on in the minds of South Asians today. By keeping this version alive, the identification of the British Empire as the shared ‘enemy’ for the multi-ethnic people of South Asia has, for the last 75 years, served as a sort of shared historical binder. Its utility is now starting to dwindle.
With the last generations that were alive during the independence struggle slowly leaving us, so goes the lived experience of the shared trauma. It is here that the problematic issue of the parallel identity crisis arises. The underlying tensions between the cultures, religions and people in the region are no longer so visibly obscured by the memories of hurt and anger at the erstwhile British Empire.
South Asians now have to more clearly contend with their own historical truths as well as those of their immediate neighbours. It is no wonder therefore that today, 75 years after independence, a richer, more developed India is in the midst of an identity crisis or reinvention, depending on how one looks at it. The rest of the sub-continent doesn’t seem to be in good shape. Pakistan and Sri Lanka are teetering on the edge of collapse, Nepal is in the middle of a political shift, while Bangladesh is delicately balancing economic progress with religious fundamentalism.
Given the complexities of present-day geopolitics, adversaries in the form of other nations in the world are not enough to bind the region ideologically. A nation or region dependent on the globalized supply chain can ill afford to wholly define itself in opposition to another.
What this also means is that the lingering idea of reparations — be it for climate change or colonial excesses — while possibly just is also dangerous. Rather than extracting financial capital as a means of a kind of moral restitution, it perpetuates the idea that one culture is perennially the subjugated and the other is the oppressor. In an especially volatile economic and geopolitical world, pushing for more debt-based finance from cash strapped western powers only incentivizes the development of new forms of colonialism. Even in the unlikely event that the (mythical) Loss and Damage fund targets are met, it would be prudent for South Asia and the global south to plan for self-sufficiency as soon as possible. The time is ripe for a new model of economic growth to be developed — one spearheaded by the global south. After all, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”
So, perhaps the question we must ask ourselves is “What now?” Where and how does South Asia go from here?
Part 2 — Reinvention by substitution.
What do the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the 300 Spartans, the Ramayana, the Trojan war, and countless other tales have in common?
They all involve the union of a diverse set of individuals — each of them with distinct identities and motivations banding together in the face of a shared ‘outsider’.
The fact that in-group cooperation increases in the face of out-group aggression is well known and understood. And so, as the fading lived memories of colonialism pass, South Asia must quickly redefine itself in relation to a new “outsider”. Many of the societal struggles we see in South Asia in the last decade are an attempt by the majority to identify this outgroup resulting in atrocities committed in modern history in the name of religion and culture.
However, floods in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal Sri Lanka, and India this year alone, suggest that nature views all of us with an equally magnanimous level of disdain.
Herein lies the opportunity to bind the society towards another externalized threat instead — climate change and environmental collapse. If we are to assume that any question of future prosperity hinges on fundamental social cohesion, two questions that must be asked:
· Is this possible? That is, can the Global South use this ‘new’ outsider — one that is systemic, faceless, and amoral — as means of binding communities?
· If yes, how? What are the means institutions can use to create a new social identity?
To answer the ‘what’, one must first answer the ‘how’. Let us first define the tool of choice at our disposal — that humanity will continue to define its relationship with peers and neighbours in opposition to the biggest threat it faces. Simply put, our greatest feats of cooperation happen in the face of near fatal danger. A trope excessively used by our film industries and in literature.
If this is the tool to be used, then, how do we use it in our favour? That is, how can in-group cooperation dynamics be leveraged and what will it take to incorporate/institutionalize climate change and environmental collapse as the shared ‘outsider’? Towards the creation of an Enviro-Socio identity?
The answer to that may lie in a strategy that addresses four interrelated areas simultaneously. These four areas are represented in the framework below. Some of the inspiration for this framework was derived from multiple existing social impact frameworks out there already.
Drivers of an Enviro-Socio Identity
Needless to say, this framework (and this article) doesn’t consider the small topic of religion — that would require tomes of analysis. As we can see, each quadrant can push for societal change through multiple drivers, but each driver is influenced by the other quadrants.
1. Governance & Policy: Policies and efficient governance models are fundamental in setting best practices and developing a level playing field for business. The West offers lessons for South Asia in this. A lack of clear and coherent policies results in runaway capitalism at the cost of catastrophic environmental damage as seen in the US (See the Flint water crisis or the 3M contamination of groundwater).
On the other hand, the clearest example of progressive policy development is the EU Taxonomy — even with all its faults — a momentous work by the EU to encourage the institutionalization of climate and the environment in business. It is the responsibility of governments and policy makers to help the burgeoning working age population make the skill transition towards 21st century models of economic growth. These could be in areas as diverse as renewable energy manufacturing, lab-grown food companies, green finance literacy etc.
2. Markets & Engagement: While dependent on progressive policies, market players can aid and push for the transformation of novel technologies, designed for the global south and exportable. More mature markets can pave the way for growing markets across the global south. Business models across the Global South have more similarities than differences — in a classic case of parallel evolution — Dunzo in India and Rappi in Colombia both offer logistics services in urban areas. Both companies were founded within months of each other and share highly similar business models.
Engaging with reformative business models such as those of companies like Banyan Nation, devoid of policy requirements, and bringing them into the mainstream is imperative. A network-based approach may even offer opportunities to reduce investment risk. With some help, Indian green start-ups can export and grow their products & services across the global south. To do this, they need to leverage existing global networks as well as develop new ones to exchange best practices.
3. Culture & Human Capital: Encouraging the participation of a society in the building of this para-national identity requires patience. Ingraining climate and the environment into societal discourse in the long term can only sustainably happen through a multi-pronged approach. This involves education and awareness, a systemic approach towards impact, engaging with power centres and leveraging technologies to deliver on-ground impact. Much of this will depend on governance and policy, but a lot can be done already.
In the short term, building participatory social movements across the country through technology can mobilize the working age population to imbibe a green growth & resilience identity. An example of this is ICRISAT’s chess inspired game that encourages crop producers to strategize for climate-smart agricultural management practices.
Individuals and institutions who have the power to influence communities and shape beliefs must also be identified and engaged with. These brokers have the potential to be game changers when it comes to shifting discourse. They can re-direct and re-frame the ‘outside threat’ from the woke left/fascist right, urban/rural, foreigner/local etc. to climate change warrior/contributor, polluter/replenisher, community driven/individualistic etc. In India, the Swayam Shishan Prayog NGO encourages rural women to propagate clean energy projects in their communities. Projects like this not only reappropriate power but also help the communities to reframe their problems.
4. Finance: The financial sector must act as the lubricant to the three remaining quadrants. By encouraging easier access to public and private finance for green projects as well as encouraging institutional investors to shift from more traditional finance strategies to more innovative ones, the sector has a huge macro-economic role to play. Encouraging robust disclosure combined with enhanced green financial literacy for retail and institutional audiences is the first key step. This needs to be followed by a systems approach to the allocation of financial flows. One that incorporates the valuation of previously non-tangible assets such as Carbon, Biodiversity, Water, Diversity and many more.
Engagement with investees and the redirection of private investment to companies with at least one green/social impact contribution will slowly shift the momentum of the economy and as a result encourage the construction of a larger socio-economic identity that is environmentally aware and building for resilience.
In reality, there already are many success stories taking place across the sub-continent that address these four metrics in some ways. The positioning of the Indian Government during its presidency of the G20 this year reflects this philosophy in some ways. In Pakistan, grassroots resiliency efforts are underway after the catastrophic flood in late August this year. In Bangladesh, early warning flood prediction software like the Disaster Alert App have helped save many lives.
The Indian start-up ecosystem — already a formidable beast — can scale its innovations in sustainability across the sub-continent. Start-ups like Blue Sky Analytics, Ather Energy, Phool and countless more are crucial in the development of an economy that embeds climate and the environment.
Initiatives across the world can help provide South Asia a rudimentary blueprint to leapfrog the challenges faced in an increasingly decentralized world. Frameworks like the TNFD and the TCFD, ground-breaking policies like the EU Taxonomy and the Climate Disclosure Framework by the SEC, or indeed the voluntary carbon markets across the world and the compliance biodiversity credit markets in Colombia all provide attempts by different stakeholders to reform the economic system in a meaningful way. South Asia has the intellectual capital and ingenuity to leverage these innovations to build a transnational engagement across the subcontinent.
This is cooperation is imperative for prosperity and resilience in the region, something that the World Bank also sees as an opportunity. This is something, however, that can only happen with a socio-political reformation of national and regional identities. The time is ripe for the development of a new economic model, the creation of game changing environmental policies, the formulation of new power blocs and the coordinated participation of 25% of the world’s population.
And so the story of the Kohinoor is of supreme importance to South Asia. Because the diamond doesn’t just signify the subjugation of South Asian kingdoms to the tides of history; it also reflects the last few remaining physical manifestations that remind us of a historical threat quickly fading in the face of a large, potentially existential one. One that can be seen as an opportunity to redefine South Asian identity and position it as a leader in the fight for the environment.