eyes on the U.S.

Obama's Miraculous Escape From Economic Brink To Election Victory

Help from upstairs?
Help from upstairs?
Sylvie Kauffmann


Barack Obama's reelection to a second term in the White House is in spectacular contradiction to the trend in Western politics since the beginning of the current economic crisis. One after another, Western leaders have been dumped by voters who have made them pay for the effects of the crisis and the austerity measures imposed.

To see how harshly voters judge their leaders, you need only compare photos of the G20 summits in 2009 and 2012, three years apart. Only Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is still there; and she must face voters in 2013. Voter rejection has been especially noticeable in Europe, but it has not spared Japan, Australia or New Zealand.

President Obama is therefore a major exception to the rule, even more remarkable because the crisis started in the United States, with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008. So how did he escape unscathed?

Of course, there were flaws in the campaign of his opponent Mitt Romney. In spite of the Republican Party’s furious will to win and its militants' determination to throw Obama out, Romney was not able to personify that resolve. The gaffes of ultra-conservative candidates, like Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's grotesque remarks about rape, pushed the female vote massively toward the Democrats.

There is the demographic evolution of the United States, with the growing weight of the Latino vote – a vote that favored Obama, a Democrat and the first black American president. Hurricane Sandy, too, may have played a role, drawing attention to the destructive power of climate change, which Mitt Romney had minimized, and on the usefulness of federal government services, much disparaged by the Republicans.

Not so disastrous

All these things, though, were not enough to eclipse the crisis, which has hit American households hard. Since Obama first came into office, many people have lost their homes in the sub-prime mortgage crisis, or have lost their jobs because of the recession. The economy was of course at the center of this campaign.

Obama has not come out of the crisis unscarred. Inevitably, the 2012 candidate had lost much of the 2008 candidate's magic. But for the American president, salvation arrived in part thanks to the unemployment figures for October, which showed a modest recovery. Analysts had predicted the creation of 125,000 jobs, but the figures were better, with 171,000 new jobs registered. The unemployment rate of 7.9%, although still high, did not again cross the 8% threshold that would have been disastrous for Obama's reelection.

Thanks to these figures, which confirmed a trend that has been noticeable since the beginning of the summer, Obama was able to boast about -- at least the beginnings of -- a recovery. We were a long way from the 800,000 jobs a month being lost at the beginning of his first term.

The Obama administration was also able to show that it had not remained passive in the crisis, organizing the successful rescue of the U.S. auto industry, and launching an energy revolution using shale gas, which had a clear impact on employment and the relocalization of industries. Also enacted under Obama's administration was the universal medical care plan, "Obamacare," which once in effect will allow 40 million of low- and middle-income people access to medical care.

The American economy, though, is by no means done with the crisis. In his victory speech, Obama emphasized the indispensable unity of the country, and the need for political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, to work together, after a first term marked by gridlock and a profound political divide. This cooperation is imperative if the American economy is to avoid falling off the "fiscal cliff" that will gape, starting in January, if a compromise is not found on reducing the deficit.

During the campaign, Obama was unusually silent on curbing public spending and on financial reform, issues that certain European countries know well. He must now use his second term to deal with the problem seriously and immediately. "The road has been hard," he told his supporters, who had waited hours to hear him speak Tuesday night in Chicago. "We have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back. The best is yet to come.” It is up to the president now to organize this. As he admitted himself, "You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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