Opinions Column: Exclusionary, Ungreen Development

By: Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhD; Department of Economics, SRCC (University of Delhi)

“There is a world outside the classroom to understand and explore. We only need to unhinge the doors and windows of our minds.” Thus spake Perspectives, an independent and non-funded group of students and teachers headquartered at the Hindu College in Delhi University, which does field research in various parts of India to attain and communicate a nuanced and critical understanding of our society at large.  In 2012, they brought out a book titled “Communities, Commons & Corporations” that sensitizes us to a very unjust and perilous process going on in our society—economic development as a cruel war against nature and people dependent on nature for their survival. In this post, I introduce to you this book, the best on the topic in my opinion.

There is no broad-based and green development in India. The argumentation of the book goes like this. It is very lucid and persuasive.

The robust economic growth of Indian economy since 2003-04 has actually increased inequality and impoverishment. Inequalities have increased between rich and poor, between rural and urban areas, between backward and developed States, between those dependent on agriculture and those drawing hefty salaries in the corporate sector. 77% of people spend less than Rs.20 per day. Malnutrition levels worse than sub-Saharan Africa prevail with the average calorie and protein consumption actually declining in recent years. 79% of the children  below 3 years of age suffer from anemia and more than 40% of the children below 5 years of age are malnourished. 37 crore people  do not even have access to basic toilet facilities. At least three quarters of our total population lives in poverty. Surely, growth has been based upon the exclusion of a large majority of people.

India’s growth is marked by dualism. This means that the fast growing sectors are unable to provide employment to the majority of our workforce. The uppermost sections of  industry as well as the high end services are certainly creating opportunities for the well-educated, urban middle and upper class youth but are unable to draw the masses of our people. Saving and investment rates in India have been rising impressively but the sectors with increased investment have failed to create productive employment. Growth without employment is not development.

Development projects that come up throughout the country in recent years are either industrial projects like steel plants or automobile units, or are infrastructural projects such as ports, power plants and highways. All these projects exhibit certain commonalities. First, there is development of ‘enclaves’ or prosperous islands amidst a sea of backwardness. They cater to exports or elite consumption and are divorced from the needs of the wider economy. Secondly, as the government has allowed greater participation of the private sector through foreign direct investment and public private partnership, the private sector has got the opportunity to acquire resources—land, minerals and water—with an ease which would not have been possible otherwise. The grabbing of natural wealth is not limited to land alone and includes the whole complex of land, forests, minerals, rivers and coasts. This resource grab is actually transfer of resources from the historically dependent communities who are eking out a living from these, to corporate giants.  Apart from the transfer of resources, a vast array of tax concessions and subsidies are being given to the private sector so as to incentivize them to undertake these projects. The reason behind increased extraction of minerals in recent times is the rise in prices of metals and minerals in the international market, not India’s developmental needs.  That the needs of the poor have been ignored by the power projects is testified by the fact that six decades after independence, India holds the dubious distinction of having the largest number of people without electricity anywhere in the world. Moreover, most of the current industrial projects require a high level of skill which is not possessed by people who are forced to make way for the same projects. Often, these people are amongst the most marginalized in the country and have very low levels of literacy. They also lack the resources to skill themselves on their own and there exists no mechanism to impart such skills to them by the governments. The already paltry government spending on education, health and social welfare expenditures is facing axe.  The people displaced by the development projects would be at the periphery of industrial activity in jobs such as those of construction workers and guards. This is certainly not an improvement over their existing standards of living. In fact, this comes at the cost of whatever security they had in terms of landholding, or the freedom to pursue their traditional occupations. Even their future generations would be trapped in the same kind of livelihood conditions. Apart from this, note that there is ruthless exploitation of labour in these projects in Special Economic Zones. There is overwhelmingly large share of unorganized or informal sector in employment. These are jobs with virtually no labour protection and abysmally low wages. Almost all the organized sector jobs between 2004-05 and 2009-10 were created in urban areas. Employment in informal manufacturing has  remained constant since the 1980s showing that the increase in employment (informal) has largely been in construction and informal retail. All this means that those who are dispossessed from agricultural and common lands do not stand much of a chance to get secure employment. A family dependent on fishing for generations is suddenly forced into a situation where at best one member of the family may get a contract job as a guard in an infrastructural project or be forced to peddle goods on the streets.

The fact of the matter is that the current pattern of development is likely to lead to a net loss in employment. The development projects are not capable of generating new employment (at least employment with security) and are leading to large scale destruction of traditional occupations and existing livelihoods. And the greatest tragedy is that those who are displaced for the sake of development projects do not have any say in deciding what development should mean for them. 

And this development based on the diversion and exploitation of natural resources for profits and growth of certain sections of people is not sustainable. The short term greed of it will only lead to devastation in the long run.  The theory of putting a price tag on every component of nature, and the practice of slicing it up in pieces and giving it away to the highest bidder, has got us to a stage where we are prepared to sell rivers, mountains, and forests without a thought to the consequences. In the endless drive to accumulate and consume, we have crossed several frontiers of the natural world and initiated climatic and environmental changes that are irreversible, some of which will prove fatal for humanity in the long run. While the poor have been the worst victims of these processes, injustice has also been done to ecosystems, against animals and plants who have as much right on the earth as humans. 

What is needed is the realization of ecological limits to accumulation and moral limits to consumption. Developmental projects and technological innovations must be weighed against their impact on biodiversity and the environment, and not judged solely on the basis of profits that they generate for capitalists.

If you want to get and read this book on the basis of this summary introduction, write to contact.perspectives@gmail.com or archanaaggarwal@hinducollege.ac.in Once again let me sign off saying that this is a best book about Indian realities.

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