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Small is bountiful

By Aseem Shrivastava

In China, jobs in modern industry declined by 20 million since 1990. But employment in light industries in the countryside increased by 30 million. Is it possible to think of a model of light industrialisation for India?

“Mother Earth has enough for the healthy appetites of her children and something extra for rare cases of abnormality. But she has not nearly enough for the sudden growth of a whole world of spoilt and pampered children.”

-- Rabindranath Tagore, City and Village, 1928  

Often the future can only be conceived by stepping back up on the mountain of time and turning around to take a fresh view of our goals. We are always in the midst of history, no matter how deeply we may be deluded into the flattering illusion that she has already finished her task yesterday. In this task of divining the future, especially in a crises-riddled time like ours, who could be a better guide than Rabindranath Tagore, who foresaw all too clearly how modern industrial civilisation was fated to commit ecocide unless a revolution took place in our collective outlook?

In the same lecture from where the above epigraph is borrowed, Tagore goes on to remind us of things that we already know, but are all too prone to forgetting as the temptations of consumerist modernity and comfort lull our minds into a quiet intellectual paralysis – even as our city-centred way of life continues to create insurmountable problems for the majorities who live in the countryside. Given his ecological prescience in this lecture, Tagore merits a longer hearing:

“Man has been digging holes into the very foundations, not only of his livelihood, but also of his life; he is feeding upon his own body. The reckless wastage is best seen in the villages, where the light of life is being dimmed, the joy of existence dulled, the threads of social communion snapped. It should be our mission to restore the circulation of life’s blood into these maltreated limbs of society; to bring to the villages health and knowledge; wealth of space in which to live; wealth of time in which to work, rest and enjoy; respect which will give them dignity; sympathy which will make them realise their kinship with the world of men, and not merely their subservient position.

“Streams, lakes and oceans exist not for the hoarding of water exclusively in their own areas. They send up the vapour which forms into clouds, so that there is a wider distribution of water. Cities have their function of maintaining wealth and knowledge in concentrated forms of opulence, but this also, should not be for their own sake; they should be centres of irrigation; they should gather in order to distribute; they should not magnify themselves, but should enrich the entire commonwealth. They should be like lamp-posts, and the light they shed must transcend their own limits.

“Such a relationship of mutual benefit between the city and the village can remain strong only so long as the spirit of co-operation and self-sacrifice is a living ideal in society. When some universal temptation defeats this ideal, when some selfish passion gains ascendency, a gulf is formed and goes on widening between them; then the mutual relationship of city and village becomes that of exploiter and victim. This is a form of perversity whereby the body-politic becomes its own enemy and whose termination is death.”

A more timely warning could not have been issued. What is remarkable about the quoted words is that they were spoken eight decades ago. Apart from its tender candour of style – altogether lacking in our arid modern ‘discourse’ – the passage could have been thought up just yesterday. So little have things moved underneath! 

One of the primary axes of conflicts and crises that prevail in the sub-continent today is the growing tension between town and country. It shows up in the myriad peoples’ struggles against land acquisition, displacement, loss of livelihood and habitat. It also appears in the form of urban struggles for water, sanitation, housing and work, as growing multitudes arrive in the cities in the hope of a greater chance of survival.  

Urban superstitions 

At the time that Tagore was writing, there was still a semblance of balance in this salient relationship of human society between villages and cities. Since independence the imbalance in favour of cities has grown rapidly. The ‘reforms’ enacted after 1991, under the oversight of the Bretton Woods institutions, has accelerated this process to perilous proportions. Virtually every kid growing up in metropolitan India now thinks that the city is not only superior to the countryside (that is not even a question), but that it owes nothing by way of even obligations, let alone gratitude, to villages. All the time, the villages feed us, and our opulent consumer lifestyles are maintained by the cheap withdrawal of resources which hurt and maim the majority of our people who live in the villages. But our children feel that we owe nothing to them. 

We in urban India live proudly today in a copycat economy, whose worn-out template has been given to us by the declining industrial cultures of the Western world. Here too, it is America and things American that we love most. Many of our elite think of themselves as quite superior to Europe or Japan.  

We love the big. We fear being small. And yet, isn’t it true that the tiniest things so often are of great consequence? Think of the atom, the chip, the gene, or for that matter the germs and microbes that inhabit our bodies. At another level, recall a smile or a kind word – the things that truly matter.  

Ecological realities are compelling us, however, to learn respect for small things. The disappearance of the sparrow from so many Indian cities is a portent of times to come. A little arsenic in water is enough to poison us. The rise of a few degrees in the earth’s temperature will accelerate the melting of the polar ice-caps and will mean the flooding of coastal areas, including big cities like Mumbai and Kolkata.  

The curse of our time is that our minds are constantly engaged with ‘big’ things – skyscrapers and supermarkets, fancy airports and expressways. Meanwhile, bigger events in nature transpire silently. Cusps, tipping points and thresholds are being crossed quietly, permanently altering human destinies. The poor are the ones who feel the impact of these changed realities first. But they have little power to shape their destiny, as evidenced in the fact that they lack any voice in our increasingly unwatchable electronic media. And those who hold power try to avoid the impact on themselves till the very end. Thus, bad policy decisions are routine. 

At the root of all these imbalances lies the very nature of the modern industrial system. It suffers from a built-in urban bias, associated with progress and advancement virtually everywhere. It is designed for growth. It is driven by the competitive urges of human ambition. It cares not for the abundance which nature grants every living creature, quickly turning it into profitable scarcity. It thrives on maximising the resource throughput of production. Through aggressive, invasive advertising, it is constantly trying to innovate and develop new products to market. This is how things like perfumes and plastic, not to forget cars and steel, first entered our lives.  

Though it likes to use them to justify its ongoing predation, neither conservation of nature nor the creation of dignified work is a goal of the modern industrial system, driven as it is by urges that are open secrets today. What is called ‘corporate social responsibility’ is merely ‘greenwash’. The deeper truth is that modern industry simply consumes too much water, energy and resources to give employment to far too few, even as it continues to fill the coffers of the rich with gold. 

A question arises. If elites around the world are in denial about the implications of their way of life, where does that leave everyone else? Do we have no other choice but to fall in line with the pattern of industrial growth this involves? Are the poor majorities to simply fall victim to the powerful forces unleashed on their lives and livelihoods?  

Industry yes, industrialism no! 

Let us first be clear about one thing. Industrialism was a creation of the industrial revolution which began in 18th century Europe. Industry is much older, if not perhaps as old as recorded history itself. India had plenty of industry before the arrival of the East India Company. At the end of the 18th century it was one of the world’s centres of manufacturing, ahead of Europe. Boats, furniture, textiles, jewellery, metalwork, leather goods, earthenware and handicrafts of various kinds were only some of the non-agricultural goods that India produced in those days, not only for domestic consumption but also for exports. They were often so popular in the Western world that our imperial rulers had to apply explicit curbs on our exports to ensure a market for their own nascent manufactures that rolled out of mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire. 

So, to be against industrialism is not to be against industry. It is to recognise that there is a cancerous fetish among the elites about the value of modern industry. It is to recognise that the sort of energy, water, and resource-intensive industrialisation that everyone appears to have got addicted to for some generations now is quite simply unsustainable when one juxtaposes it with ever more clearly visible ecological limits that the earth and her atmosphere are revealing. To take just one instance of the toxicity of the modern industrial system, its reliance on non-renewable resources, and especially on fossil fuels, is extreme. Its carbon emissions are leading to radical changes in the climate which will make the earth most inhospitable, if not altogether uninhabitable in the future.  

As such, humanity has always been engaged in creative and productive activity beyond the production of food. India is more fortunate in this respect than the Western world, since so many people, especially in the countryside, still practice many crafts in order to earn their daily bread. One can still find potters and weavers, blacksmiths and tanners in our villages and towns. Despite criminal neglect by the State and the elites, the traditions of so many crafts are still alive, unlike in the West where industrialism – in the seductive guise of cheaper mass production – has destroyed them altogether.  

Couldn’t these traditions be revived and supported to evolve a new model of sustainable industrialisation? Many groups around the country are in fact doing just that, though usually without any support from the State (and often hostility from it). They will need capital and financing to become viable means of livelihood again. They might need technical support. They will need assistance with marketing too. There are many places in India already attempting these experiments, often without help from the State. The pottery made in Pondicherry goes around the world. As does the brassware of Moradabad. Where State help is forthcoming, as for instance in the case of sericulture in Jharkhand, or as used to be the case with Khadi Gram Udyog, success is almost assured. These are seen as ‘low value-added’ activities by industrial and business fashion today. The reason is that we quite simply do not pay our finest craftsmen (or for that matter farmers) fair wages for their hard work. Something is clearly wrong in the way the social economy is working if food critics earn more in a week than producers of food do in a year. 

To complement such ‘cottage industries’, is it possible to think of a model of light industrialisation, not dependent on vanishing resources? It is light industrialisation, and not indiscriminate globalisation, as ‘free market’ theologians will have us believe, that gave employment to tens of millions of families in the Chinese countryside in the 1980s. It is this that made a significant difference to the levels of poverty experienced. The figures bear ample testimony to this fact. Jobs in modern industry in urban China have actually declined by 20 million since 1990, while employment in light industries in the countryside has increased by 30 million.  

Eco-friendly industrialisation 

What might light industrialisation in India look like? It will certainly use machinery, but will economise on it. It will eschew capital-intensive technologies and assembly-line mass production which have already rendered tens of millions of our working people redundant. These techniques have been developed in the labour-scare context of Western nations, but have been applied indiscriminately in India. India needs a form of industrialisation which respects labour above all. Instead of machinofacture, the new methods will rely on manufacture and ecofacture – forms and methods of production more in sync with nature. So, for instance, they would rely more and more on biomass and renewable forms of energy like solar and micro-hydel, rather than big dams, superthermals and nuclear reactors. Mega-projects ultimately serve the interests of a small urban elite and are in the end avenues for rampant corruption. 

Too many of our problems today arise from the fact that we have been led to think of urbanisation per se as a sign of industrialisation and progress. The kind of urbanisation India has seen since 1947 is actually a sign of the enormous failure of developmental processes to change the condition of our people. As their lands and livelihoods have been seized from them to make way for projects which enrich the rich further, tens of millions of refugees of development, forced to migrate to cities, have found their relative well-being turn into inexorable ill-being in urban slums. They have been absorbed by the infinitely elastic black-hole of the urban informal economy, flatteringly described by the experts as ‘the service sector’. 

This process can be and has to be reversed. Problems of urban development and management will continue to grow out of the power of any municipal or other urban authority to control, unless alternative poles of attraction are created in the countryside. It can be done if the village is once again accorded the dignity it deserves in the Indian ethos, if it is seen once more as a site of energy and dynamism. New forms of industry will be rural and thus, dispersed. Clusters may still be present, for various reasons, such as to derive infrastructural advantages. But they will be smaller.  

The great merit of promoting dispersed industrialisation is that it avoids the need for aggressive land acquisition, which has been such an issue in India. If non-cultivable wasteland, outside forest areas, can be taken up for industrialisation, no fertile land need be taken. Official data shows that almost a quarter of India’s landmass is classified as ‘wasteland’. If this labelling is accurate, and does not wrongly include some areas which the poor use as commons where they forage, the land could be used to develop light industry. With the help of public works programmes like NREGS, the government could help develop the infrastructure in the region which such industry will need. Roads, power and water supply are the key elements here.  

Agriculture must be at the heart of the new way of doing things. All self-respecting countries – especially in the western world, as the resilient subsidies show – try to keep control over their food supply. How has India, once a confidently agrarian society, managed to lose its hard-earned food security and food sovereignty since the ‘stealth reforms’ began in 1991? To make our food and agriculture policies serve the narrow growth interests of global agribusiness would cost us very dear in the long run. We do need a second green revolution, but not on the wings of ultimately counter-productive biotechnology controlled by corporations interested in maximising their returns on patents. We need it through the public promotion of what our farmers (now increasingly mostly women) know best by experience and instinct: sustainable organic agriculture which does away with the use of chemicals which ultimately rid the soil of its natural nutrients. Advanced research done by economists  Peter Rosset and James Boyce has brought to light a striking fact: land productivity is 2-10 times higher in small-holder agriculture in the developing world in comparison with large farms. 

When the local and regional linkages begin to form between such an agriculture (autonomous of powerful corporate interests) on the one hand and a sustainable renewable energy base (of biomass, micro-hydels, solar and wind technologies) and eco-friendly industries (often developed from revived craft traditions) on the other, one can foresee a thriving countryside in which everyone can enjoy a decent life free of penury. Ongoing experiments in the country – from Hiware Bazar in Maharashtra to Kutthambakkam in Tamil Nadu – are available for others to learn from (not necessarily imitate in every detail). These villages have broken all the rules of the free market to generate autonomous prosperity for themselves. The role of democratically sensitive panchayats has been crucial to their success. 

What is outlined above is hardly a proposal for cultural or social autarky. It is an argument for a more economically and ecologically autonomous countryside which can relate to urban India on equal terms, instead of falling helplessly and unjustly at its feet. The reward for such a transformation in the order of things in the country will be reaped not only by villagers but by city-dwellers as well. Urban India will experience far less pressure from the influx of migrants and can set about genuinely improving the quality of social and public life in the towns, cities and metros. 

The challenge is ultimately a political one of bringing about what is tantamount to a revolution in social attitudes on all sides. Formidable as this task may seem today, it is imperative to bring about an India which not only survives and thrives, but also recovers the main strands of an ethos which has been rendered quite threadbare since the modern onslaught of competitive urban industrialism. 

The ideas outlined here are all too rough and imperfect. But surely something like this is what Tagore may have had in mind when he wrote  80 years ago:

“Villages are like women. In their keeping is the cradle of the race. They are nearer to nature than towns, and in closer touch with the fountain of life. They possess a natural power of healing. It is the function of the village, like that of women, to provide people with their elemental needs, with food and joy, with the simple poetry of life and with those ceremonies of beauty which the village spontaneously produces and in which she finds delight. But when constant strain is put upon her, when her resources are excessively exploited, she becomes dull and uncreative. From her time-honoured position of the wedded wife, she descends to that of a maid-servant. The city, in its intense egotism and pride, remains unconscious of the hurt it inflicts on the very source of its life, health and joy.”

InfoChange News & Features, June 2009