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Is there an alternative to development under globalisation?

The alternative to development under corporate globalisation is a political one, says Aseem Shrivastava. It involves the evolution of a participatory ecological democracy where key economic and social decisions are taken out of the hands of bureaucracies and giant corporations

If ‘development’, as we have seen (read Who is development for?), is just a convenient justification for the sort of economic growth which underlies elite power, what might be the alternative/s to it?  

Nowadays, the English press does not tire of repeating that “development must be above politics”. Is development merely an economic issue, as virtually everyone among the elite tends to assume? It is very easy for those of us whose interests are well-served by the growth process in India to imagine development as a black-and-white, essentially de-politicised, issue. When the political questions have already been resolved in one’s favour things may certainly appear that way. But to anyone who is routinely excluded by the processes of development, this is far from being the case. 

This is the reason that our political parties – and only when in the opposition – are able to exploit opportunities of protest against development projects. It is because they blithely destroy the livelihood of poor rural communities, even as they create the material base for the further enrichment of urban elites. Typically, one side (an urban minority) gains the benefits, another side (a rural majority) pays the costs. Hence the currency of terms like “destructive development”. It is a recipe for environmental disaster, since those who gain live far from the site of loss and can but poorly appreciate the damage that they are causing. And those who can do so do not have the power to influence the course of key decisions affecting their lives – despite, as we have seen, the electoral vote.  

One implication of what has been said is that people are, in general, not consulted in the matter of their own development. We live a very long distance away from substantive democracy. The very idea of, for instance, asking people their opinion on a certain project in their neighbourhood has a ring of absurdity to it. Examples are legion enough to bear listing here. In only one case can this author recall a referendum over a controversial project. In other words, neither growth nor development, as we see them unfold in India, is democratically regulated. Participation by the supposed “beneficiaries” of development is conspicuous by its absence. For if growth and development were genuinely participatory, they would represent the authentic political choices of human communities. In other words, no one would be able to extract any political mileage from protesting development projects. But when people, far from seeing themselves included, actually find themselves ordinarily excluded from “the nation” in whose name the projects are carried out, the door is left wide open for the parties to exploit the opportunity in a cynical manner. Our recent history is replete with instances of wrong men and women standing – at the wrong time – for the right causes. 

It is the underlying vision and structure of decision-making that informs the developmental vision of India Inc that has to be changed if we are to face the enormous challenges ahead. Development, whether in its “national” mode before 1991, or in its globalised form since then, has routinely reflected the interests of one or more sections of the ruling elites, while seriously neglecting the needs of the vast majority. Adivasi women, for instance, have no say in water policies, when it is they who must suffer the strain of longer walks to water-sources every year. As we have seen, this is far from coincidental. It conforms to what the present rulers of the world want from us. It is part of the “invisible empire” that Nehru had anticipated. 

Participatory ecological democracy: A political answer to a political problem 

With the onset of what looks like the grandmother of all economic depressions infecting ever larger parts of the world economy, the door has suddenly opened to the possibility of resuming serious discussion of a genuinely democratic alternative to development under corporate globalisation.  

Given the overwhelming nature of the ecological crisis to which the modern developmental vision, premised on endless growth, has given birth everywhere, India must find its own unique way through the woods. One can no longer hope to achieve anything sustainable by chopping the woods down in order to feed the exorbitant lifestyles of the urban rich. We can certainly not prescribe such a vision for the vast majority of this country’s population. The trouble with ‘Nano-nomics’ is that it wishes to democratise consumption, but not production. It is thus asking for environmental trouble if the project succeeds. 

Any alternatives conceived must be, at once, democratic and ecologically sustainable. Given the imminence of climate chaos, to name only one of the destructive cycles at work, we can no longer afford to entertain resource-illiterate visions of endless growth. Ecological resource-planning has to be undertaken on a war footing from the level of the village panchayat. 

This does not necessarily mean the end of growth. It does mean the gradual reversal of energy, water, and resource-intensive growth of the kind that made America and the West so wealthy. It is not a model that can be generalised across the world without ecocide consuming us all. Trivial arithmetic can establish that success will be failure, if we continue with the copy-cat economy. 

The alternative vision does not imply the absence of industry or services. Even if agriculture and allied activities remain the economic mainstay of our people in the future, it is imperative that opportunities for dignified work are created outside agriculture in rural areas. India has always had industry, even long before the industrial revolution in Europe. However, the energy and resource base for industry will have to become sustainable. Crafts and skills that have languished because of the discriminatory policy regimes which have always favoured mechanisation (because of its short-run advantages for capitalist firms) must be supported by the state now. This is necessary not just in order to revive them but also to ensure ecological efficiency and sustainability, criteria which were not considered in the drives towards energy-intensive mechanisation of industrial processes.  

A measure of cultural democracy and self-respect would be essential to ensure success for such radical changes. The West has no answer to the problems that its industrialisation has created for the world, even if it helplessly wants the world to imitate its toxic model (notice that they want us to do that while also cutting down our carbon emissions!). The more perceptive and far-sighted minds in the West have understood that other parts of the world must judge their success very differently. Arnold Toynbee, the great British historian, wrote several generations ago:  

“The mere degree of a society’s industrialisation and mechanisation will be less significant than the measure of its success in providing solutions to the problems of pollution, of resource exhaustion, and of social tension, that are at present the unexorcised concomitants of the industrial system. The future may reveal a non-Western answer to a problem that was originally presented to the world by the West.” 

India is one of the few countries in the world – thanks to its unmatched diversity, resilient traditions and enormous size – where an alternative to self-destructive industrialisation can still be forged. We have the historic task – and opportunity – to find lasting solutions to problems that are originally not of our making. In doing so, we could serve as ecological pioneers for the rest of the world. In failing to stay true to ourselves, we will merely follow – or even precede – the West and the rest of the world into an easily predictable ecological abyss. 

Existing (and further) research in appropriate technology can be deployed to reach desired goals. Biomass-based energy generation – though not biofuels at the cost of food crop cultivation – can become the basis of a model of low-impact dispersed industrialisation, which avoids most of the insoluble problems of forced migration and excessive urbanisation, apart from addressing the intrinsic ecological difficulties of the traditional model of industrialisation. We have to move from “machinofacture” to “manufacture” and “ecofacture”. Much work has been done along these lines by experienced people like K R Datye, Suhas Paranjape, Amulya Reddy, Anil Agarwal and others. 

To sustain itself in the future, growth will have to be labour-absorbing and participatory. Given the enormous (and growing) working population of this country, it will have to be employment-led, rather than inequality or export-driven. It will necessarily have to change character radically. A far greater home market – what the enthusiasts of “decoupling” are longing for in these dark days of global depression – will have to play a key role. From being the bubble-brainchild of vainglorious financial whizkids in New York or Mumbai, growth will have to mutate into something that can be led by the thousands of rural communities who constitute the core of this country. A full-scale, and suitably adapted and audited, form of the employment guarantee scheme will have to be implemented far more widely than has been the case hitherto. The scope of the scheme will have to be widened to include not only critical needs of ecological regeneration and rural infrastructure, but also work on private farms. It must be ensured that labour is not drawn away during seasonal peaks from vital agricultural tasks. 

To ensure all this in the long run will require the sound health of gram sabhas and village panchayats which can take democratic decisions pertaining to local welfare and ecology in a sane, consensual manner.

To make this happen will involve the evolution of ecologically aware political institutions which can mediate and serve as observers to reduce the role of local corruption in key decisions.  

Given the ecological constraints and the enormity of the wealth that has already been created around the world, redistribution (both within and across countries) must be a key aspect of any alternative strategy for the eradication of poverty. This need not raise too many eyebrows. The NEF estimates that redistributing a mere 1% of the income of the richest 20% of the world’s population would have the same benefit as world growth of 20% without redistribution. (Think Cuba and Saudi Arabia, neither of which is officially a democracy.) Couldn’t the enormous private funds sitting in tax havens abroad be mobilised using something like the Voluntary Disclosure Scheme to initiate a long overdue process of redistribution? The opportunity cost of such a use of these funds in India is nil, since they are not being invested here in any case, taking the punch out of the trickle-down claim. 

Look at it another way. The rate of poverty reduction achieved between 1981 and 2001 could have been achieved through the annual redistribution of a mere 0.1% of the income of the richest 10% of the world’s population. In other words, the greater pressure on the planet’s environment during this period came on account of the extra $44 in the 1980s and $165 in the 1990s spent by the rich for every dollar that was incrementally spent by the poor. It is clear that population growth is not the real cause of the global ecological crisis. If there was no growth during this time, but the aforesaid redistribution was carried out, the rich would be mildly less rich than before and the poor would be just as poor. But nature and our progeny would be far better off.  

The alternative to development under corporate globalisation is a political one. It involves the evolution – howsoever difficult and remote this may seem at the moment – of a participatory ecological democracy. But, as Dr Ambedkar understood well, “political democracy cannot succeed where there is no economic or social democracy”. In other words, some of the key economic and social decisions have to be taken out of the hands of bureaucracies (as has been the case especially before 1991) and giant corporations (as has been the case after 1991). Unless such a decentralisation of decision-making authority is collectively fought for at every level of civil and political society, the future of our country – and the world – looks rather bleak. But if we can find the courageous hope to see (and work through) the ecological imperative as the alternative, our people may finally be able to divine the outlines of the dawn promised to them long ago.  

InfoChange News & Features, May 2009