Must India Ravage to Rise?

Two new books offer comprehensive critiques of current patterns of development and share encouraging stories about sustainable ecological methods

Dongaria Kondh tribals dance during an annual festival at Niyamgiri Hills. In August 2010, India refused permission to London-based Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from the hills for its alumina refinery in the region. BISWARANJAN ROUT / AP PHOTO
01 October, 2012

IN THE LAST TWO DAYS OF JULY, the façade fractured. When the electricity inexplicably cut out across 22 Indian states on Blackout Monday, nearly 700 million Indians were left in the dark. It was the largest power outage in world history. Even the throttling noise of generators starting up couldn’t drown out the embarrassment Indians felt as they read the headlines: “Superpower India, RIP” in The Economic Times and “Powerless and Clueless” in TheTimes of India. As much as the media covered the power outage and who was to blame, publications as prominent as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal also stressed a simple fact that normally doesn’t make the news. Even when electricity generation here is in full operation, a third of India’s population has no access to what has become a basic resource in the developed world. By contrast, India’s sprawling Asian neighbour, China, has 99 percent electricity coverage. By Wednesday, India’s power, if not pride restored, the American satirical publication, The Onion, jokingly quoted the Union minister of power saying, “Since restoring our infrastructure to 100 percent capacity following Monday and Tuesday’s blackouts, vast swaths of India are now completely without access to electricity.”

Like America’s Katrina or Japan’s Fukushima, India’s blackout laid bare the fissures in the nation’s foundation. There is the India of BRIC prestige, shining and rising; and then there is Bharat, the other India, which contains the majority of the nation’s population. It exists in rural outposts, as well as in the alleyways of major cities. Though breaks in electric supply are altogether common, the widespread blackout seemed a more dramatic reminder about those who live in an electricity-less Bharat every day and night. In this land, less than half the population has toilets. Three-quarters of households cook over an open fire. Nearly a million citizens, rural and urban, die each year from drinking contaminated water or breathing polluted air. The generators that thrummed across India sheltered some inhabitants from the genuine experience of Bharat, but that other India never ceases to exist.

And one can only stay sheltered for so long. The blackout provided a double revelation. First, it served as a reminder that India’s infrastructure is completely out of sync with the demands being placed upon it by a growing population. In every realm—food production and security, energy generation and distribution, water purification and availability, human wellbeing and physical health—there is a grave imbalance between what is available and what is needed.

Second, the blackout, caused in part by the trend of some states taking more than their share, also revealed the inherent difficulties involved in rectifying the imbalances in electricity distribution as well as other resource shortfalls. To bring power—as well as food, water and other essentials—all the time, to everyone, requires a vast amount of natural resources. And the main problem with the most elemental of elements, from fresh water to coal, is that they are finite and quickly depleting at the current rate of consumption.

Herein is the root of the endless balancing act that humans have to perform with the earth. To continue on the conventional path of extracting our needs from non-renewable sources is a recipe for exacerbating climate change, depleting aquifers, poisoning rivers, and instigating more apocalyptic outcomes. Yet, if we don’t, will the citizens of Bharat ever gain entry into India? Is it possible to house, feed and clothe all of humanity using only sustainable methods?

Two new books that explore the darker side of India’s rampant development and the people and places being ravaged in the process, adamantly say that the answer to this question is yes. They concede that the path will not be easy. In Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, authors Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari open by writing of India and Bharat, but also a third country within the South Asian subcontinent, the natural world comprising earth, water and air, which all Indians and non-human living creatures are utterly dependent upon. In the nation’s rapid economic rise of the previous generation, development and overpopulation have led to the pillaging of these resources—a seemingly unavoidable price to pay for progress. Corporate and governmental land grabs have displaced entire populations. The food self-sufficiency of the 1980s evaporated in the brave new world of the globalised economy. Dams, needed to generate power erode local landscapes while the electricity gets sent to the cities, leaving villagers in the dark. Globalisation lifted many people into the middle class as the GDP swelled, but the focus on growth left the majority of the Indian population behind in a pit of stagnant poverty. Kothari and Shrivastava compare India to a speeding train. There are a “few air-conditioned coaches in the front”, they write, that “are insulated for the time being from the fire that is blazing in the coaches at the back, where the majority of the passengers travel”.

Drawing on their combined backgrounds—Shrivastava has taught economics and philosophy and Kothari founded the environmental group Kalpavriksh—they eloquently describe and dissect India’s emergence onto a globalised world stage. They also argue that continuing on the same unsustainable path will lead to ecological disaster. Aiming to follow Carveth Read’s precept to be “vaguely right, rather than exactly wrong”, they propose the idea of a radical ecological democracy, which brings control back to the local level and displaces the desire for a rising GDP with the higher priority of ensuring the well-being of all of the country’s citizenry.

While Churning the Earth aims for an upbeat tone full of hope and possibility, Vandana Shiva’s latest book, Making Peace with the Earth: Beyond Resource, Land and Food Wars, is a whooping war cry. She, too, believes an entirely different approach is not only possible but utterly imperative in order to bring economic power and autonomy back to India’s masses and save the landscape of the subcontinent for future generations. But unlike Shrivastava and Kothari’s admitted “exercise in persuasion”, Shiva’s language is one of confrontation and outrage, with the explicit objective to “bear witness to the wars taking place in our times against the earth and people”. Both books cover much of the same ground, even citing the same examples throughout, but Shiva’s language is as heavy-handed as her political activism, which could cloud her message for readers who don’t already share her views.

If she wants to bear witness, Shiva has no shortage of material to draw from. As well as serving as a primer on policy, Making Peace inventories in devastating detail an alarmingly long list of violations to India’s land, water, forests and people. There are land grabs taking place from Uttar Pradesh to Orissa to Tamil Nadu, in the form of government-created Special Economic Zones (SEZs)—corporate tax-free havens that displace small landholders and divert government resources to corporations.

In the agricultural sector, there is the ongoing transition from the production of biodiverse native food crops, which use minimal water and need fewer chemical inputs, to monocultures of water- and chemical-intensive high-yield varieties of soy, corn and cotton. Land that once produced food is increasingly used for growing biofuels, such as jatropha, though long-term effects on the soil are unknown and numerous scientists have debunked its miracle biofuel capabilities. There are coconut and kewra farmers who are standing their ground, literally, in the face of invading steel companies, while Scheduled Castes and Adivasis fight for their forests, trying to keep mining interests from felling trees to access the coal and iron below.

Increasingly, the common commodity of water in both city and country is being privatised. Vivendi, Shiva reports, will soon control New Delhi’s water supply, and dams that displace people and water continue to proliferate, in spite of ongoing protests.

How does one even begin to enact a radical ecological democracy amidst this barrage of reports?

VANDANA SHIVA’S FIRST PRESCRIPTION for the transition to “peace with the earth” involves a “shift in our worldview from the Cartesian-mechanistic paradigm that defines the earth as dead matter to recognizing that she is alive and vibrant, the source of all abundance and all life, that we are a part of the earth, not apart from her, that we are her children, not her masters and owners”.

One can’t help wish that she’d offered a slightly more manageable first step.

But promising examples do abound in both books, mostly in the form of stories of straightforward resistance to corporate interests, in favour of a more localised control of resources that allow people a modicum of control over their daily lives and needs. Many tap into centuries of knowledge, resurrecting nearly forgotten communal methods of land and water management. Some simultaneously draw on technological advancements unimaginable just a generation ago, such as cell phone micro-enterprise and small-scale solar energy projects.

Drawing on the past, there is growing interest, for example, in reintroducing lost agricultural methods. Before the advent of the Green Revolution—which brought the intensive use of fertilisers, pesticides and other chemical components that have now depleted soil, contaminated water, and been linked to a rise in cancer—everything was ‘organic’. Critics of Vandana Shiva and her ilk holler that India can’t feed itself without these new methods. For a while they were right. The crop yields skyrocketed, until the soil was pushed to its limit. The practices are so intensive, demanding so much water from depleted aquifers, cash from overextended farmers, and nutrients from limited soil, that it is an impossible system to sustain. A level of food independence was achieved momentarily, but the 17,000 farmers, on average, who have committed suicide every year since 1997 tell a different story—and it is not one of self-sufficiency. Sustainable agriculture is flourishing in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab while the entire states of Sikkim and Kerala transition to organic farming methods. India is showing that it can define its next green revolution.

Demonstrating the power of micro-economics, a young Dalit panchayat head has mobilised Kuthambakkam village in Tamil Nadu to create its own mini free-trade area, reducing its dependence on the outside market and keeping the economic benefits of commerce within the community. To avoid falling back into an insular village mentality, Kuthambakkam is simultaneously initiating integrated housing projects that mix castes as a way of ensuring that as they push the bounds of economic possibility, they improve social structure as well. Kuthambakkam is an example of recovering “the best traditions of Indian cultures”, write Kothari and Shrivastava, “even while rejecting the worst, and combining these with the best of modernity”.

The list goes on. The Pani Panchayat has been sustainably managing water in Maharashtra since the 1970s.The Dongria Kondh tribe in Orissa continues to fight against bauxite mining companies in the Niyamgiri Hills. Kerala’s chief minister and agriculture minister are denying entrance to rubber companies who won’t support their efforts to keep the state free of genetically-modified crops. Village weavers in Andhra Pradesh are collaborating with IIT engineers to develop new cotton fabrics.

Could more efforts like these pave the way for uniting India and Bharat and protecting the third country of the natural world? All these individual steps offer hope for a sustainable India, but Vandana Shiva is right. A paradigm shift will have to take place in order to achieve ecological equilibrium while fulfilling India’s growing needs. It will require the bold and brave creation of some sort of new socio-capitalistic model emerging from a movement as audacious as that which led to the formation of the largest democracy on earth more than 60 years ago.

Start by returning to Rabindranath Tagore, as Kothari, Shrivastava and Shiva all do. In his 1924 essay, ‘The Robbery of the Soil’, the Nobel Laureate wrote of “an epidemic of voracity that has infected the whole area of civilization”. Gandhi, in Hind Swaraj, cautioned against unrestricted industrialism and materialism, knowing that if India, with its large population, tried to imitate the economic model of the West, the resources of the earth would not be enough to sustain it. In those days when the British still ruled, extracting resources from India’s soil and its citizens, both Tagore and Gandhi regularly returned to this notion of avarice, of how to decide when enough is enough, a thought experiment not in vogue today.

How would the thinkers behind India’s independence perceive the direction India has taken since the economic openings of the 1990s? What might the freedom fighters have said about the welcome mat laid out for the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the multinationals that have set up shop in tax-free SEZs? Is there nothing between the sleepy socialism of India’s first decades that admittedly did little to raise the standard of living for most Indians and the sell-out spree of the recent past that has created a growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots? What happened in the half-century between political independence gained and economic independence relinquished?

“It becomes very difficult to figure out how, against their inclinations, we arrived at the second great transformation of India into a globalised free-market economy with powerful rightwing political forces active in it,” Ananya Vajpeyi recently noted in these pages. “It is as though all of the genuinely egalitarian and emancipatory tendencies within politics, that had an organic relationship with Indian political thought on the one hand and that could have made possible a properly Indian social revolution on the other, somehow foundered before they could flourish.”

To beckon Indians to show consumer restraint immediately elicits the expected bristling. The West had its heyday, so now it’s the East’s turn, but must India follow in the ravage-and-rise approach of the West’s Industrial Revolution?

India can be more. India can do more. “Are we so bankrupt in our vision and devoid of cultural self-confidence,” Kothari and Shrivastava ask, “that we cannot summon an independent vision and imagination to measure our own steps?” These authors argue that by buying into the flat world of globalisation, India is denying its own potent power to create an economic system that could both play on the world stage and create healthy livelihoods for its own citizens, without laying waste to its natural resources.

Are the UK and the USA ready to share the stage with the giants of the eastern hemisphere? Or is the apparent camaraderie a guise for the newest version of imperialism? Emerging markets are as enticing to Western developers as the gold of the Amazon was to European explorers 500 years ago. They see them as a resource to be exploited, not necessarily as places to search for capable partners with whom they can share their spoils. India’s presence at climate negotiations has had negligible impact so far, point out Kothari and Shrivastava, just as India has been unable to secure even a hint of justice for the thousands of victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy nearly 30 years ago. The thin veneer of confidence in India’s ability to stand with the world’s superpowers shattered as soon as those lights went out in July.

“We should have a clearer, humbler appreciation of the limits of our power as a nation in today’s world,” Shrivastava and Kothari caution.

We can, through policy and grassroots action, control and shape much of what happens in India, choosing in which direction to steer the country. In Churning the Earth, the authors admit that the way to their proposed radical ecological democracy is not an easy one, but there are indications that the many diverse efforts described within their pages, as well as in Shiva’s book, together make up a movement that has the cumulative power to shift the direction India is taking and bring back what Shrivastava and Kothari call “ecological sanity”. The popularity of a show like Satyamev Jayate as well as the publication of books like these and other narratives exploring what the new India has gained, and lost, in recent years—all point towards a hopeful openness.

But will the message only reach those who are already open to it, who search out the polemic within the pages? Has Vandana Shiva’s activism clouded her words to the point that only those already within her political and philosophical realm will read them? Is Lakshmi Mittal sitting down at Kensington Palace Gardens to read about the possibilities of radical ecological democracy?

Pandora is out of her box. The slow-motion era of trading spices and indigo are gone forever, replaced by instantaneous cyber-connected trade routes of services and discount goods. An unprecedented interconnectedness between people’s movements has also arisen, with new democracies cautiously emerging where least expected and other established democracies like India being given a new chance to maintain the original ideals on which they were founded.

It’s unlikely that India will return to the socialist roots promised in the Preamble of its Constitution, but the nation could attempt to redefine globalisation using its own idiom instead of the language of unfettered free trade borrowed from the West. “This book is not against globalization,” the authors of Churning the Earth exclaim vehemently, as they advocate their radical ecological democracy. “Free markets are not so much ‘free’,” they say, “as deregulated—out of public democratic control.” Bring the public back into the process, they say.

India still has much work to do to become, as Gandhi wrote, “sound at the foundation”—where a massive blackout is seen as an accidental slip instead of a grave indicator of substantive weakness. When the electric grid failed India in July, the interconnectedness backfired, perhaps because some were taking more than their share, just as an economic crash in one country radiates out in waves of impact across the globe. The Government of India needs to continue investing in national infrastructure, but the people of India should simultaneously continue and expand the small-scale solutions that link Bharat to India and bring both into equilibrium with the natural ecosystems they both rely on. A national electrical grid system, yes, but also countless mini-grids, which focus on serving local areas, like the solar-powered stations popping up in the Sunderbans and the micro-hydel-power plants in Kashmir. Heading in this direction could bring to fruition the economic ideals of Gandhian economics, where the national focus is on meeting human needs over raising the GDP.

A growing contingent, from farmers to climatologists, reckons that the current path of development is untenable, but more development needs to take place if resource equity is to be achieved. These books echo that sentiment, in an urgent voice. Think big, they implore. Imagine economic Swaraj. Create a seed satyagraha. Use the power of the sun to light up dark villages. If these possibilities are not at least pursued, the environmental crisis looming on India’s shining horizon could be catastrophic, making a couple of days of power outages seem trivial in comparison.