Book: ‘‘Churning The Earth...’’

Inequity, Environment and Ecological Democracy

Sagar Dhara

Few brave hearts have dared to cover the ground that Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari have done in their *book, "Churning the earth -the Making of Global India".

The authors use the post-reform story of India's development in the last two decades as the canvas for their book. On this they paint the picture they see of "the fate of the people who are being left behind in India's pursuit of prosperity through globalization" and "India's ecological fate, threatened as never before by predatory growth."

The book is written in two parts, the first deals with the impact of globalization during the reform period, and the second is the authors' vision of an alternative Indian society that is more equitable and sustainable.

It goes to the authors' credit for dealing with both equity and environmental issues in the same book, and more importantly, for being courageous enough to present their vision of India's future.

In the new globalized world, private enterprise wants the freedom to invest where it wants, for how long it wants, to produce what it wants, sell its products wherever it wants, and endure the fewest possible constraints in labour law and collective agreements. India joined the globalized world in the early-1990s by launching a series of economic reforms that devalued the ru-pee, cut social spending to reduce fiscal deficit, used deflationary monetary policies, and made it easier for foreign investment (Fl) to come to India.

India's growth upped from 5-6% before the reforms to 6-9% after then, until recession hit the global economy in 2008. Between 1990 and 2007, India's share of global trade doubled from 0.5% to 1.1%. New wealth in the post-reforms period spawned a new generation of novo rich-savvy entrepreneurs, businessmen and politicians, and an upwardly mobile middle class—professionals and bureaucrats. But they constituted only a small fraction of India's population.

The reforms had downsides. India's story was one of jobless growth, industrial output rose three times between 1990 and 2007, but employment in the organized sector remained static and real wages declined. Indian enterprise, though, created a large number of jobs in the US, UK and China. Growth of new tax payers has fallen in recent years. India's imports went up from 8% of gross domestic product (GDP) before reforms to 30% after; causing an additcnal drain on hard currency reserves.

India's growth was imbalanced. The agricultural sector's share of the GDP and workforce has expectedly declined. Surprisingly, the service sector and not the industrial sector increased its relative share in the GDP and employment. In the last two decades, India's labour force expanded by over 100 million. Much of it is 'self-employed' or employed in the unorganized services sector.

Whether foreign investments helped India grow during this period is moot. Between the years 2002-08, domestic savings and investments were nearly equal, suggesting that India's investments were financed almost entirely from domestic sources. The $120 billion of FIs that came in during these five years drew massive returns without contributing to "new physical assets or to fair dis-tribution of financial flows." And if they depart suddenly, the Indian economy is at risk of being destabilized.

But an "unrestrained market economy to maximize growth that globalization has put in place is fundamentally at odds with the goal of ecological sustainability and social equality." The vast majority of Indians-the urban and rural poor, live in Bharat, which shares geographical space with jet-setting India, but has been excluded from getting a larger share of the post-reforms pie. They continue to suffer the same deprivation, poverty, malnutrition and hunger that they did before reforms.

Trickledown effect has failed. For it to succeed, employment in the organized sector must grow. Alternatively, employment in the unorganized sector must grow sufficiently to compensate for its failure in the organized sector. Neither has happened.

The wealth divide continues. The top 10% of Indians own 53% of India's wealth, while the bottom 10% only 0.2%. Twenty to sixty million people, mostly rural poor, have been displaced to make way for infrastructure or industrial projects. Fifty five per cent of the 350 million urban populations still live in slums.

The urban-rural divide has grown. In 1993, the ratio of urban to rural per capita income was 2.3; in 2000, it grew to 2.9.

Many of these years have had significant food surpluses, yet the number of those going hungry to bed has increased.

India's post-reform performance is in contrast to a 1993 Ministry of Finance paper that states reform objectives as, "The fundamental objective of economic reforms is to bring about rapid sustained improvement of life of the people of India. Central to this goal is the rapid growth of incomes and productive employment …..Such growth requires investment : in farms, roads, irrigation, industry, power, and above in people."

Post-reform growth of financial wealth happened due to greater exploitation of natural wealth—land, water, fish, forests, biodiversity, ores. Since reforms began, mineral production increased by 75%, forest cover declined by 6,000 km², over-fishing has become common in many areas, water tables have gone down in almost the entire country, and soil degradation has affected half of India's lands. A significant fraction of ore and fish production is for export.

Increase in conflict, insecurity and human displacement are direct consequences of greater resource use. Mining in forests has displaced thousands of tribals. Forest-based livelihoods and pastoralism are on the decline. Mass production of many goods that were earlier made in the small scale or cottage sectors, eg, shoes, have moved many more thousands out of their traditional occupations. Water shortages and water conflicts have become common-place. Food insecurity has increased.

Another consequence is increase in pollution levels, particular as industry finds it cheaper to externalize environmental costs than invest in pollution control. India's air and water have become more polluted.

India's ecological footprint is the third largest in the world and has become unsustainable. Indians use twice the natural resource of the country’s bio-capacity. Climate change is here—altered rainfall patterns in many places, extreme weather events, retreating glaciers, and possible sea rise along some coasts. Climate change is also likely to impact crop yields and biodiversity.

Government policy on environment has been mixed. New legislation after the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy-Factories act amendments, Environmental protection act and rules-attempted to do more to protect air and water quality, people's health, ecologically sensitive areas, coastal areas, etc. But with reforms coming into vogue, environment protection was selectively sacrificed to favour the growth protagonists, eg, by weakening environmental governance, not integrating environmental protection with development planning, diluting siting criteria for mining in forests and dirty industry close to ecologically sensitive coastal areas.

Government has declared sustainable development as one of its policy objectives. But with no criteria to measure it, it is difficult to assess whether this objective has been met.

The post-independence 'land to the tiller' programme has now become a 'land from the tiller' one. Rural land-grab by government, corporates and private mafia for new infrastructure, housing and industrial projects has become common-place and has caused much conflict in the recent past, eg, as in the case of land for special economic zones (SEZs). The "rush for Chhattisgarh's mineral riches is the biggest grab of tribal lands since Columbus."

The solution is for government to "invest in agriculture, at least in proportion to its significance in the national income."

The divide between urban and rural India is all too obvious. Rural areas provide food, water, raw materials and labour to cities, but in return receive urban and industrial wastes. Adverse terms of trade and the neglect of agricultural sector (60% of farm lands are still rain-fed) have caused growth of crop yields to decline. Between 1990-91 and 2008-09, food grain cropped area declined by 3.5%, but cash cropped area grew by 20%. A gradual corporatization of agriculture has begun. Traditional farming has become increasingly un-remunerative. Consequently, labour migration from many rural areas has become common.

"The way forward (for the urban-rural divide) may lie in the twin realization that while self-sufficient villages have perhaps always been a myth, cities too are living on a short lease if they render the countryside inhospitable through their multiple depredations."

Recent times have seen a dramatic increase in global financial transactions. There is more venture capital available, and also more profit to be made. Business houses have made good use of this opportunity and combined it with externalizing environmental costs to maximize profits.

It is myopic to believe that clean growth implies slower growth that also entails a high human cost in terms of lives blighted by poverty. The alternative to this is "decentralizing production and consumption, gainful employment, mindful of nature's limits and sensitive to the equal rights of each community and individual, and not having to dis-privilege some to privilege others."

Is growth possible forever? The answer to that is, "human survival is now contingent on the world's economy converging to a sustainable steady state.... In harmony with the natural limits set by the earth."

North countries achieved their current living standards by exploiting their erstwhile colonies' rich resources. India and China can never achieve those standards. Quoting Daly, Churning suggests that the solution lies in the "rich countries (and presumably classes) giving up their throughput growth to free up resources and ecological space for use by the poor."

The alternative to achieve ecological sustainability and equity in India is to imbue the values of Radical Ecological Democracy (RED): "respect for cultural diversity and pluralism, cooperation rather than competition as the basis of human relations, respect for all life forms including other species and other fellow human beings, dignity of labour, defining a 'good life' as pursuit of knowledge, happiness and satisfaction through cultural and social interaction (rather than only material interaction), maintaining strong links with nature, simple lifestyles, prioritizing the commons over private, and valuing non-violence."

RED is a continuously evolving path based on dialogue among human beings rather than a destination. Some of the key elements of RED are respect for diversity of approaches, localization, trans-boundary planning, decentralized democratic governance that operates in nested recursive levels ranging from the local to the national, and synthesizing local knowledge with modern science.

At the programmatic level, RED would encourage among other things, 'green jobs,' organic farming, energy efficiency, agricultural swaraj, sustainable democratic cities, decentralized renewable energy, village-based cottage industries, 'green economic zones,' community-based banking and finance; and discourage large scale investments. Big industry may exist provided it is service and not profit-oriented.

There may be space for private property, profits, and markets provided they are subject to the principles of RED. The state will need to remain, if only to play a welfare role for the vulnerable. At the international level, the United Nations should be replaced by a United People's World. Nation states need to be transcended, militarism opposed, South-South cooperation encouraged, and fossil fuels phased out. Financial institutions such as the IMF, WTO and World Bank must be walked away from.

There are many examples of civil society initiatives to indicate that RED could become a reality in India in the coming decades. These range from community cooperative initiatives to improve water management, sewage system, developing solar energy and micro-hydel power generating solutions for the poor, agricultural and cottage industry cooperative societies, opposition to environmentally destructive projects and land grabs, lobbying for progressive legislation, eg, Right to information act, National rural employment guarantee act.

The authors conclude their book by stating that their understanding of post-reform India and vision of an alternate India is not the last word on the subject of sustainable development. This book is their contribution to the on-going public debate on how to make a "saner world." In the spirit as the authors' conclusion, and given the importance of the subject, this section is not so much a review as a dialogue the authors desire.

Intellectuals and activists have traditionally dealt with issues of equity or environment, not both. Only recently is effort at dealing with both becoming visible. Churning is a pioneer in this respect. Great width and depth of knowledge is required to write on this subject. The authors have the right background to write on this subject. They have humbly termed their book as work-in-progress. Such a huge effort cannot but be lauded, and more importantly responded to in the form of a dialogue.

The most challenging part of such dialogues is the vision of an alternative society and the roadmap to getting there. Usually debates revolve around the roadmap and neglect the vision. Refreshingly, the authors have reversed that trend.

If RED somehow managed to press the reset button to make society more equitous and sustainable, but permitted private owner-ship, presumably of the means of production (instruments, raw materials) and profits, society will slip back into iniquity and unsustainability. Profit or surplus, whether reckoned in economic value or energy terms, if allowed to be appropriated privately, will accumulate in private hands and in time accentuate inequity. Profit-accumulators (in Capitalism, the bourgeois) will overdraw energy and raw material from nature to maximize profits, and over time this will again lead to unsustainability. RED has many posi-tive elements, but cannot deliver human society from the evils of inequity and unsustainability. Here is why :

The authors made a brief reference to the laws of thermodynamics not permitting limitless growth. Exploring that line of thought a little further can lead to interesting conclusions.

Since the time of slavery, surplus energy has been appropriated privately. The institution of private ownership of property allows this to happen. By virtue of owning a plot of land, the land owner owns the crops on it, and therefore the surplus energy they contain. The land owner can now use the surplus energy (convertible into money and capital) to buy more land, and thus increase his capital. Surplus generation and appropriation with the use of fossil fuels happens in a similar manner.

There are several ways to increase surplus energy generation. One obvious way is to increase use of biomass and fossil fuels. The economic value of a good or service is directly proportional to its embodied energy. The higher the value of goods and services produced, the larger is the surplus or profit to be made. If human society is to become sustainable, the way value is reckoned requires radical redefinition.

Since the present way to value goods and services is global, RED, ever if private ownership of means of production is not allowed, cannot be implemented in a single country in isolation to the rest of the world, particularly in India which is already well globalized.

The authors suggest that there are three possible paths that society could take: Business as usual and descent to insanity, slow transition to sanity, and fast transition to sanity. Without offering a justification, the authors see the second path as being the most likely one to happen. Under what conditions will Indian society transit to sanity? Is the motivation for 'collective preservation' stronger than that of the 'selfish gene' in individuals? These and other vexing questions need discussion before asserting confidently that change for the better will happen by a particular path.

To get to an equitous state, Daly's suggestion regarding re-distribution of throughput growth is inadequate as the North countries still have a head start over the South countries. Eighty per cent of all fossil fuels consumed since the industrial revolution began were done by North countries.

There is now need for radical reallocation of energy entitlements. North Americans need to reduce their average per capita energy consumption per annum by 90%, and Europeans, Australasians and Japanese from their average per capita consumption of per annum by 80%. Only then can an Indian increase her/his consumption from the current average. But the political question that begs asking is how this can be made to happen. That there is sufficient energy reserve to energize South nations to catch up with the North, and all it takes is some more technology, is humbug.

Besides the slow path suggested in Churning, there are four other broad paths to equity and sustainability: revolutionary over-throw of the state, civilizational collapse, non-cooperation and subversion by civil society, and democratic election of eco-socialists to power. Though none of them have succeeded in ushering equity and sustainability on a sustained basis, any of them could still spring surprises. Churning would have been richer if these paths had had been discussed before favouring the slow path.

Revolutions have happened in some countries-Russia, China. They initially created a degree of equity, though not sustainability, but have either collapsed or reversed their equity objectives, as is happening in China. Cuba is the only notable exception to this trend. It was forced to dispense with oil as its only major supplier, the USSR, collapsed in 1990. They tightened their belts, learnt to grow crops on urban farms, made farming organic, did vehicle sharing, converted trucks into busses, and yet maintained their standard of living. It is the only example of an entire country adapting to an artificial 'peak oil' condition more than a couple of decades ago. It would have been educative for Churning readers to learn something about how Cuba transformed itself.

It is a matter of speculation on what may happen in the aftermath of a global economic collapse today. One distinct possibility is that the world may see a period of lawlessness. Those who will suffer the most will be the poor, particularly in Africa and South Asia.

Over the last century several governments have had to resign due to non-cooperation by civil society. The best example is the case of Indian independence. More recently such events have happened in Egypt and Libya.

During the Spanish civil war in the latter half of the 1930s, the Catalan working class organized by the Central National de Trabajo (CNT) seized factories by the hundreds and ran them democratically through elected workers councils. People worked according to their ability and consumed according to their needs. Productivity actually went up in the agricultural and industrial sectors rose. This ended when Franco triumphed in 1939. Similar things have happened elsewhere in the past in other places, but have failed to sustain.

Green parties were part of governing coalitions or had supported ruling coalitions in many European countries—Finland, Italy, France, Germany, Netherland, Sweden, Ireland. In 2004, the Latvian Prime Minister was from the Latvian Green party. Greens in Finland thrived while in power, but the German greens suffered. A few South American countries have had green parties, but never in power. Till date green parties have had limited impact on national policy, probably because of the revival of capitalism in the latter half of the 20th Century, and because sustainability issues are still nascent.

Churning rightly highlights the lopsided dynamic between town and country that hinterlands provide the resources that cities consume. The biomass energy required by 1 km² of an Indian city is produced by 100 km² hinterland. North cities like New York require the biomass production from 200 km². Clearly cities are predators. They use the same mechanism of unequal exchange with hinterlands that North nations use with the South to dominate and usurp their resources.

The book makes a few statements without examining their veracity. For example, that imported waste treatment technologies, eg, incinerators are inferior to those used abroad; there is a "globally acceptable limit" for Carbon emissions of the ultra-rich Indians. There are no acceptable limits for Indian emissions.

Some statements in the book are broad generalizations that have not been adequately discussed to convince the discerning reader. For example, the authors exhort, "What is needed is decentralized renewable energy." Agreed. But what is needed is a more nuanced understanding of this issue by learning from the past failures of biogas plants and household solar cookers.

Churning is a bit uneven—too much data in some chapters, too little in others; well marshalled and backed up arguments in some places, but broad unsubstantiated generalizations in others.

Despite a few shortcomings, which need to be overlooked; Shrivastava and Kothari have done an immense service to the discussion on sustainable development, by giving it their all. Few others could have put this topic on centre stage in the manner that they have.

At the beginning of the book, the authors state that the book is for lay readers. It is not quite that. But they could do that with a little bit effort, and help from friends by shortening the books preferably in Indian language editions. The discussion would then truly take off.

Vol. 46, No. 17, Nov 3 -9, 2013

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