Book review
Alternative Futures: India Unshackled
Edited by Ashish Kothari and K. J. Joy, 2017. 
Authors Upfront, New Delhi, pp 683, ISBN: 978-81-933924-7-8.
Available for free download at

Visioning a sustainable, equitable and peaceful future India: Potpourri of dreams, daydreams, wish-lists and visions

Sagar Dhara*

Alternatives is a sequel to Churning the Earth: The making of global India (Shrivastava, A. and Kothari, A. 2012. Viking) in which 51 writers in 35 essays attempt to picture an India sometime in the latter half of this century, that no longer is afflicted by environmental and inequality issues described in Churning.

All romantic journeys begin with dreams, daydreams and wish-lists before haze lifts slowly and the destination and its path become increasingly visible. Alternatives beginsanother romantic journey to the making of a sustainable, equitable and peaceful future India. It presents a potpourri of dreams, daydreams and wish-lists—some with great promise, others just laundry lists, and a few well thought out visions. Is there better way to do this journey? I don’t know of one. Is there a better way of converting the dreams, daydreams and wish-lists into visions? Yes, persistent public dialogue, even with one’s strongest critics.

Authors and readers of Alternatives will and must disagree. That is healthy as it can trigger a dialogue that questions accepted political gospels. That is Alternatives’ intention. That was Churning’s too, but it failed.

A good dialogue, if it happens, will be Alternatives’ most important contribution, for it will help convert some of the book’s dreams, daydreams and wish-lists into bold, radical and realizable visions, and some of these visions into actionable programmes that have a sharp cutting edge necessary to transform India into a sustainable, equitable and peaceful society.

Two publishers did a dis-service to the dialogue on Alternatives by not publishing this review. The first publisher invited me to review the book, and a month after accepting it, developed cold feet. The second publisher did not reply to my request to publish this review.

Book summary
 Alternatives presents India’s desired future in five  themes—ecological, political, economic and socio-cultural, and concluding perspectives, that cover a wide range of issues—environment, economy, minorities, health, sexuality, governance. To give the reader the book’s flavour, selected essays are summarized below.

In the Ecological Futures section, Shanker,, state that biodiversity conservation practices has created “exclusionary spaces that today constitute India’s parks” focussed on conserving large iconic mammals. This may not protect other species. Banning cattle grazing in the Bharatpur National Park caused rapid grass growth, and consequent bird population dips. The authors recommend abandoning “approaches that lead to further alienation between people and environment.”

“The big challenge India faces today is to provide electricity and modern energy access to an additional 240 million people and sustainable cooking for 840 million,” write Hande, If India’s carbon-intensive grid provides this additional energy, its share of India’s carbon emissions, already 50%, would increase substantially. The authors recommend decentralized renewable energy to solve India’s rural energy problems.

In Political Futures, Das feels that “the power equation in India is marked by a high degree of inequality.” Roy, narrate how right to information, rural employment guarantee, and the forest rights acts have fought corruption and increased grassroot democracy. Fifty years hence, the authors see an egalitarian and sustainable India that will be forged by a “new power alliance (women, tribals, dalits, Muslims and lower castes) that has the experience and motivation to challenge existing power structures.” The authors see the need for people’s control over natural resources.

Dubey believes that the 1960-70s’ were the golden era of the United Nations (UN). Subsequently, the major powers weakened it by changing its agenda, whittled down its core competence areas and putting their economic policies beyond the UN’s purview. Dubey believes that we live in an “unstable, disorderly, fractured, unequal, and unjust world.” It is therefore “essential to reinstate the central overarching status of the UN, and restore the jurisdiction it originally had in the Charter, in the hard core economic domains like money, finance, trade, and development strategy” by democratizing the UN.

In the Economic Futures section, Shrivastava and Rangasamy find the “the market economy has equated development with economic growth and that has led to a huge ecological damage and destruction of human communities.” Moreover, “globalization has resulted in the centralization of power with few nations and companies,” with “growing concentrations of income and wealth,” and an “increasingly adverse relationship between town and country.” In 2050, the authors see a decentralized Indian society with self reliant village clusters.
Mansata,, write that agricultural output and productivity grew since India’s independence, but the countryside, just recovering from colonial-era impoverishment, consumed most of the additional output. To industrialize, cities too needed additional food. From the late-1960s, the Green Revolution gave them that, but poisoned food, soil and water with pesticides, lowered water tables, and caused farmer debts that triggered suicides. The authors argue for “food sovereignty and security to all, dignified livelihoods of farmers, and ecological sustainability.”

In Socio-cultural Futures, Narrain asks “what is it that makes our lives meaningful?” For capitalism, it is consumption that satisfies human needs and pleasures, which he finds unsatisfactory. For Narrain, meaningfulness is the “notion of love for one person and the notion of love in a wider sense, which can be characterized as the love of justice or empathy for the suffering other.” To make this point, he analyses the stories of Swapna-Sucheta who commit suicide because their parents snuffed their love; and Manning, a US Army information analyst, who was tortured and prisoned for leaking unsavoury “official information” on the Iraq-Afghanistan war that he felt public should know. The journey from loyal soldier to dissenter caused Manning tremendous stress that was compounded by his making the transition from male to female sex during this period.

Teltumbde believes that “the dalit movement has failed to recognize class consciousness,” and “reservation has only benefitted better off” dalits, whereas the majority of them remain stuck in abject backwardness “as caste identities continue to dominate the Indian public sphere.” He argues for multi-parametric empowerment of dalits—individual, economic, political and cultural, “central to this is the abolishment of caste (constitutionally), and communal consciousness from the public spaces so that we can march towards a society based on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

In the Concluding Perspectives section, Kothari and Joy, also the editors of Alternatives, write about their vision of India through an imaginary presentation made by Meera to the Maha Vikalpsangam held in 2100. Select edited excerpts from Meera’s presentation are presented below:

“Inequities, injustices and ecological collapse peaked by the 2030-50s’, and  Indian society slowly climbed out of the quagmire created by capitalism, patriarchy, casteism, human-centrism, Since then, society moved resolutely, but not without hiccups, towards equity, justice, ecological wisdom, sustainability and peace.”

Some of the changes that happen by 2100 are: “Dissolution of divide between rural and urban areas; Swaraj economies flourish; Most citizens involved with mohalla sabhas; Fossil fuelbased materials  phased out; Community-based conservation spreads; Ecosystems cover a third of the country; Recovery of most wildlife populations; Absolute poverty eliminated with everyone having secure access to basic needs; Communities able to meet most of their primary needs without large-scale commodity market systems; Agrochemicals and genetic modification phased out; Inequities of various kinds reduced; Recognition of multiple genders and sexualities; Private and state ownership of land on the way out; Workers took over production and service facilities; Monetary institutions replaced by socially controlled local currencies or non-monetized means of exchange; Manufacturing and services significantly decentralized; Caring and sharing are centre-stage in the economy; More time available for leisure; Open access to knowledge; Technological development increasingly subjected to democratic and social regulation to ensure that technologies of destruction and domination are discouraged; Relaxation of nation-state boundaries; State’s role transformed from coercive force to facilitator; Dismantling of police, discussion regarding dismantling armed forces; Diversity of languages, cuisines, beliefs and knowledge systems, ways of living and loving; Transboundary resources—water, forests, migratory species—increasingly brought under a regional governance framework.”

 I share Alternatives’ general trajectory. So, instead of listing my considerable agreement with the book, I will flag the issues that I feel require dialogue. First the book’s pros:

1.   Pathbreaking: Alternatives dreams about a future India at two levels—state of Indian society as a whole, and state of various components of India’s economy, social structure, environment, culture, welfare measures, and governance. The book is pathbreaking as few other writings have dealt with such a wide range of issues or provided an opening for a dialogue at two levels.

2.    Links: Alternatives highlights two important link issues. The first is between local and national/ global issues (vertical links). The second is the need for horizontal links between people’s movements working on varied issues.

3.   Nuggets: Some of the real-life stories and examples of present-day initiatives in Alternatives are invaluable nuggets that give us insights into current-day problems and how to deal with them. For this alone, Alternatives is a must-read.


1.   Tipping points: Alternatives makes only a casual passing reference to global warming and no reference to the impending natural resources exhaustion crisis.

By 2100, global average temperatures will rise by at least 3-3.5oC above pre-industrial times, way above the 1.5-2oC do-not-cross redline set by climate scientists. By the time Meera makes her presentation, fossil fuels will completely exhaust and reserves of ~80 important non-renewable ores will deplete dangerously. Viable alternate energies and materials are not yet in sight. If immediate and drastic corrective steps are not taken, these two tipping points will play havoc with the environment and cripple human society for centuries if not millennia.

So, will India be a happy, egalitarian and a peaceful society in 2100, as Alternatives’ editors suggest? Or will it struggle to eke a bare existence, war over scarce resources, be hit by severe water shortages and floods, and be battered frequently by severe cyclones and extreme weather events? Where will India’s get its energy and raw material from in 2100? By burying its head in the sand and turning a blind eye to cataclysmic changes already underway to two most important life-support systems—climate and geology, will Alternatives be viewed as a climate change denier, or a believer in the cornucopian myth that natural resources are infinite? These are a few questions that need dialogue between Alternatives’ authors and readers.

2.   Transitions: Churning saw social change happening through a slow transition to “sanity,” with no timeframe. The path in Alternatives isthe same except for the allusion to a quagmire that occurred between 2030-50 that society had to pull out off, and the transformation time from the quagmire-end to a more sustainable, equitable and peaceful society being just 50 years. No explanation is offered for the nature of the quagmire, or the relatively smooth and short transition.

Social transformations happen when an emerging social order challenges an older one. The order that garners better resources—material and ideological—wins, but not without the vanquished order fighting till its last breath. Social transformations, e.g., from slavery and feudalism or feudalism and capitalism, happened with enormous conflict and over prolonged periods; their spread over geography and time being uneven.

Class society and anthropocentrism, the supporting ideologies for growth, unsustianability and inequality, and their support structures, are ~5,000 years old. Can they be dismantled as easily and completely, and throughout India, as Alternatives suggests? Why are transformative routes like civilizational collapse, democratic transition, rebellion, or other zigzag and uneven routes, that have happened historically, not considered by Alternatives?

The picture of the social transformation painted by Meera is a little too good to believe, and defies history and logic.

3.   Ends and means: Desirable social outcomes sound more credible when their pathway is outlined. Many chapter authors in Alternatives realized this and charted the measures required to realize their dreams. Alternatives would have been a more convincing book had Kothari and Joy done the same in their concluding essay.

4.   Viability of pockets of sustainability and equity: Alternatives’ editors picture a future India that is well on its way to becoming sustainable and equitable. But are sustainability and equity possible in one country? Trotsky argued that socialism in one country was not possible as capitalism would fight back to protect its interests.

History indicates that a country or a community attempting to become sustainable and equitable in one region faces enormous challenge. The White Russian army, backed by capitalism, fought the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s. In varied ways capitalism fought back in Cuba, Nicaragua and Chile after it was displaced in these countries.

Sustainability in one country or a community, surrounded by capitalism and anthropocentrism is also not possible. Rallegaon Siddi, an experiment in village-level cooperation, referred to in several of Alternatives’ essays as a desirable example of local social change, remain largely unreplicated in nearby villages due to the enormous pull of “economic growth and individual gain” outlook that capitalism and anthropocentrism propagate.

Had Meera had explained how India became more sustainable and equitable by 2100, without the backlash that Russia faced, the narrative in Alternatives would have sounded more convincing.

5.   Sustainability quantification: Thirty years ago, the Bruntland Commission provided a   qualitatively understanding sustainability in terms of inter-generational equity. In this period, human society has become ever more unsustainable, indicating that a qualitative definition is insufficient. A quantitative sustainability index is now required to set limits for how much of nature we can use, and measure progress towards that goal. Without such an index, eloquent qualitative definitions for sustainability may be discussed till the cows come home, but will remain sterile.

In my review of Churning, I discussed the extent of global powering down required to become sustainable. Had Alternatives debated on this line of thinking, it would have made an important contribution to the sustainability discourse.

Equity needs the same treatment. Some work has been done on the quantification of equity, but it requires a South Asian contextualization, and the addition of the concept of risk equity.

6.   Technology:Technologies have downsides that often become visible much after these technologies are introduced. What will Meera do with the >3 lakh tonnes of spent nuclear fuel kept in temporary storage that will remain dangerously radioactive for another 10,000 years?

To its credit, Alternatives discusses biomass and photovoltaics as technologies of the future. A  discussion on the possible negative impacts of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, nano-technologies, gene editing, and how Meera’s society would deal with their downsides would have enhanced Alternatives’ argument for a sustainable and equitable society. After all, the devil is in the detail; and the devilish side of technology, i.e., its downsides, is more real and dangerous, particularly for the poor and the vulnerable, than its angelic side, i.e., its perceived benefits.

*Male, upper caste & class, college educated, member of the most ferocious predatory species that ever stalked the earth—humans, and belongs to a profession—engineering—that has to take more than a fair share of the blame for bringing society close to tipping points.

Jan 8, 2019

Sagar Dhara [email protected]

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