Friday, 23 January 2015

The Impasse of Development: Some Questions and Answers

I visited the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad on January 19-21, 2015. I gave two interrelated lectures on The Impasse of Globalized Development in India and The Way Out: Ecological Democracy. I copy below my responses to a set of questions sent to me by a student who attended the talks. The questions pertain to the ecology and political economy of development as it unfolds aggressively in India.

Dear Saritha,

Thanks for your questions and apologies for this delayed response. I got back to Delhi just yesterday.

My responses are in brown font below. Hope they answer your queries.

I am marking the mail to Prof. Ankur Sarin and his colleagues. Other students may have similar questions, in which case this mail could be forwarded to them.

Good wishes,

On 20 January 2015 at 00:01, Saritha Sudharmma Vishwanathan <> wrote:
Dear Professor,
I was the student that asked about agriculture can gain respect when it has become polluted due to unsustainable use (example Punjab).
I had the following questions from today's lecture:
1. Initially you narrate the discourse of development, how the word was coined; however is it not describing a dominant discourse? Do we not have other forms of development? like ecocentric form which you talked in the later half of the session. What are the other discourses around development during earlier or the same time period?

​Of course there are many other discourses of 'development'. And lots of interesting books on the topic. We discuss and critique the dominant discourse in our book simply because when all is said and done, and whenever a choice is to be made, it prevails over all the alternatives. I have answered your question at length in this article:

I will also ask you to have a good look at Gilbert Rist's excellent book 'A History of the Idea of Development', as well as the work of Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang. 

2. Occupational freedom: Kerala government is presently incentivizing youth to take up agriculture. In contrast, when I visited a village SIR near the outskirts of Ahmedabad last year, youth prefer leaving the village for better living and job prospects in town. We have two extremes in addition to village to village migration you mentioned in the class. What is your perspective of youth in India today from your travels?

​The motivations of youth vary a lot and my experience is not too dissimilar to yours. But one has to recognise the degree to which such motivations are influenced by state policies, state propaganda, the propaganda of the corporate media (working also thru peer pressure) etc. The reason why many state governments are having to incentivize agriculture is because the economics of small farming has been deliberately and systematically run down for three decades (see Chapter 6 of 'Churning the Earth' for a detailed analysis) to serve the interests of global agribusiness, apart from the routine neglect of things like irrigation. So, very bad policies have provided a real basis for the view which has now taken hold, and not just among rural youth, that "there is no money in farming." If so, how does the money return the moment large agribusinesses gain entry into agriculture? Global economics has quietly conspired with Indian caste/status prejudices to make farming unattractive. As I said, there is little hope unless this trend is reversed. And it is possible to do so with only a slightly more enlightened leadership than the one we have today.. 

3. Oil Imports will increase in the coming years. There is a shift towards solar and other renewable sources of energy as compared to earlier projections. Technology will play an essential role in terms of efficiency and sustainability in this aspect. Behavior also plays an important role. When you talk about ecological democracy are talking about a paradigm shift in how we approach problems?

​Of course... Technology will continue to play a key role. The question is what kind ​of technology it will be and what will guide key technological choices. Will the short-term commercial calculus of energy corporations (working thru state policies) continue to drive such decisions? Or will long-term criteria of ecological sustainability enable us to make the choices, and if so, what publicly accountable institutional mechanisms will make this possible? If the past continues to repeat itself, I am afraid we are facing runaway climate change and all the downsides of peak oil etc. If business-as-usual is not allowed and the policy imagination is widened and deepened to allow other possibilities - which will necessarily mean that energy majors will take hits on their bottom lines - then there is a future. I suggested that ecological democracy is a political imperative to allow such rational public choices.

4. You also mentioned about decisions to be taken democratically. We have a constitution that talks about individual right when India can be argued to be living as a collective society. With collective rights - what happens to women, children? Is the collective full of vested interests or you are talking about a democratic collective? can this be possible? Will there be a devils' advocate and also voice for the future generation (future say 7th generation)?

​Your question is a very good one. But also difficult to address in the abstract, independent of a concrete social context of an actual community.​ It is true that in India the Constitution guarantees (mostly) individual rights. In this sense, the polity is oriented towards the individual citizen. But the dominant mode of social identity is still the community (the 'biradiri' in North India), the source of no end of conflict between the legal and the actual! (This is very, very different from the West, where a British PM could win three successive elections, while claiming that 'there is no such thing as society', a statement which would disqualify even a panchayat election candidate in India!) Despite all, I look upon community in India as an asset, from an ecological perspective, though I am fully aware that 'the community' can neither be fetishised nor glorified. Much actual work needs to be done in practical contexts to make community life somewhat less inequitable. The democratisation of the collective, as you put it, is surely in order. But before you democratise a collective you need an actual community! The State, for instance, cannot democratise a collective from the top, and out of thin air, as is the wish of many liberals. As my Facebook metaphor tries to say, the quiet workings of a corporate-dominated market has been rapidly eroding community life across the world, including India, especially in recent decades, because of the speed of digital technology. It has become hard to visualise how communities can be resurrected under such conditions. And yet, as our book outlines in Part II, there are some very instructive experiments unfolding around the country (and the world). It remains to be understood how in a culture like ours, communities continue to survive - if not thrive - despite such enormity of pressure on them from the State and the market.

Also, by no stretch do I mean to imply that collective rights must come at the expense of the individual. The two must go together, and for me, they do. The original meaning of the word 'individual' (from the European 12th century) is "that which cannot be divided." The individual, Aristotle writes in 'Ethics', can only flourish and come into his/her own if s/he has a community to live in/with. Modernity has failed to grasp this important point.

And yes, your point about 'the seventh generation' is an all too pertinent one. Institutional mechanisms can be devised, within the framework of an ecological democracy to adhere to Gandhi's principle of 'the last man'. One way of speaking about ecological democracy in an authentic, Indian way is as 'Harit Swaraaj'. I claim that it is not only necessary for our civilisational survival, it is infinitely more possible to achieve it than the market utopia of the neo-liberals, where everyone has a car and a condo on the beach. That is literally impossible!

5. Environment Regulation vs Attitudinal/Behavior change. Are you hopeful of attitudinal change towards energy conscious behavior, pro-enviromental behavior will happen in future?

​Attitudes in our time are formed by 'the Idiot Box'...consumers do not exist in a cultural vacuum. It is no longer parents or teachers who bring up children and young people. Corporations do. Their marketing divisions are spending billions to shape the minds and hearts and dreams (if not also the DNA!) of the yes, a LOT of fundamental attitudinal changes are in order! But corporations will be the last to want to change all will take radical public education.

As someone suggested in our discussion the other evening, it will take a series of mighty shocks to some of the world's metropolitan centres ​for a sustained attitudinal change which will take account of 'inconvenient truths'. 

But to know where to turn and what to do in such moments of grave crises as are staring at us from the future, we have to prepare the thinking for the road(s) ahead from now. So, hereon,  it is always going to be timely to speak about ecological democracy. A clear vision is needed.

6. The latest draft policy on innovation does touch upon promoting Indian craft. I need to check that but I am sure it also talks about smaller finances for promoting localized innovations.
Prof Anil Gupta in IIMA works on grassroot innovations and could provide more insight in this subject.

​Yes, indeed. I had a good look at his impressive 'Shodhyatra' exhibition on your campus day before yesterday...this is definitely the way forward. Have a look at the discussion on Malkha/DCYT and Kutambakkam in Part II of Churning the Earth.​

7. When I heard about Ecological made me remember about the book Earth Democracy by Dr. Vandana Shiva.  How is Ecological Democracy different Earth Democracy and also from the concept of 'eco-centric development'?

​It is similar to Shiva's notion, insofar as I am familiar with it. But I suspect that there are some differences to do with what the concept of 'Harit Swaraaj' means. To me, democracy leaves the individual ​unchanged, confusing freedom with political liberty. This is not so with 'Swaraaj', whereby the individual is radically transformed through social action and spiritual self-realisation. The latter is key to Swaraaj, it is not so to democracy. 

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