In Churning the Earth, The Making of Global India, environmentalist Ashish Kothari and economist Aseem Shrivastava put India's much-hyped growth story under the scanner. Using an array of data and first hand gleanings, they expose the predatory character of the growth, and then present alternatives to it. Down To Earth caught up with them. Edited excerpts:
The book is about a phase when economic policies in India have, arguably, had the greatest impact on the environment? Will you also say this is also the period when awareness about the environment has increased? How does one explain the paradox?
Ashish: Indeed these two are taking place concurrently. But they are not necessarily contradictory; environmental awareness is rising both amongst the public and amongst decision-makers, but there is a chasm between awareness and concern, and then betweeen concern and action, and these chasms are greatest when it concerns those in power. Public pressure and activism on environmental matters is certainly growing, and the situation would be far worse were it not for these, but they are not yet strong or 'critical mass' enough to make anything more than dents in the system. Those who run the economy from within and outside the government are the ones most ‘buffered’ from public opinion, at least in the short run.
Aseem: Where is the paradox? Doesn’t awareness of major problems in the world grow when they become difficult for authorities to deny? If there is a paradox at all, it has to do with the fact that the same phenomenon – globalisation – which has accelerated ecological crises has also given rise to a burgeoning, noisy media which has found it in its interests (up to a point of course) to put out information about such problems. Anxiety sells. So at least a part of the explanation for the greater awareness is this. But there are deeper explanations for the growing public awareness, which have to do with the fact that the ordinary people of this beleaguered country have been raising hell and drawing attention to vanishing frontiers – of forests and meadows, rivers and coastlines. It is difficult to overestimate the democratic contribution they are making to alert downtown India about so many environmental tipping points which the market mechanism so favoured by economists routinely fails to register. One wishes that educated India would take their warnings more seriously – ultimately for its own long-term good.
Do you believe globalisation in its neo-liberalised avatar is in its death throes? Or its undergoing a crisis, which could turn out to be temporary?
Ashish: I’d say death throes, but these will be long-drawn out, and will affect (are already affecting) not only the economy but everything else. I don’t think there is any way to avoid a series of collapses in the short run, but if we are able to nurture the various elements of hope, both grassroots level and at larger (policy, national, global) levels, there will be various pathways of a saner future in front of us.
Globalisation in its true form, i.e. free exchange of ideas, materials, people, cultures (and not the current form, i.e. free movement of finance!), would be part of these alternate pathways.
Aseem: What is understood by all too few, alas, is that the current phase of globalisation, powered by high technology, has at bottom emanated from the failure – not the success – of American capitalism. The roots of the present global crisis of the system lie in the early 1970s when the US dollar was unhinged from gold, and financial speculation rapidly became a daily obsession of the globally wealthy as the system of fixed exchange rates, which had undergirded the world monetary system since the 1940s, broke down. To cut a very long story short, capitalism entered the era of perpetual crises after the 1970s as the rules that had regulated global capital flows since the era of the Great Depression of the 1930s began to be systematically undone. The trend has continued to this day and some of the most irresponsible acts of organized avarice have been rewarded with renewed policy blessings, severely endangering the whole system in the bargain. The lesson is that capitalism needs and loves crises to prey upon. Yet, as has been noted by many an astute commentator, ‘this time is different’. Repeated tinkering with the system now stands exhausted and there is the spectre of global economic stagnation – which may be very good news from the environmental perspective! However, the gap between public perceptions – thanks to a deeply complicit media – and the underlying economic realities is so large that confusion routinely prevails. In Hindi, one says that even a dead elephant is worth a million rupees. That is in fact the state of the beast today.
You write about changing the direction and vision of economic growth in India. Do you see anything positive in laws and state policies that can help us towards just, ecologically sensitive and democratic growth? Or do we need to junk everything and begin afresh
Aseem: There are defensive laws and policies that have come into place during the last two decades that are of significant value. The ones we discuss in Churning the Earth are the Right to Information (RTI), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Forest Rights Act (FRA), Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), and the Social Security Act. These are necessary steps, without which no government which pushes through the economic policies for metropolitan elites will be able to survive the democratic upsurge. But, as the rising tide of discontent – with debt, dispossession and displacement, no less than with inflation and unemployment – is revealing, enacting (or even partially implementing) these laws is not enough. A fundamental change of course is called for if state policies are to address the sheer scale of socio-economic and ecological challenges. If not, it is safe and necessary to say that we have to prepare for catastrophe.
Ashish: Both the dominant macro-economic system and the political governance system need to be changed fundamentally; but there are many elements in the current situation that could be helpful towards this change, or at least helpful in making the transition less painful. Policies/laws like RTI and FRA at a national level, or Nagaland’s communitisation and Kerala’s (partial) decentralisation, as also schemes such as organic farming programmes in some states, are positive spaces that can be used even as more fundamental changes are fought for.
What are your views on Indian companies, many of them state owned, prospecting in Africa and other parts of the Third World? Would you go along with the commentators who see this as an instance of neo-colonialism?
Ashish: Most certainly. India is following in China’s footsteps as part of the league of new global colonisers. It has no policy on regulating its corporations’ behaviour abroad, not even to make them responsible to the level of Indian laws on environment, labour, etc. It directly or indirectly helps these corporations, but uses the excuse of them being independent entities when human rights and environmental violations are pointed out. This is shameful behaviour.
Aseem: Indian corporate classes and policy elites do not have an imagination free of the West. They have dutifully mimicked the habits of our colonial masters and have ventured into Africa to do things which they obviously cannot dare to do in more fortunate parts of the world. It is one more sign of the bankruptcy of vision at the top.
Why do policy makers, academics and activists never talk? Have you seen fruitful results of such interaction?
Ashish: Oh we do, many a time. But the problem is even this does not reach, or rather affect, the powers at the top, except on specific issues like FRA and MNREGA. On macro-economic policy, there is no forum of regular dialogue, and the Planning Commission, which could have played such a role in bridging the govt and civil society, is not doing it except very partially during the fiver-year plan formulation process.
Aseem: It would change everything about the way the system runs if such conversations were to happen and were to matter! We live in impoverished times, when truth can sometimes be uttered, but still does not have to be reckoned with – a sign of the depth of organized cowardice today. Conversations between the three groups you mention are as rare as they are fertile when they do happen.
What do you see as alternatives to liberalised globalisation and state-socialism?
Ashish: A Radical Ecological Democracy in which all people have the right, capacity, and opportunity to take part in decision-making in matters affecting their lives; in which the basic unit of decision-making is the village and the urban area sabha; in which larger scales of decision-making across landscapes and regions emanates from these basic units; and in which ecological sustainability and socio-economic equity are fulcrums of all decisions. This is not romantic idealism, but actually being lived by hundreds possibly thousands of initiatives across the country, some of which we’ve documented in the book. The challenge is to translate these grassroots alternatives and policy level actions into larger, more politically powerful processes, including through linking peoples movements on various themes and fronts
Aseem: Harit swaraj, radical ecological democracy, is what we propose as a way of thought and practice that could be experimented with and learned from. It is a proposal to help reorganize the economy and the polity in such a way that the twin evils of big business and big government are both avoided and the creative human energy of communities – as against the self-destructive ‘laws’ of the marketplace – is harnessed to tackle the challenges that confront them. It has room for a lot of values and principles – respect for nature, for the essential needs of billions of people presently left out of the pale, and multiple forms of human creativity for rich and poor alike – that so many people hold dear today. Unlike what a lot of sceptics may feel, it is an idea whose time may have approached. People’s movements point in that direction. As our book outlines, there are a very large number of such experiments in motion around the globe today. So it’s not a pie in the sky at all – if those complacently ensconced in enclaves of privilege can be convinced to leave the world alone. It is a lot less utopian than the market utopia of endless consumption towards which the standard paradigms of (over)development are directed. Nature is writing back to this flawed vision ever more frequently now.
Do you see hope in the recent anti-corruption movement?
Ashish: Yes and no. Yes in that it showed the possibility of ordinary people (including the usually complacent middle classes) taking up a just cause. No in that its focus on the Lokpal Bill diluted its long-term transformative potential. Let us see if the Aam Aadmi Party can conceive of a more bottom-up, long-term process and not get lost in trying to gain power in Delhi. Radical Ecological Democracy cannot be achieved overnight, it will take long struggle, learning from mistakes, maturing as peoples’ movements, and 2-3 generations! But as long as we can see a certain direction even in current struggles, and increasing signs of hope, there is certainty of its being achieved …. and who knows, sometimes sudden, massive transformations can take place without anyone expecting them.
Aseem: To the extent that it has woken up our apathetic middle classes from the slumber of lazy decades, it is already a positive contribution to struggles for a better world. However, to become politically more significant, they will have to eschew the standard lures of power, be patient, and work in a slow, dedicated way from the grassroots. I am not sure if we can say anything about this yet. Time will tell.