Why do we put down the achievements of the people
The Indian Miracle of Growth: Achievements and Challenges
Ashish Kothari is a founding member of the environmental NGO Kalvapriksh. He taught at the Indian Institute of Public Administration and coordinated the Indian process for a national biodiversity strategy and action plan. He has been involved in several civil society movements and has written or edited more than 30 books. He is co-author of the book "Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India" (Penguin Books India 2012), a critique of India's development strategy, in which he advocates a radical ecological democracy based on the principles of ecological sustainability, social justice and Income security based.
The “Indian growth miracle” has attracted a lot of international attention. How do you assess the developments over the last few decades?
Ashish Kothari: In the past five decades, but especially in the last 20 years, economic growth in India has been equated with development, and political decision-makers have also been focused on it. Every day you could read in the newspaper whether Indian economic growth was rising or falling by half a percent. It seems that growth, actually a means to an end, has become an end in itself. Nobody talks about the effects that five or ten percent GDP growth will have. Today we are so far advanced that we think that growth of only five percent is a problem. At the same time, however, we have had to recognize in the past few decades that people, especially the poor, have not benefited from growth per se. Otherwise, why would the government have to set up a program that supports 75 percent of the population with food aid? Obviously, this is more than a question of redistribution: it is often argued that growth should happen as quickly as possible so that goods can then be distributed fairly through programs such as the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme1. However, it is a structural phenomenon that this form of growth, especially if it is driven by the private sector, inevitably leads to even greater inequality, deprivation and the disenfranchisement of already marginalized people. But there is a second, equally important aspect: there are very clear signs that growth is not sustainable. If one recognizes that there are ecological limits, the concept of "sustainable limitless growth" is a contradiction in terms. No matter how efficient the technology is, it will always have an environmental impact. The Indian government claims that sustainable development is the primary focus of its plans, but in fact there are no approaches that mitigate the logic of growth.
Can you explain to our international readers what exactly happened in 1991, since in your book you describe this year as a turning point for the people and the environment in India?
Before 1991, or rather in the late 1980s, when some of the neoliberal economic policies were initiated, the prevailing economic model was by and large socialist. Much of the production, but also research and development, took place in the public sector. This was and still is particularly true for key areas such as agriculture. In addition, the domestic economy played a far greater role than the foreign trade, and efforts were made to achieve a certain level of self-sufficiency. However, since we were still dependent on oil and gas imports, we needed some exports to counterbalance it. Self-sufficiency did indeed grow, but that does not mean that there were no problems: Government-focused governance, inefficiencies and corruption were the order of the day. But at least some effort has been made towards self-sufficiency with a strong service and welfare component. With the opening of the economy in 1991, that changed significantly. Foreign trade - exports and imports - now played a much larger role, and the economy was much more externally oriented. Numerous sectors, including agriculture, have been opened up to both the Indian and international private sectors, and foreign direct investment has been encouraged. Constitutional and other legal provisions that had emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, for example with regard to indigenous peoples' territories or the environment, have been withdrawn and the role of the state has been scaled back.
Do these structural changes in 1991 also offer an explanation for India's current economic crisis?
Yes. When the global economy fell into crisis in 2008, the Indian economy was slightly less affected than many other economies. Until then, the Indian government had repeatedly claimed that India's opening to the global economy was so positive. Then she suddenly said that India was therefore relatively little affected by the crisis, especially because there are still protective mechanisms and our economy is still inwardly oriented. But that was only a short phase. In August of this year the Prime Minister stated more or less openly that we no longer had any control. The exchange rate had lost 10 to 15 rupees against the US dollar within a few months. That was an unprecedented development. It is clear that the government has either lost control - or doesn't want control at all.
India elects a new government in 2014. Economic development and growth play a central role in the current election campaign. Where do you see room for the topic of “ecologically sustainable development” in this election campaign?
The discussions and debates in the election campaign are always oversimplified and therefore it is difficult to address the issue of sustainability. But «Land», for example, has become a major political issue. We have to make people understand that the current development model requires unbelievable amounts of land and that the continuation of this model is simply not possible or not desirable in the long term, as it requires the eviction of people without rights - which the public will increasingly question. Every day in the Indian newspapers you can read examples of people resisting evictions and evictions. We absolutely have to show alternatives to the current model. The passage of the Land Acquisition Bill2 shows that the issue of land acquisition is arousing great interest. The topic of health also offers another way of addressing sustainability in the election campaign. More and more parents are concerned about pesticides and air pollution and how they affect their children. We need to relate these concerns to the current development model. The World Bank recently published a report that environmental damage, particularly damage to human health, costs India five percent of GDP. That means, effectively, the growth is zero percent. Such messages must find their way into the election campaign. If not this one, then the next one.
When Western media report on the Indian “growth miracle”, the alleged growth of the middle class is mostly emphasized. To what extent is this account accurate and how big is this middle class really?
First of all, the term middle class encompasses a tremendously broad spectrum, both economically and in relation to other factors. It is true that there is a population of around 50 to 100 million people who have benefited in terms of income over the past 15 to 20 years. If you look at the upper middle class, those who can go to a mall and buy foreign goods, the Indian growth miracle looks like a great success. However, if you look at the real purchasing power of the broad middle class, we are talking about maybe 200 million people here, you can see that this group has serious economic problems. For example, many middle-class families can no longer afford pulses, lentils or most types of fruit. Or the values have shifted in such a way that they prefer to buy consumer goods. This middle class basically wants to move up to the upper class. As a result, she has consciously - or unconsciously - distanced herself from the billion people who did not make it up to the social level. In other words, poverty is an issue that the middle class does not want to or cannot confront. Of course there are exceptions, and we have to work to ensure that more middle-class people can see beyond their own situation and status.
Worldwide, including in India, it is not the most consuming groups who bear the ecological costs of consumption. Those who bear the externalized costs of consumption are economically, geographically and socially separated from consumers. How do you think this loophole can be closed?
First of all, the communities whose resources are being depleted must be empowered to say "no". In our book we call this “direct democracy”: Every community has an essential right to participate in what happens to its water, its land and its resources. This means that the wealthy city dwellers lose their usual remote access to resources. There are many examples of protesting communities in India who have regained their decision-making power. Second, the wealthy urban consumers need to be much more aware of the effects of their consumption. Your level of awareness is very low in this regard. The best target audience in this regard is likely to be the children, and educational institutions should endeavor to appeal to the children. But there are other options. I have long been advocating healthy or sustainable consumption limits. Just as we have a poverty line that people should live above, we need an upper limit that defines the consumption of water, electricity, oil and so on. Of course, this must not work according to the principle of “whoever pays, gets” because we simply cannot afford it ecologically.
In your book you describe the concept of environmental imperialism. Since you also speak of India being a microcosm of the world: What does environmental imperialism look like in India?
Environmental imperialism is a narrow ecological view that I by no means share. From this point of view, attempts are made to protect the environment by viewing people as enemies and pointing the finger at those who are the least privileged. An example: We have been marginalizing people in nature reserves for years, because the protective measures are designed in such a way that they do not include people or even ban them from their habitat altogether. Another phenomenon that we see with some urban environmentalists is that they turn a blind eye to slums, dirt and trash. They demand - or tolerate - the eviction of people from the slums. Large parts of the environmental movement do not understand these problems.
In your book you propose radical ecological democracy as an alternative. In this model, the local level is of great importance. What role does the state play in such a scenario, especially with regard to sustainable development?
National policy measures currently hinder regionalization and ecological democracy, for example in agriculture. One aspect of the strong centralization here is the state distribution system for cheap, subsidized food for the poor. Not only is the distribution centralized, but also the culturally very narrow decision that only wheat and rice are eligible for distribution. Both products come from a few high-production provinces in the country. However, based on our experience, we recommend regionalizing the food distribution system by giving local farmers incentives to grow locally and organically. Changing the current system could make a major contribution to sustainable food production. Similar regionalization efforts should be made with regard to water, energy, housing and policy making. In our opinion, such political decisions at the federal level as the food distribution system mentioned above are essential for the transformation towards a radical ecological democracy. Despite the importance of decentralization in a radical ecological democracy, the central government must play an essential role in at least three areas in the medium term: in the area-wide infrastructure such as railways or post offices, the social benefits to cushion widespread poverty and the promotion of social justice through protective measures . In our experience, regionalization per se is not enough to bridge the deep social rifts along class, ethnic and gender boundaries.
Given that many environmental problems are transboundary, what role do you assign to the global level? What opportunities do you see for cooperation in the direction of sustainability, particularly within Asia?
One level of cooperation is that of governance, be it in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, in Asia as a whole or in the G-77 of the United Nations. I am glad that some governments, for example in Bolivia and Ecuador, are addressing the issue of sustainability and questioning the growth paradigm, not only in their region but worldwide. The governments of India and China in particular need to address this issue much more closely. But I am sure that cross-border cooperation will come, but initially more at the human level. The more we can strengthen solidarity and mutual learning among civil society movements in South Asia, for example by joining groups on sustainable agriculture, the more we can steer the entire region towards sustainability and equality.
What is your final message for readers in Europe or especially in Germany? How can Europe support cross-border cooperation?
The simplest would be the financial support of this cooperation, also for exchange programs or so that people can work in other countries. Unfortunately, it is still like this: no matter how much we talk about “emerging countries”, the financial resources are elsewhere. Of course, it would be more complex to develop sustainability paths by forging relationships, for example between the degrowth movement in Europe and the sustainability movement in India. The third and undoubtedly most difficult task is to make Germans and Europeans understand the effects of their consumption. Given the limited ecological space on earth, Europe must stop occupying a disproportionately large piece of land. That is the only way that India can be credibly required to look beyond growth as a primary goal. If this does not happen, it is understandable that the demand that the majority of the people in India have to get a bigger cake so that they too have a chance to overcome poverty.
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