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Environment vs Development Challenge

posted by Madhav Gadgil

Development was a key issue in the 2014 Loksabha elections. In his very first speech after the elections, Narendra Modiji asserted that his Government is committed to carrying on development as a people’s movement. He has often reiterated this commitment after taking over as the Prime Minister. This, he has asserted, will draw upon India’s democratic, demographic and demand dividends. But, are we genuinely moving towards organizing development as a people’s movement, while building on these strengths?

At the heart of democracy is access to information. We do have the vital Right to Information; but need to do much more since the public is being continually misled. To reap the demographic dividend our youth should be well nourished. But what is the reality? The state government statistics shows that 28% of school children were malnourished in 1993; this proportion came down to 17% by 1999 and declined further to 8% by 2006. However this is based on information provided by the schools, many of them guilty of maintaining bogus records of enrolment and expenses towards mid-day meals. As a cross-check, we have the data provided by the carefully and professionally conducted National Family Health Survey. According to its very different and shocking results 53% of school children were malnourished in 1993; this proportion came slightly down to 47% by 1999 and changed little, remaining at 46% by 2006.

The demand of India’s massive population as consumers should be another strong point. But for that people should have adequate purchasing power, such as enjoyed by people employed in organized industries–services sector. Unfortunately, as the malnourishment statistics indicates, vast majority of Indians are poor, with barely 10% employed in the organized sector. We are being persuaded that vigorous economic growth is generating substantial employment. But this is not so; when our economy was growing at 3% per year the employment in the organized sector was growing at 2% per year; as the economy began to grow at 7-8% per year, the rate of growth of employment in the organized sector actually declined to 1% per year, since most of the economic growth was based on technological progress, including automation. At the same time, the increasing pressure of the organized sector on land, water, forest and mineral resources has adversely impacted employment in farming, animal husbandry and fisheries sectors. People being pushed out of these occupations are now crowding in the urban centers. In turn, their pressure is leading to a decline in the productivity of the organized industries-services sector. Evidently, the ship of our development is sadly adrift!

Undoubtedly, people aspire for development. But what is development? Joseph Stiglitz, an economics Nobel laureate and one-time chairman of Clinton’s Economic Advisory Council offers an insightful analysis, asserting that it should result in an enhancement of the totality of nation’s four-fold capital stocks: the capital of material goods, the natural capital, such as soil, water, forests and fish, the human capital, including health, education and employment, and the social capital, comprising mutual trust and social harmony. Our current pattern of economic development is by no means a balanced process resulting in the overall enhancement of the totality of these stocks. Thus, mining in Goa has severely damaged state’s water resources, and the high levels air and water pollution, including the ever-increasing content of metals in the drinking water reservoirs has adversely impacted health. When thousands of trucks were plying ore on the roads the resulting traffic chaos and accidents seriously disrupted social harmony. Evidently the single minded focus on industrial growth is not leading to sustainable, harmonious development, but merely nurturing a money-centered violent economy.

We must, of course, continue to develop modern technology-based industries and services, but these cannot generate employment on the massive scale required. It is therefore imperative that this modern sector must rein in its adverse impacts on the labour-intensive, natural resource-based occupations and livelihoods. The modern capital intensive, technology based economic sector must nurture a symbiotic relationship with the nature based, labour intensive sector. Our democracy provides for fashioning such a mutualistic relationship through the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments and the Biodiversity, the Extension of Panchayat Raj to Scheduled Areas and Forest Rights Acts. We must take advantage of this Constitutional framework promoting decentralized governance, and work with nature and people to move forward on a path of genuine development – a path that would be entirely compatible with making development a people’s movement.

I have worked extensively on the environment- development conundrum over the years, both as a part of scientific research, in particular in the action research mode, as also through work on official advisory committees. I have written on such issues in newspapers and other media. I will attempt through this website to share much of the resultant material.