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India and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released February 2008)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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Growth in a Diverse Society


Along with its population, India's economy is galloping ahead. It is doing so against a backdrop of clashing traditions: "In no other nation-state is there so much of ethno-cultural diversity-in terms of religion, language, region, caste, class, ethnicity and ideology" (Kapoor 637). For example, eighteen principal languages and hundreds of dialects are spoken. Furthermore, the country is divided into a relatively wealthy and educated southern half that is at times at odds with a more impoverished and overpopulated northern half.

statue of Brahma
Brahma, the Hindu god of creation
For a country that strives to be modern, India is often criticized as stuck in ancient customs, derided by modernization advocates as "Hindu" thinking, in which "the underlying mindset of the ordinary Indian is of ambiguity, uncertainty and seeking godly benevolence" (Kapoor 638). Critics consider this a fatalistic attitude unsuited to the rationalist planning for the future of industrial and post-industrial society. Indeed, after India declared independence from Britain in 1947, a combination of traditional thinking, anti-colonialism, and socialist policies guided India, which correlated with an extremely slow rate of economic growth, about 3.5% annually, or a miserly 1.5% per capita from 1950 to 1980 (Acharya et al 206).

This mindset, which seems to undermine development and modernity, has been under attack since the regime of Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, and even more so beginning in 1991, when an economic crisis brought "external sector liberalization, deregulation of industry, reforms of taxation and the financial sector and a more commercial approach to the public sector" (Acharya et al 206). Following these reforms, the Indian growth rate soared, and it has continued to rise. A recent World Bank report estimates annual growth averaging 6% over the last decade, 7%-8% more recently, and aspirations of "an average annual growth rate of 8 percent or higher, much needed for eliminating poverty" (1).

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi, elected Prime Minister in 1966, worked to bring modernity to India, and to control the population
Despite this progress, a conflict remains between traditional and modern mindsets. "Many observers have noted that the globalisation of the economy is bringing in its wake notions of materialism and consumerism that do not match with Indian traditions of austerity, simplicity and spirituality" (Kapoor 649). Those who strive for modernization heavily criticize traditional "Hindu" fatalism, favoring a capitalist technological ethos, a vision of development "particularly popular with India's political-bureaucratic elite and the business class, and many educated and patriotic Indians, many of whom feel that India rightfully deserves to be a superpower and can make the grade with rapid economic development in the next two decades" (Kapoor 640).

The days of what critics derisively refer to as "the Hindu rate of growth" are long over. With government economic interference lifted and globalization opening markets further, the growth rate is spurting. India is expected to remain one of the fastest growing countries over the next decades, with the economy continuing to move from its local agricultural base toward industry. Of course, much of the recent growth has been driven by globalization, which has allowed India to move into the high-tech sector, including telecommunications, software, and related services.

Nevertheless this growth faces strong challenges. It has been criticized as rewarding a relatively small population segment and increasing income inequality. Moreover, environmental problems might threaten or halt this growth. A 1995 report, for instance, estimated that "annual losses due to the environment are of the order of 4.5 per cent" (Acharya et al 225). This, however, is only the best guess of a range of figures, while more recent estimates are hard to come by. One analyst warns of "the enormous danger that economic progress in India faces as a result of wanton destruction and degradation of natural resources of all kinds and a growing dependence on the use of hydrocarbon fuels that cannot be sustained" (Pachauri 704).

mob of traffic
Roads in India suffer extreme traffic congestion

Environmental destruction, then, threatens the current economic gains. The answer, according to many analysts, lies not so much in slowing the rate of population growth, or even in drastic lowering of population, but in better environmental governance. A combination of effective government policy and new technology may very well allow India to continue to improve the quality of life for all its people. In a broader perspective, questions remain regarding the aims of a 21st century economy. Traditional economics looks first at overall growth, yet sustainability advocates argue for a new paradigm based on quality of life rather than economic growth. Sustainability refers both to using better technology and practices and to altering our assumptions about the desirability of consumption, although the balance between the two is contested.

Torn between its traditions and rapid changes, India is in a unique position for testing the 21st century world order. Does the vision of sustainable development most match that of Mahatma Gandhi-and traditional "Hindu" thinking in general-or the capitalist technocrats? Clearly it will take something from both traditions; far less clear is what the mixture should be. Kapoor poses as the central question, "will it be a future for all, including the masses . . ., or will it be a future for a few - the well-educated, westernised, globally-connected, consumerist elites and 'middle class' of India?" (6).

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