Deciphering the colors of India’s economic growth

Can a system – where social security has traditionally been a failure – simply opt for the normative ethical principles of degrowth for the sake of nature?

Muralidharan Alagar Arts and Photography / Getty

The Indian economy shrank 23.9% in the first quarter of 2020-2021. This was widely expected given the foreclosure of the Indian economy in response to the current Covid-19 pandemic. Confirmation of the negative relationship of growth with environmental indicators came into play again during the lockdown, with all environmental indicators showing signs of substantial improvement. This can be observed with the increased green coverage, substantial improvements in air quality in urban centers, changes in breeding behavior and movements of terrestrial and aquatic species, and obtaining better flow regimes in river systems (perhaps even reach environmental flow regimes at times when the quality, quantity and temporal parameters of the flows are satisfied). This negative relationship again reveals that India is still on the rising side of a Environmental Kuznets curve (if it exists).

Another question emerges here from the perspectives of “green growth” and “degrowth”. It has already been recognized in many parts of the developed world that attempts to maintain current levels of growth are costly due to degradation and depletion of the natural ecosystem. This not only created a breach in ecosystem services, but actually held back the traditional cultural ethos, which respects all life on Earth. It’s here that modernity is equated with consumerism that equates to unbridled development and unsustainable levels of consumption. The claim that consumption levels of overconsuming classes in wealthy regions of the world degrade the natural ecosystem hardly needs to be reiterated. However, the contribution of the developing world to the process of depletion and degradation of the surrounding environment cannot be denied because of its inherent character.growth fetish– a term I have used in several of my previous essays. Developing countries and the underdeveloped world perceive development as a one-way movement of a single variable, GDP, disregarding broader issues of equity and sustainability. Yet there is no doubt that income growth is an undeniable fact of human economic existence. Therefore, the notion of “green growth” has started to be accepted as the solution to prevent degradation of the natural environment as a position that can reconcile development needs and conservation goals.

The very hypothesis of “green growth” depends on decoupling the use of natural resources from economic growth. This implies that there must be a factor that can replace the gradual change in the use of natural resources to achieve growth goals. While technological and institutional innovations are often referred to as factors for improving production efficiency, I would like to put this factor in the words of Thomas Homer-Dixon, “ingenuity”. Yet, however powerful the ingenuity may be, an undeniable fact of current civilization is that human progress is inextricably linked with the use of one of the most basic forms of capital: natural capital. In classical economics, this basic form of capital was subsumed under the factor of land. In this context, the very decoupling of the growth of natural capital or of the resources provided by nature is practically and axiomatically impossible. This is set out in a Ward et al 2016 article where the authors, on the basis of an analytical macro-model, deduce the following: “GDP growth ultimately cannot be plausibly decoupled from the growth in the use of materials and energy”, categorically demonstrating that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. It is therefore misleading to develop a growth-oriented policy around the hope that decoupling is possible. However, we also note that GDP has proven to be a poor indicator of the well-being of society, which it was never designed to measure, and therefore GDP growth is a long-term societal goal. debatable in any case. The rising costs of “uneconomic growth” suggest that further decoupling – if possible – to support GDP growth would be a misguided effort.

This is where I would like to say that “green growth” is an oxymoron. Growth is necessarily “brown” in color, with its concomitant pollution. In the same vein, it can be said that brown growth is part of a path of organic self-destruction through an increase in the scarcity value of natural capital leading to higher commodity prices and increased cost. of pollution. Therefore, the question facing humanity is: is “degrowth” the solution for the world? As such, proponents of degrowth and green growth agree on one issue: the necessity and policy prescriptions to achieve the goals of conservation, environmental protection, maintenance of ecosystem structures and the development of renewable energies to reduce pollution. However, there are two issues in which they are opposed: a> the question of the coexistence of the pursuit of growth with the promotion of conservation objectives; b> the impact of the ecological transition on economic growth. The degrowth thesis speaks of deceleration rather than growth in order to maintain the very basic basis of life that rests in nature – in that sense, it approximates the Friendliness manifesto – a school of thought led mainly by a group of French academics and intellectuals who advocate a decline in the progression of human efforts and a vision of human coexistence with nature. In this sense, degrowth implies a withdrawal from current lifestyles through the contraction of economic activities in the global North and an emancipation from the dominant reductionist Western paradigm of development (seen through the prism of economic growth). It is believed that this will create space for a more self-defined trajectory of social organization in the Global South.

Now comes the big question: Can a developing country like India afford to have a different set of goals than growth? Many argue that “degrowth” is a Western construct, and can be adopted in spaces that have already grown, and should not be applied to economies that have not yet reached this stage. In India, the economic lockdown has clearly exposed the anxieties of migrant workers, micro and small businesses and the poor. This implies that the social cushioning in the nation has so far been provided by market forces, not by governments – a situation that amounts to political failures. The failure of distribution and equity has become all too apparent. Can a system where social security has traditionally been a failure opt for the normative ethical principles of degrowth for the sake of nature? Therefore, the role of markets is undeniable in the Indian economy. Growth has been an integral organic rider of market forces that fail to recognize the cause of ecosystems and sustainability.

In an essay published in the Financial Times on April 15, 2020, Amartya Sen asserted that “a better society can come out of lockdowns.” He reiterated the need for equity and distributive aspects of development, citing the example of how life expectancy at birth in England and Wales increased during decades of war. “The positive lessons learned from the search for equity and a greater attention to disadvantaged people contributed to the emergence of what has been called the welfare state.” While the lockdown has brought the skeletons out of the closet, it creates opportunities for democratically elected governments to create best practices and delivery institutions, and continue with them in the post-pandemic world. Sen, however, lamented that “social distancing limits the spread of the virus. But, it must be combined with compensatory arrangements – for income, food, access and medical care – for those devastated by the lockdown. Unfortunately, it is quite possible that when we meet again we will not be in a better position to face the unequal world in which we live.

Interestingly, contrary to popular thought that degrowth is a buzzword for areas of the world that have already grown up, it should be borne in mind that this is in fact a statement emanating from a more equitable world, where social security is strong enough to act as a cushion during a crisis, when policies have been applied to distributive justice, and where reliance on market forces to meet social needs is less. India’s development vision goes a lot in the opposite direction. Distribution and equity issues are significant even after seven decades of independence. Its environmental crisis cannot be fought by thinking about degrowth at this stage. Rather, what India needs at this point is a holistic development paradigm that integrates ecosystem and distribution issues into development. Interestingly, the small South Asian country, Bhutan, incorporates these concerns into its Gross National Happiness (GNH) framework. While a great democracy like India may not be able to replicate this framework, it needs a different setup in development thinking than business-as-usual, i.e. a reconciliation of opposing objectives: economic efficiency, equity through distributive justice and the environment. sustainability through legal statutes.

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