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Means to Augment Human Well-being

Post-growth Thinking in India: Towards Sustainable Egalitarian Alternatives edited by Julien-François Gerber and Rajeswari S Raina, Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2018; pp xxii + 365, 1,075.

 

There have been many recent controversies in India involving the rate of economic growth. Consider the debates on the average growth rate during the regime(s) of the United Progressive Alliance and National Democratic Alliance (Nair et al 2018), on the method of calculating the rate (Mishra 2019), or the priority of this rate vis-á-vis other policy goals (Bhattacharya 2013), each involving celebrated academicians, powerful political leaders, and experienced bureaucrats.

The economic reforms in India, that took a formal shape in 1991, were all about increasing this rate. A high rate indicates a faster increase in the scale of economic activities. This increases the income of those involved with production, making them potential buyers of more goods and services. This, in turn, signals new investment, creating further demand. The process repeats, but every time with an increase in the flow of goods and services and, in turn, in the inputs required to produce them. Such expanded reproduction is a necessity for sustaining capitalist economic systems.

Quite obviously, the benefits of economic growth are cornered by those who participate in the connected processes through ownership of the means of production. It follows that a skewed ownership of capital, in a capitalist system, will result in an unequal distribution of yields of production. The political slogan of “We are the 99%” captures the most extreme form of this inequality. A discussion note from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) confirms that it is real and expressed concerns: “[w]idening inequality also has significant implications for growth and macroeconomic stability” and its sustainability (Dabla-Norris et al 2015: 5, 4). Even in this view, sustaining economic growth is a value in itself, and is accorded highest priority; other values are considered only if not in conflict with it.

Value Monism

This value monism becomes more rigid through the indicator to measure economic growth itself, namely the rise and fall of the gross domestic product (GDP), calculated as the market value of final goods and services in monetary terms. The omissions and commissions involved in the accounting process are well-documented, captured most comprehensibly in the “Report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress” involving J Stiglitz, A Sen and J-P Fitoussi (2010). Questions are being raised beyond these measurement matters, however, not only on the supremacy of growth as a value, but even its very necessity. If growth has failed to result in improving well-being, enhancing prosperity, extending benefits, ensuing welfare, or other such expected outcomes, is it not better to dispose it of altogether and engage in imagining alternative trajectories? The book under review captures some of these dimensions. Together, 17 chapters—including a foreword, an epilogue, and an introduction—cover all the elements of the theory/concept–policy–practice spectrum. Most of the chapters are with specific reference to India.

The chapters can be broadly divided into three parts, at the cost of some simplification: those narrating the consequences of growth (Ajay Dandekar, Vandana Shiva, and Shiv Visvanathan); those showing limitations of growth to fulfil its promise, that is, augment human well-being (Sagar Dhara, Mansoor Khan, and Sukumar Muralidharan); those providing alternative conceptualisations, formulations and strategies to yield what growth could not deliver (Rajni Bakshi, Kanchan Chopra, Jayati Ghosh, Ashish Kothari, Aditya Nigam, Helena Norberg-Hodge, and Vinod Vyasulu). The editors have constructed the sections (“Why Growth Is Not the Answer,” “Conceptual Concerns and Contexts,” and “Elements of a Post-growth Programme”) differently.

The introduction by the editors sets the tone—as expected—with two exceptionally well-written sections (“The Critique of Growth: Brief Overview of a Global Debate” and “What Is Post-growth”). It makes seven well-researched and carefully articulated propositions—some analytical, some normative—to chart the course that the chapters to follow are expected to take.

Vandana Shiva (“Growth Creates Poverty”) shows how the growth of money economy (or the GDP) has shrunk “nature’s economy” and “people’s economy,” resulting in wastage of resources as well as destruction of livelihoods. A job—“based on the reduction of a creative, autonomous human being to labour, and the further reduction of labour to a commodity” (p 41)—was made distinct from a livelihood. Several principles were listed for a transition to an “ecologically sustainable, healthy, socially just, honest, and democratic food system” (p 48), including “real productivity”—as a yardstick—that “internalise all social, health, and ecological costs of chemical-, capital-, and fossil-fuel-intensive industrial agriculture, as well as the benefits of ecological agriculture for public health, social cohesion, and ecological sustainability” (p 49). Undoubtedly, the recommendations are revolutionary in nature, warranting agent(s) of such a gigantic transformation (and not transition, which will be reformist at best) and involving massive transaction costs. This is a tall order that remains unaddressed but articulated elsewhere in the book (Kanchan Chopra, Ashish Kothari).

Production Systems: Capitalism

The production system is also the focus of the chapter by Aditya Nigam (“Beyond Productivism: Socialism, Waste, Obsolescence”). However, it is situated within a specific type of production system, namely capitalism, within which much of the world operates today. This is a welcome entry point, and a marked departure from most of the works in post-growth tradition (all variations, all continents). The author finds “planned obsolescence”-induced waste production an integral part—and not an incidental by-product—of growth-oriented capitalism, making it a far more powerful strategy than advertising to further accumulation. To counter the “logic of capital,” Nigam sees the need to oppose, if not find alternatives, to one of the central planks of capitalism, namely projection of the institution of bourgeois private property as the universal form of property. This can be effected through thinking “in terms of multiple forms of property and the ‘use’ of or access to such property” (p 67), supported by recognition of “institutions and practices that resist or violate the bourgeois ethic of accumulation and consumption.” “Need Economy” à la Kalyan Sanyal is an example of such practices, Nigam argues, and calls it “molecular socialism” (p 68). One cannot agree more on the centrality of the “political” in any transformation.

Helena Norberg-Hodge (“Localisation: The Post-growth Path to Genuine Prosperity”) also focuses on production. The chapter makes a case for rebuilding local economies as a distinct step to realise the post-growth agenda. The section titled “Localisation” offers the much-needed conceptual clarity. Ethnographic accounts from Ladakh, India and other regions spread across the world provide useful illustrations in understanding the potential and limitation of localisation as a “solution-multiplier” (p 323).

Energetics and Green Capitalism

Mansoor Khan (“Energetics: The Energy Principles that Define Growth”) provides a primer on the role of energy in and as a driver of economic growth to show the “mismatch between money/financial asset growth expectation and the reality of energy” (p 104). An evaluation of the potential of alternative energy sources in terms of viability is best done within the “real zone of energetics” rather than in the “conceptual zone of mainstream economics,” the author argues. In degrowth tradition, focusing on the real-real economy (biophysical; energy) instead of the virtual (financial) or even real (goods) is rather common.

The chapter by Sagar Dhara (“Energy and Sustainability: Why Green Capitalism Is an Oxymoron”) is an interesting take on green capitalism. Some of its elements are common to Nigam (capitalism, property, politics, “action”) and Khan (energetics). It argues that capitalism’s quest for ensuring an ever-increasing energy surplus (difference between usable acquired energy and energy expended in such a process) has resulted in the kind and scale of environmental degradation (“tilting point”) that has a potential to cause serious hardship to human society; even in contrast to natural resource depletion, global warming, or socio-economic inequality (“tipping points”). The author thinks capitalism’s search for alternative energy sources, carbon sequestration, etc, will not be successful, for technical, economic and institutional reasons. Only “eco-socialism” can yield “a sustainable, equal, and peaceful human society” (p 134) that capitalism could not, the author argues. Elements of a road map to such a path in terms of both short-term and medium-term actions (pp 136–40) are quite interesting. Yet, it does not include either the pathway or the identity of
potential agents.

Debunking Economic Growth

Jayati Ghosh (“GDP and Its Discontents: A Note on Ideas of Economic Progress and Their Relevance for India”) and Kanchan Chopra (“Articulating Green Growth and Degrowth: Approaches, Practice, and Enabling Institutions”), both economists, on expected lines, reject the debunking of economic growth. Chopra is more explicit:

degrowth is not as yet a carefully crafted concept, it belongs to the realm of speculation and must define itself carefully before it can claim relevance in academic mainstreaming or any meaningful criticism. (p 246)

Building on well-known criticisms on the use of GDP (mentioned earlier), Ghosh favours valuing economic growth “as the means by which improvement occurs for [...] the bottom segment of the population have the wherewithal to ensure a decent quality of life” (p 234). A “wage-led domestic demand-driven growth” strategy was proposed, with a definite role for fiscal policies and public expenditure supported by interventions at international levels, including financial markets’ regulation. This is certainly a political agenda, warranting enabling agents and supporting institutions.

The contours of such an institutional framework are articulated by Chopra, with the aim of facilitating a movement towards “environmentally friendly growth.” The strategy, she argues, can be termed as “resource-efficient and socially inclusive green growth” (p 249), or even selective degrowth involving varying growth rates for different economic sectors. This, interestingly, collapses the conceptual distinction maintained in the degrowth literature otherwise. The strategy called for building “scenarios” at regional, state and national levels, for identifying and understanding the trade-offs involved while making a departure from the business-as-usual. This, in turn, requires “convergence with regard to the components of sustainable development and green growth, between [government] departments” (p 253). At the end of the day, the choice of the specific pathway will involve “value judgments determined by the relative weights given to different stakeholders” (p 255). This is a matter of the political domain, undoubtedly.

Decentralised Political Governance

The political is also—but more directly—visible in the chapter by Ashish Kothari (“Radical Ecological Democracy: An Orchestration of Alternatives for a Post-growth India”). Grounding conceptually to “Radical Ecological Democracy,” coined earlier by the author himself, and using “grounds-up” examples, including the more known ones involving Dongria Kondh adivasis in Niyamgiri in Odisha and inhabitants of Adivasi village of Mendha–Lekha in Maharashtra, Kothari made a case for decentralised and embedded political governance to move away from the pro-growth. In this imagination, the structure begins with the decentralised decision-making units (group of villages with “common ecological features;” p 269), but also has distinct roles for the state to play: from assisting communities in building local capacity to penalising irresponsible actions. The section titled “Who Will Be the Primary Agents of Transformation” is most interesting for its articulation of the tasks and responsibilities at different scales, from the state to people’s movements to the self.

Vinod Vyasulu (“Degrowth and All That: Insights from Economic Analysis”) offers a primer on economic formulations of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen spread across three—all seminal—publications (“The Economics of Production” [1970]; “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process” [1971]; “Energy and Economic Myths” [1973]). This is a useful introduction for the students to one of the doyens of heterodox Ecological Economics. Similarly, two sections in the chapter by Sukumar Muralidharan (“Technology, Growth, and Environmental Justice”) are also useful to the students, in an otherwise internally disconnected chapter: “The Elusive Quality of Values” for some recent works by a team of economists, including Kenneth Arrow and Partha Dasgupta on sustainable economic development (“Sustainability and Measurement of Wealth” [2010]) and “Sustainability and the Measurement of Wealth: Further Reflections” [2013]; “The Two-sided Character of the Economic Relationship” for nature-economy linkages as envisaged in the classical political economy tradition.

In a similar vein, Rajni Bakshi (“Degrowth as Economy of Permanence”) carries a commentary on the relevance of formulations by J C Kumarappa—a disciple of M K Gandhi—in the contemporary times to re-imagine the economic system and social structure to not to equate value with monetised price. Ajay Dandekar (“Developmental Context: People, State, and Contested Arenas”) offers a broad-brush critique of the economic growth in India—dwindling state of agriculture, tribals bearing a higher share of “cost of development,” non-implementation of all provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 ostensibly by the vested interests—but all are well-documented. Shiv Visvanathan (“On Consumption and Violence: An Idea of India”) contains an interesting section on the consumption of violence, but one wonders if this chapter belongs to the post-growth tradition at all.

The promise made by the editors in the introduction on the contributions in the book showing India’s “great potential for advancing post-growth thinking” (p 4) remains somewhat unfulfilled, may be due to the paucity of space to deal with a subject that requires a much deeper and wider engagement. At the same time, the ground covered by the book is considerable. It will be of interest to anyone interested to find out the pathways away from the contemporary GDP mania.

While the production quality, including the binding, is quite good, the quality of copy editing is rather poor, perhaps, a generic problem that is facing the publishing industry as such.

 

Nandan Nawn (nnletter@gmail.com) teaches at the TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi. He is also the Managing Editor of Ecology, Economy and Society—the INSEE Journal.

References

Bhattacharya, Pramit (2013): “Everything You Wanted to Know about the Sen-Bhagwati Debate,” Mint, 25 July, https://www.livemint.com/Politics/zvxkjvP9KNfarGagLd5wmK/Everything-you-....

Dabla-Norris, Era, Kalpana Kochhar, Nujin Suphaphiphat, Frantisek Ricka and Evridiki Tsounta (2015): “Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective,” IMF Staff Discussion Note, SDN/15/13, International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC, https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/sdn/2015/sdn1513.pdf.

Mishra, Asit Ranjan (2019): “Former CEA Arvind Subramanian Defends His GDP Overestimation Argument,” Mint, 10 July, https://www.livemint.com/politics/policy/former-cea-arvind-subramanian-d....

Nair, Remya, Gireesh Chandra Prasad and Anuja (2018): “New GDP Math Puts UPA Behind NDA on Economic Growth,” Mint, 29 November,
https://www.livemint.com/Industry/vl0ZT0Cct1OlWtqG6mEUPM/New-GDP-data-knocks-UPA-off-growth-pedestal.html.

Stiglitz, Joseph, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi (2010): “Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress,” https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/118025/118123/Fitoussi+Commission+
report.

Updated On : 11th Nov, 2019

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