The utopian trap

  • 14/06/1992

ROY, Tisdell and Sen"s book on economic development and the environment is certainly timely, having come out only months before the June UNCED summit at Rio. Interest in the subject is therefore at its peak.

The book sounds a much needed warning about the environmental cost of economic development and services to remind us that in our headlong chase of the latter we have, notwithstanding pious assertions to the contrary, given short shrift to the former.

But the message of th6 book, as a whole, is negative. In various essays it points out how modern agriculture is not environment friendly; how irrigation projects like Narmada and military ones like Baliapal will damage the environment and immiserise those who will be displaced by them; how industrialisation has raised levels of pollution; made the country susceptibleto tragedies like Bhopal; and how a complete absence of concern for the environment has marked our planning process and choice of technologies. There is a strong underlying critique of the real as distinct from avowed goals of development in these essays. This view of development from down under is a useful corrective to the conventional view. The avowed goal is prosperity for all. The real one is power for the elite. - The book has done well to highlight this, but it is almost completely silent on how development can be made environment-friendly and still be sustained. The authors argue, often implicitly, that India needs to find an alternative model of development that is decentralised, makes the fullest use of existing resources, particularly labour, and of traditional technologies that do not make an exorbitant demand on natural resources. An equally important though less explicitly stated message is that we must learn to limit our wants and live in closer harmony with nature.

As an ideal this is unexceptionable. As an attainable goal it is utopian. The reasons for this are too many to enumerate. But only one needs to be mentioned to make the point. To achieve anything like success, we need to persuade or coerce a 40 million people, whom we have ourselves encouraged to chase production and profit for 50 years, to turn all the way around in mid-stride. Only god could do that, and we are mere mortals.

True, fertiliser and pesticides pollute our waters and degrade our soils. True, irrigation tends to be abused and leads to water logging and salinity in the soil. But what do you propose in their place that will feed 840 million people and get the farmers to accept? The book is full of references to Gandhi"s non-violent economics, but Gandhi wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, when the population was almost stationary, when the countryside was not overcrowded, we had not yet got on to the development track and our options were still open. To hark back to what he said in 1930 in 1990 is therefore a form of escapism.

The extent of escapism is highlighted by the book"s silence on the most basic cause of the conflict between development and the environment. This is the issue of energy. In the entire book, there is hardly a reference to the word when it should, strictly speaking, have been the subject of the first chapter. It therefore devolves on me to fill this lacuna.

Economic development is but another way of referring to sustained, regular increases in the productivity of every member of the population. Only this makes possible an increase in real incomes, which is our yardstick for growth. Increase in productivity can only be obtained through an increase in the amount of energy available to each worker. The fact that it must be usable means that it must be capable of being concentrated. The sun pours down billions of gigawatts worth of energy on the planet every day, but it is of little use to the worker if it cannot be concentrated and applied to the tools he works with. So far this requirement has been met by fossil fuels and most, though not all, of our problems have started there.

The authors are implicitly telling us three things. Limit your demands, and use wind, water, human and animal power,to meet them. Stop chasing fossil energy, and you will rediscover and harness the energy of the unemployed. Lastly, beware of the forces of the marketplace for they will inexorably take you in the opposite direction. All this is virtuous but impracticable. So where do we start?

The starting point is an acceptance of the fact that in any conflict between development and the environment, environment is bound to lose. The political, economic and emotional arguments that can be mobilised to justify the cutting down of a forest or the building of a dam or a factory are simply too powerful to be withstood.

If the environment is to be saved, this conflict must be avoided, if not resolved. That is the starting point of environmentally sustainable development. The authors of the book do not seem to think that this is possible. That is the message of defeat that seeps out from every page. But they are wrong.

There are environmentally benign ways of delivering concentrated energy at mankind"s doorstep. Technology has advanced to the point where this is feasible in not one but half a dozen ways - from solar thermal to wind energy. Nor are they really more expensive any longer than conventional power, if the total cost, including that of clean up, of fossil power is calculated.

The profit motive, if properly harnessed, can be made to work in favour of the environment, and in most of these technologies, all that is needed to make it do so is to levy taxes on conventional power.

India, like other developing countries, needs not one but two kinds of energy, the second being non-commercial or free cooking energy for the,rural poor. This is one of the main sources of biotic pressure on the forests. But it can be eliminated and, in fact, the area under tree cover increased if farm forestry is encouraged. Again all that farmers will need is loans to tide them over till their trees mature, and even that will not be needed if they intercrop their agricultural produce with fuelwood trees.

The scope for such synergy between development and environment is almost limitless. It is all the more regrettable that the agenda for the Rio summit has been hijacked by the equipment manufacturers in developed countries whose aim is to make us follow their technologies and then pay the cost of cleaning up the mess.

The authors of this book need to be commended for having avoided that trap by embarking on a more fundamental critique of development. But, in the process, they have fallen into the much more seductive trap of utopianism. There is a middle way, and I am sure that both the Buddha and Gandhi would have approved of it.

Prem Shankar Jha was press adviser to former Prime Minister V P Singh. He is a noted columnist.

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