A startlingly pessimistic vision of India’s looming environmental and economic collapse – aired by a senior business leader – deserves our urgent attention.
Recently, writing against the backdrop of the unprecedented spike in Delhi’s air pollution, Raghu Raman, the president of Reliance Industries’ risk, security & new ventures division and former CEO of India’s National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), put forward a starkly apocalyptic vision of the country’s future:
India is sitting on several time bombs. Climate change, toxic environments, burgeoning aspirations, jobless growth, crumbling infrastructure and of course, pollution being just a few of them. The current models of social consumption and growth are simply unsustainable. More importantly, not only are these issues interlinked but in most cases, have reached a gridlock wherein no single component can be solved in isolation without impacting stakeholders affected by other problems.
In the article titled ‘India’s is Hurtling Down A Path of Self-Destruction’, Raman makes his case by drawing from the work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Jared Diamond’s study of Easter Island, the Pacific Island society that supposedly collapsed owing to over-exploitation of natural resources. He concludes that the gridlock-like situation makes collapse inevitable, because:
… that’s what collapsing societies do. They hurtle down the path of self-destruction in pursuit of short-term disastrous objectives in unison, even while they realise the looming catastrophe as individuals.
Raman’s short piece, well worth reading in full, is a remarkable statement; both on account of its unyieldingly pessimistic outlook and the fact that it comes from a senior executive of India’s leading corporation. It should have made the headlines; but except for some murmurs in social media, it drew no response even from the pink papers – otherwise overly attentive to the pronouncements of business leaders.
Are we really doomed?
Raman’s analysis is not without its problems. Diamond’s work on Easter Island, for example, has been rejected by experts who have researched the phenomenon, who trace the origins of such interpretations to the West’s colonial imagination. But that’s a quibble; what should really concern us is Raman’s main thesis.
So, are we doomed as a country? Just how valid are Raman’s claims, which also extend to the rest of the world? Consider these facts:
- In the summer of 2016, temperatures in parts of western India exceeded 50 degrees celsius, with Phalodi in Rajasthan setting a new record for the country at a scorching 51 degrees celsius. In Gujarat’s Valsad, people were forced to abandon their sandals while crossing roads, because they got stuck on the melting tar. In the last four years, heat waves killed more than 4,600 Indians, the overwhelming bulk of them working class people in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
- Farmers in South Asia are expected to use between 80 and 200% more water by 2050. Yet, Indian farmers are drawing water from the Upper Ganges aquifer (large underground deposit of water) at 50 times its recharge rate. A NASA study in 2009 identified a third of the world’s major aquifers to be in distress, with the Indus basin – which includes Punjab and Haryana, India’s granaries – ranked the second-most over-stressed.
- The UN estimates 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres) of new farmland is needed globally every year to keep up with food demand; instead, we are losing 12 million hectares a year through soil degradation. In India alone, a whopping 25% (82 million hectares) of total land (329 mn ha) is undergoing desertification while 32% (105 mn ha) is facing degradation.
- Scientists are keeping a close watch on two little known glaciers in Pine Island Bay, Antarctica, which are so huge that “they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans — an amount that would submerge every coastal city on the planet.” If global warming continues to accelerate as it is doing now, those two glaciers could melt in as much as 20 to 50 years – much too sooner than humanity can adapt.
- Globally, between 1990 and 2015, we lost the equivalent of 1,000 football fields’ worth of forests per hour, according to the World Bank. The Hindustan Times says India alone may have lost close to 10.6 million hectares in just 14 years – between 1999 to 2013. Deforestation increases soil erosion, affects rainfall patterns and river flows, apart from destroying wildlife habitats.
These figures merely skim the surface of a crisis – more accurately, a set of interlinked crises – that is of truly earth-shaking proportions. The crises are not merely ‘environmental’ – after all, the fate of humanity is inextricably linked to that of nature.
As the trends above show, these crises are not future events either. And worse, on almost every one of these fronts, the trends are not only accelerating, but show no sign of abating. Every year, we are breaching more and more planetary boundaries, which can be seen as the earth’s health indicators, pushing our natural systems further towards a terminal state.
Among the many crises that are converging on the 21st century, climate change stands out for being the most urgent and far-reaching in its impact. A phenomenon primarily attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, it brings with it a host of inter-related challenges – shifting rainfall patterns, megadroughts and floods, sea level rise, acidification of oceans, and so on – any one of which would qualify as a major global crisis.
Of late, the warnings have reached fever pitch. In November 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a dire ‘second warning’ about “the existential threat of runaway consumption of limited resources,” signed by 15,000 scientists from 184 countries, including many Nobel laureates.
In short, we are well past the stage where such concerns about our collective future can be dismissed as ‘alarmism’.
Industrial civilisation as a ‘nine-day wonder’
The main driver of the 21st century’s converging crises is the global industrial-capitalist system, and the pernicious ideology of perpetual, exponential economic growth that governs it. In 2016, in an op-ed piece in the The Times of India, international banker turned author Satyajit Das laid out in jargon-free terms how this came to be:
Economic growth is a central assumption to political and economic systems… But strong growth is not normal, being a recent phenomenon over the last two centuries… It was based upon the profligate use of mispriced natural resources such as oil, water and soil. It relied on allowing unsustainable degradation of the environment. The human race refuses to accept that it is not possible to have infinite growth and improvement in living standards in a finite world.
Exploitation and inequality is innate to the industrial-capitalist system; a fact well-known at least since the time of Marx. But the question of its environmental impacts and viability has received far less attention, historically speaking. Interestingly, chief among those who sounded the early warnings about modern industrial civilization were a bunch of illustrious Indians: Tagore, Gandhi and J.C. Kumarappa.
In 1909, in his characteristically homespun manner, Gandhi had described industrial civilisation as a “nine-day wonder”. Today, this deeply unfashionable view has returned with a vengeance, and Gandhi and Kumarappa are now seen as beacons by those who are seeking alternatives to the present system.
In fact, there is rich irony in the fact that it took more than half a century for Gandhi’s warning to echo through the halls of the scientific establishment. That came in the form of a 1972 study, which sought to simulate the consequences of unchecked economic growth. The results, published in a report titled ‘The Limits to Growth,’ implied that industrial societies were thoroughly unsustainable and headed towards collapse, if they didn’t change course. Predictably, its findings were duly ignored.
Today, however, many analysts believe that we have finally hit the ‘limits to growth’ predicted in the study 45 years ago. Their painstaking research connects the ongoing global economic slowdown to underlying resource constraints. (Some of these analyses can be read here, here and here). Closer home, researchers at The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) have issued a similar warning for India: curbing economic growth and consumption is the only way to avoid a catastrophe.
Primarily, there are three reasons why long-term economic growth is not viable:
- The ‘pie’ is shrinking; the non-renewable resources – metals, minerals and fossil fuels – which hi-tech industrial societies depend on are increasingly scarce and inaccessible (See here, here and here).
- There is greater competition for these shrinking resources – once monopolised by the West – as the rest of the world apes the western economic model; which means that with time, fewer and fewer of these will be available for each.
- The catastrophic environmental impacts of economic growth – climate change, deforestation, pollution and toxicity, etc – are putting in place new and more urgent limits on the production and consumption of these resources.
The conclusion is as inescapable as it was expected. The planet simply lacks the capacity to support the economic utopia promised to everyone by the champions of growth. However, to continue espousing this model knowing it has thrown planetary systems off-kilter – as India’s elite decision-makers do – is beyond myopic; it’s lunatic.
But, as even the most casual survey of the ‘rich lists’ show, it’s a lunacy that has served its proponents only too well.
A feast of vultures
A Feast of Vultures: that’s the title of a recent book by the investigative journalist Josy Joseph. It documents from the inside the spectacular corruption and economic feeding frenzy that followed when India threw open its resources to private players in the name of ‘economic reforms’. It’s no coincidence that the same period has seen the wealth of India’s neo-rich soar to previously unimagined heights.
According to the charity Oxfam’s annual report on inequality, India’s richest 1% cornered 73% of the wealth generated in the country in 2017. Meanwhile, 67 crore Indians comprising the population’s poorest half saw their wealth rise by just 1%. The study estimates that to earn what a top paid executive in a leading Indian firm earns in a year, it will take a minimum wage labourer in rural India an astounding 941 years.
These grim figures are very much in tune with global trends: 82% of the wealth generated last year worldwide was cornered by the top 1%, while 3.7 billion people that account for the poorest half of population saw no increase in their wealth at all.
Number one among India’s super-rich is Mukesh Ambani, the owner of Reliance Industries; as of this year, the world’s third largest fossil fuel company. His family is not only Asia’s wealthiest, their net worth rose by $19 billion this year to reach $44.8 billion. Based as it is on the performance of the Reliance empire, the family’s net worth is now close to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the state of Punjab ($ 47 billion), one of India’s richest and home to almost three crore people.
The wealth it added to its stash in the last year alone is greater than the GDP of Uttarakhand ($18 billion). As the 2017 Forbes ‘India’s 100 richest’ list shows, the fortunes of other tycoons too are growing at a similarly heady rate.
‘The ideology of the cancer cell’
Large parts of these vast fortunes piled up by India’s own band of robber barons can be directly traced to the ongoing fire sale of the country’s natural resources and a whole range of not-so-visible subsidies they receive from the government – from heavy tax rebates to land secured at throwaway prices to bad-debts written-off.
While this process of state-enabled plunder is concealed from the public eye through elaborate bureaucratic skulduggery, the modus operandi itself remains devilishly simple: Collude with the state to transfer publicly owned resources into one’s own hands at a pittance; privatise the profits; and ‘socialise’ the costs – ie, the loss of homes and livelihoods, depleted resources, polluted air, water and soil.
And yet, this process that enriches the few at the cost of the many, while permanently destroying the country’s environmental fabric, is roundly cheered by our self-declared patriots and a section of the metropolitan pundit class. What is, as a matter of fact, one of history’s most outrageous examples of forced wealth transfer, is perversely celebrated as ‘wealth creation’, and its chief beneficiaries glorified as ‘nation builders’.
But, violent and exploitative as it has been, the true scale of the criminality of these policies are becoming evident only now, in the age of climate change. Today, alarming events like Delhi’s air pollution spike show that those accumulated ‘socialised’ costs are coming back to bite us, just as saner voices had always warned they will.
The idea of infinite economic growth on a finite planet is a mathematical impossibility. Indeed, as the American author Edward Abbey had warned, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” And yet, this delusional and ultimately suicidal ideology is now an article of faith for most Indians, thanks to a cynical and self-serving elite who have systematically injected it into society via the media, advertising, and educational institutions.
“We have met the enemy and he is us”
In a manner reminiscent of that famous Vietnam war-era cartoon, Raman too arrives at the same, inexorable conclusion. Channeling Diamond, he makes what must be the most singular admission ever to be made by an Indian corporate leader.
“…one of the main reasons why even sophisticated societies fall into this suicidal spiral is the conflict between the short-term interests of decision-making elites and the long-term interests of society as a whole, especially if the elites are able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. And that is how many decision makers have behaved over centuries across the world, including in India.”
That extraordinary statement, coming from an ‘elite decision-maker’, is the closest we have got to a confession from an insider as to what has really been going in the country over the last few decades. In many ways, it confirms what the critics, from Medha Patkar to the Maoists, have always charged India’s development model with: that it’s violent and unjust, skewed in favour of the privileged few, and ecologically disastrous.
It shines new light on the mindset that promises bullet trains and ‘smart cities’ while neglecting public health and malnutrition; the pursuit of heartless policies calculated to keep agriculture economically unviable, driving the rural poor wholesale into the cities to serve as cheap fodder for India’s ‘economic miracle’; and the permanent destruction of million-year-old mountains, forests and rivers to create a ‘nine-day’ industrial wonder.
Ironically, these policies are being enacted in the name of poverty reduction and ‘development’, which is flatly contradicted by the government’s own data. In the period from 2004-2005 to 2015-2016, tax concessions given by the Indian government to corporations amounted to an incredible Rs 50 lakh crore – a sum that could have made India’s poverty history. Bear in mind that this astronomical figure is just one form of ‘invisible’ subsidies given to corporations, and that too for a mere 12-year period. Given this, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion: the Indian public has been duped.
That’s why Raghu Raman’s statement ought to immediately revive the debate about the direction of India’s development. A debate that was virtually shut down after the ’90s, when the component elements of the system – the famous ‘pillars of democracy’ – closed ranks to form a consensus that we needed growth at any cost.
System change, not climate change
This is a not call for return to 20th century-style socialism, which is perhaps irredeemably caught up in the logic of industrialism. We need to need to find another way – rather, ways – and hundreds of experiments and models along these lines already abound (See here, here, here, here and here for starters).
This is not a matter of choice either. Our collective survival depends on how soon – whether – we correct course, while ensuring a modicum of economic security for everyone and avoiding large-scale conflict. This is the central challenge of the 21st century not just for India, but for every nation on the planet.
Returning sanity to our economic models necessarily involves devolving power and redistributing wealth. That’s why this change can never come from our elite decision-makers, but only from ordinary citizens. Raghu Raman’s startling statement has served the memo to the people of India on the fate that awaits them, if they are to leave things in the hands of the elites and their short-term interests.
The wave of climate lawsuits, calls for climate reparations and increasingly successful fossil fuel divestment campaigns show that such a course correction may have begun already. Last week, the city of New York announced that it will divest pension funds worth $5 billion from fossil fuel companies, apart from filing lawsuits against them for creating global warming. No doubt, these changes only scratch the surface of problem. But, hopefully, they are precursors of much more radical changes to come.
Just as well. Because, as the author Derrick Jensen says, for way too long a time, “We have been too kind to those who are killing the planet. We have been inexcusably, unforgivably, insanely kind.”