Letter from India: It takes a village

Gurgaon office tower

Skyscrapers and business parks are popping up all over India. Photo: Shayon Ghosh.

If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered over the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant, I should point to India.

- Max Mueller

Returning to the world’s second-biggest nation after seven years away, it’s clear to me that the two distinctive features of modern India, overpopulation and globalization, are proceeding apace, without any apparent concern about the global recession becoming the new normal in a world beyond peak oil.

And in talking to Indians about economic growth and development, they don’t seem any more eager for lectures from rich countries about sustainability than they were the last time I was here, which came before Hurricane Sandy and the crazy weather worldwide that has given climate action a new urgency.

Nothing new — Indians are less concerned about ecology than about equity.

Because, for the last two or three centuries, the countries of the global North used up most of the oil and other resources while also producing most of the Earth’s pollution, Indians think it’s only fair that places like Europe and the U.S. should be cutting back so that developing countries like India can get their fair share and catch up.

And when it comes to climate or peak oil, Indians seem to worry about planning for a livable future about as much as we do — that is, hardly at all.

Give us Gucci not Gandhi

Today, the future that Indians envision for their population of 1.2 billion and growing features an abundance of iPads and cheap short-haul air travel.

Indian politicians and NGOs make the obligatory noises about slowing their population growth. But the actions of government and ordinary citizens alike, which speak much more loudly, show that Indians seem to think they can support all their people today plus more in the future if only their country can just get rich enough fast enough — to create a “bigger middle class.”

And most Indians act as if they think their country will get rich through globalization.

So, while continuing to train armies of workers in technology, India has rolled out the red carpet for corporate investment.

In the capital New Delhi alone, the infrastructure is impressive. The new Indira Gandhi International Airport makes many North American terminals look dated by comparison, while numerous global chain hotels, office parks and convention centers offer shiny glass facades that gleam in the bright South Asian sun. New Delhi even built a whole new suburb, Gurgaon, devoted to corporate office parks and luxury apartments.

Well stocked shopping malls with international luxury brands are also a new development, as are high-rise condos for rich retirees, just two offerings in a booming economy serving upscale Indian consumers.

Meanwhile, as infrastructure for ordinary Indians continues to get little love, India becomes more and more a two-tier country. First World comfort for the rich and Third World chaos for everyone else.

Money for schools and public services disappears into India’s infamous kleptocracy. Garbage still rots on potholed streets in many areas of the capital city while the New Delhi train station looks like it hasn’t gotten a paint job since the days of Gandhi and Nehru.

Speaking of Nehru, India wasn’t always so hospitable to global corporations. During the Cold War, as India’s first prime minister after independence, Nehru guided India towards industrialization but with a strong protectionist wall against outside corporations.

And though Nehru also encouraged handicrafts in the countryside, he was nothing to Gandhi when it came to trying to save the traditional Indian village economy:

I would say that if the village perishes India will perish too. India will be no more India. Her own mission in the world will get lost. The revival of the village is possible only when it is no more exploited. Industrialization on a mass scale will necessarily lead to passive or active exploitation of the villagers as the problems of competition and marketing come in. Therefore we have to concentrate on the village being self-contained, manufacturing mainly for use.

Not always growing

While more and more of us in rich countries have started to see the wisdom of Gandhi’s economics and have started to call for less, not more, globalization, most of Gandhi’s compatriots seem to be over all that small-is-beautiful stuff.

The New India is all about rapid economic growth. And that will bring still more population growth.

Despite the durability of overpopulation as a topic in international forums, India wasn’t always adding so many new people so quickly. From about 300 B.C. until about the year 1600, India’s population was stationary at around one hundred million. Then, just when European countries like Portugal, France and of course Britain started to establish colonies and grab their own pieces of India, South Asia’s population began to grow.

Perhaps, as in many places, better public hygiene slowed the infant mortality rate. Or, perhaps Indian civilization — which vied for centuries with China for hosting the world’s most developed economy, selling silks and spices to the world while Medieval Europeans clad in coarse homespun huddled in huts and scratched the soil for tubers — had simply reached the optimum equilibrium with its environment.

So, it may be possible that, without globalization (whether of the colonial or the corporate type) bringing in resources from the outside, especially fossil fuels, the land of India is only able to comfortably support about a hundred million people.

If true, that could be bad news for Indians on a finite planet. How will Mother India be able to support up to a billion and a half people if peak oil transforms today’s global recession into a Long Emergency that slows and then stops global investment in developing nations?

Just another future scenario not on the radar of Young India. Like American young people of the 1990s boom, young Indians today seem to find no greater role models than fast-moving entrepreneurs, like Jeh Wadia who started GoAir and was profiled in the documentary The Age of Stupid.

But given the looming realities of life on a finite planet, perhaps India’s next generation would be better served by looking back at India’s greatest generation — Gandhi especially — and at their civilization’s durable past.

Leapfrogging the city for the land

As in other developing countries, Indians often talk about “leapfrogging” over established technologies used by today’s rich countries to the latest technologies. So, though many Indians still don’t have phones, they shouldn’t get landlines; they should go straight to mobile phones.

But maybe a smarter kind of leapfrogging for this crowded nation with little water and few domestic sources of fossil fuels beyond some coal would be to skip corporate globalization altogether and go straight to a revitalized village economy. With more than half of Indians still dependent on agriculture, India still has an advantage over rich countries that may have less than 10% of their population in farming.

I know little about what movements India might have on now to protect and even promote village life. But,  while visiting Bodh Gaya, home to the Bodhi Tree and the top pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the world, I had the rare pleasure to discover the so-called Sujata Village located across the Naranja River.

Sujata village haystacks

The Sujata Village in Bihar, India.

If this endearing village of 5,000 souls housed in brightly painted, cozy brick houses on narrow lanes that exclude all motor vehicles is any indication of the quality of Indian village life, then sign me up. I’m eager to see if India has other villages like this, with friendly kids eager to show off their happy family members working in the fields stacking hay in neat piles or shucking rice by hand using only a woven mat and family skill.

These folks seemed to have all the prosperity they needed, and unless I’m romanticizing it, I can’t imagine that anything but the false lures of big city excitement could entice a son or daughter of Sujata Village to leave such a delightful life for one of the terrifying slums in and around every major Indian city.

India wants and deserves to take its role as a leader among nations. Leading the Transition back to a nation of farmers could set a powerful example for other nations of the global South and perhaps keep them from making the same mistake that Western countries did — selling out to consumerism. And at the worst possible time too, right at the end of the party, just when the fossil fuels needed to support an industrial economy are running out.

Given peak oil and climate change, leading the world back to human-scale values may be the only worthy role for a civilization that gave the world Gandhi, not to mention the Taj Mahal, the Bhagavad Gita and a taste for tandoori only matched by a thirst for enlightenment.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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