Degrowth in India: Necessity, Actions and Initiatives

The context for a degrowth movement in India differs significantly from that of the Global North. Although founded upon the same philosophical, and ideological basis, the differences in scope between the two are sharp. For India, what is of central importance is the preservation of the “degrowth” paradigm in practice, rather than the establishment of it as a novel paradigm. Traditional Indian ways of living have always been in consonance with core ideas of degrowth. Values and cultures imbibed through generations have often focused on maintenance of communitarian bonds, minimizing wastage, and limitations in material desires. Non-chremastic values, reverence and dependence on ecosystems, and communitarian ways of living are widely practices till date, especially in rural and tribal areas. Thus, ideas of conviviality, sharing, frugality, and sufficiency have existed as a part of daily life. Reverence for ecosystems is prevalent and ‘Sacred groves’ exist throughout the country- often regarded as Gods embodiment in nature. One example is that of the Dongria Kond tribe who ensued a decade long struggle to prevent destruction of the Niyamgiri hill which the tribe considered to be the abode of their God. The promise of development, creation of jobs, schools, roads, other infrastructure etc. bore no regard for the tribe at the cost of destruction of the local ecosystems and biodiversity.

When India attained Independence in 1947, Gandhi proposed Swaraj as the founding ideology for the new nation. “The word Swaraj is a sacred word, a Vedic word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint, and not freedom from all restraint… (Swaraj) will be the fruit of patience, perseverance, ceaseless toil, courage and intelligent appreciation of the environment… A bloody revolution will never perform the trick.” Other scholars such as Kumarappa, spoke of an Economy of Permanence, rather than an economy predatory upon nature; and Tagore advocated conviviality, sharing and the need for commons.The vision was of a society guided by the principles of self-sufficiency in production, self-restraint in consumption with numerous localized and decentralized economies.

However, in 1991, India opened up to neo-liberalization and economic growth, and is today one of the fastest growing economies. With increasing economic growth, one significant tangible which has increased is consumer goods, and the associated consumerist culture. This can be clearly seen among urban populations, a significant percentage of which is youth.

The lure of affluence is strong, both to the youth that are exposed to the consumerist culture, as well as to people that have lived their lives in abject poverty- to whom growth is presented as the only available option for an escape from poverty.

Hand-made boats used for traditional small-scale fishing in the Sunderbans, West Bengal_Brototi Roy

Unfortunately, externalities of growth- both social and ecological- are often imposed upon marginalized communities, tribal and indigenous people. For instance, New Delhi currently has one of the worst levels of air pollution in the world, and destruction of rich forests for mining has resulted in extreme and violent conflicts over the years in many parts of the country. The social impacts of lopsided economic growth can also be seen in urban areas with large numbers of slums, income inequities, materialism and individualism on the rise.

Luckily, there are various movements against such trends. Although these are not specifically termed as “degrowth” movements, they align strongly with the concepts of “degrowth”.

Some examples are the participatory self-governance – shwayamshashan– in the village of Mendha Lekha inhabited by the Gond tribe; the Navdanya network of organic food growers and organic seed exchangers; the Local Futures relocalization of food production initiative in Ladhakh, introduction of community currencies in Tamil Nadu between a network of 16 villages; and urban organic waste reduction program by communities in Bangalore. On a larger scale, there is a strong movement in the state of Kerala against GM crops with campaigns such as ‘March Against Monsanto’. This has resulted in banning of not just the production of GM crops within the state borders, but also field trials of GM food crops and represents a unique case where farmers have decided to take a stand against larger economic benefits for ecological preservation.

 Thus, there are movements against hegemonic growth, however these are scattered and highly localized. Furthermore, these movements are rural, often tribal, in origin by people directly affected in access to resources for livelihood sustenance. However, there is an urgent need to reintroduce these concepts, which are quickly being lost, especially among urban populations and to create a space for interaction, discourse and action with the aim of preserving notions of degrowth. A series of informal debates and discussions amongst a small group of activists and ecological economists convinced us of the need to create such a platform. This eventually culminated in the foundation of the Degrowth India Initiative which is intended to be a forum to explore degrowth practices across India and to bring these ideas to a broader audience. It is meant to be a platform to build closer relationships between researchers, citizens and activists in the discourse and action on the ideas of sufficiency, conviviality, and ecological boundaries.

This article has been published in Moins! 

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First Discussion Session on Alternatives to Growth

The Degrowth India Initiative was started in August this year after a series of informal discussion between Arpita and me, two students of Ecological Economics, who along with countless other researchers and activists across the globe accept that in a finite earth with finite resources, infinite monetary and population growth is an impossibility. This Initiative aims to provide a small platform to bring together people who are looking for alternatives to growth for a socially and ecologically just India.

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In our quest for alternatives to growth we hosted a discussion session on “Alternatives to Growth” with the authors of Churning the Earth-The Making of Global India, Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari in Delhi last Monday. The reason why I am writing this article is because during the course of this article, both the authors, along with Dr. Rajeshwari Raina, who had co-organized the first symposium on Degrowth in India last year, had some very interesting stories of successful alternatives to growth that are being practiced in different parts of our country, and which I think the youth of today needs to be made aware of.

Be it the farmers of Kerala who have voluntarily shunned fertilizer intensive cropping, despite being aware of the lower productivity of organic agriculture, and banned the production of high valued GM pepper due to its harmful effects on the soil health and environment, to Vani Murthy’s initiative in Bangalore which has converted several thousand households in the city to composter and rooftop gardeners, encouraging them to stop throwing out their wet waste, India, both in her cities and villages, has numerous examples of such bottoms-up approach which converges with the ideas of alternatives to growth. Local initiatives such as mobilization of people for the protection of the lakes of Bangalore, collective action by the villagers of Medha Lekha in Maharasthra to be the first village to be granted community forest rights, mobilization of Dalit women in Andhra Pradesh for sustainable farming and other such decentralized approaches for attaining better quality of life and land are examples of how the people of India have a long history of looking after themselves and their environment without any top-down approach being enforced upon them.

Yet, despite a plethora of decentralized movements which although do not conform to the formal definition of growth still continue to improve the social and ecological standards of an area, a large section of affluent India is increasingly dissociating itself from environmental well-being and social connections. What the society in general, and the youth in particular need to focus is to learn from these examples to find new ways which allows not just the poor and the vulnerable, but also other species (and the environment in general) to flourish by resisting against destructive development of one section of the society at the cost of others.

One of the key takeaways of the discussion was the need for a proactive youth movement which understands the social and ecological consequences of our greed for a technologically rich, yet culturally and socially degraded life. Dr. Shrivastava also pointed out that our current approach for solving the climate change problem and other environmental issues is to either depend on the international discussions and meets, or to expect decentralized action by tiny communities, whose lives and livelihoods are threatened. However, we keep forgetting that is a whole set of other levels of governance, such as the municipality, district level and state level governing bodies, who must be involved in these decision making and implementation of alternatives.

We also had a long discussion on the significance of the COP21summit which will be held next week, and both Kothari and Shrivastava were of the opinion that the only thing this summit will be successfully implying is that we cannot depend on our national leaders alone to solve the dire ecological and social problems challenging the world today. You and I need to come together and work for a society of sufficiency, finding ways to reduce our individual ecological footprints and the footprints of the society as a whole.

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The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Report 2015, which was released earlier this year, was the final document, reporting the progress of the MDGs for the last fifteen years. Although, there were a quite a few positive outcomes, one of the biggest challenges that the world, as a whole, faces today is that of conflicts which poses the biggest threat for human development. The report acknowledged that “despite many successes, the poorest and most vulnerable people are being left behind”. The obvious question which then arises is that if we are consistent in our economic growth (as measured by our GDP), and yet the poor and the vulnerable are being left out, then who are the benefactors of this growth, and why is it not percolating (as proposed by the trickle-down effect theory) to the sections of the society that need it the most?

The answer is to this question lies in the fundamental flaw with our definition of economic growth. We measure economic growth in terms of flow of money, but what is the purpose of this flow is never put in the spotlight. To provide a simple example, the money earned from an increase in the sales of a consumer product, such as toys, adds to the economic growth just as much as the foreign aid received after a natural disaster strikes. The answer to the obvious question in the previous paragraph thus becomes self-evident once you familiarize yourself with the concept of economic growth as it is being currently viewed. A lot of scholars, researchers and activists in the West understood this early on, and in their quest for alternatives to growth, started a movement seeking radical change in an attempt to re-politicize the debate on the socio-ecological transformation, which was named the Degrowth Movement. India too, over the last few years, has seen an increasing number of scholars questioning the growth paradigm, and looking for alternatives to growth for a country with social and environmental justice.

About

Degrowth, which was born as a proposal for radical change, is an attempt to re-politicize the debate on the much needed socio-ecological transformation.
This blog is an attempt to bring this ideology to India, and to report events, both social and academic that revolve around Degrowth in particular and Ecological Economics in general.

Let’s Start at the very Beginning…

In August 2014, at the beginning of my third semester of college, I decided to enroll for one of the new courses being offered as elective called “Key Concepts in Ecological Economics”. Offered by Dr. Julien-François Gerber, it had the following course description-

This course offers an introduction to the field of ecological economics. Ecological economics goes beyond environmental economics by combining ecological, social and economic knowledge in an integrated way. It has been called the “science of sustainability”. Instead of resorting to a single unit of account – money – ecological economics uses a variety of indicators and includes the biophysical structure of economic processes. Its approach is fundamentally social‐metabolic, meaning that the economy is seen as an open system – open to the entry of energy and materials and to the exit of wastes and emissions. Social‐metabolic processes take place in a state of permanent non‐equilibrium: energy and materials continuously flow throughout the economy. The economy is thus considered a subsystem of society (i.e. of the cultural, institutional and power structures), itself a subsystem of a larger finite global ecosystem, the Biosphere. In this course, the core concepts of ecological economics are approached both qualitatively and quantitatively, and with special reference to the Indian context.

And it was, by far the best course I had taken in a long, long time. Not only were the theories and concepts something that I could understand and relate to, the course was taught in a way that made it more like an informed discussion than a formal lecture. And by the end (well, actually a few weeks into the course) I was so influenced by the concepts that I picked up the concept of ‘ecologically unequal exchange’ as the topic of my Master’s thesis. And it was not just me. I met quite a few people who were equally interested in the theories of ecological economics and wanted to take it forward. Nihar and Ezra, my batch mates, wrote their Master’s thesis on languages of valuation and the political ecology of mining in Meghalaya respectively, and another friend Arpita, who also took the course is  writing a thesis titled Ecological distribution conflicts against mineral extractivism at resource peripheries in India for her PhD.

It was early on during the coursework that I came to know about the concept of Degrowth, which is still hardly known here in India. I was more fascinated by this theory after attending the Symposium on “Growth, Green Growth or Degrowth? New critical directions for India’s sustainability” held in September last year (You can read more about it here). And by this summer, after my experience at the European Society of Ecological Economics conference and hearing about Arpita’s Degrowth Summer School experience (about which she will be writing soon), I realized I needed to do something to spread more awareness about Degrowth in India. The government is hell bent on proclaiming that growth is the solution to everything, when it clearly isn’t. Thankfully, I am not the only one. And although we are still in the minority, and by that I mean we can be counted on your fingertips, we would still like to make some noise about Degrowth!

This blog, along with the FB page is an initiative in this regard.

Thank you for taking the time to read.

Brototi

pic courtesy- Ashima Mahlawat