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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