A Five Trillion Dollar Economy Is No Panacea For Our Ills

We need to move away from our unhealthy GDP obsession: it has to be balanced with wider considerations: of humaneness, equity, compassion, concern for the environment, responsiveness.

I drove back from my cottage in Mashobra (Shimla) to Delhi last week. It took me eleven hours- four and a half hours to Timber Trail and six and a half from there to our over rated capital city. In 1980 (which was 40 years ago in case you too, like me, are numerically challenged) I used to make the journey in eight hours in my beat-up, second hand Fiat which used to heat up every hundred kilometers, requiring its radiator to be topped up regularly like some of my friends in the Gymkhana bar. AND I didn’t have to shell out Rs. 350/ in toll fees. In these intervening years, thousands of crores have been spent on a new expressway, on four laning the mountain stretch, on fly overs and under passes. Thousands of acres of fertile land have been acquired, mountain sides excavated, millions of tonnes of soil and debris thrown into stream beds, choking them, thousands displaced from their occupations and businesses, hundreds of lives lost in accidents on these super highways. To what end if it takes me 40% more time to cover the same distance as compared to forty years ago? Its the same, if not worse, in the cities- traffic in Mumbai and Kolkatta moves at the same space as the horse drawn carriages a hundred years ago. In the early seventies I could drive from the north campus of DU (there was no south campus then) on my Jawa mobike to my uncles’s place in Greater Kailash in 25 minutes; today it takes at least an hour. We are nonetheless informed by economists and politicians of all ilks that this is progress.

It’s the same in all other areas of human/economic activity. Our GDP has grown a zillion times since Independence, but we have more people below the poverty line than we had then, in absolute numbers (forget the percentage argument, that is simply something economists use to cover the ugly truth). Life expectancy may have reached 70 years but deaths from diabetes, cancer, heart attacks have increased exponentially. Lakhs of crores of rupees have been invested in medical colleges and health care institutions but  more people are dying of diseases ( remember the recent Gorakhpur and Muzzafarpur encephalitis deaths of children?) than ever before. Aldous Huxley put his finger on it many years ago when he presciently observed: ‘Medical science has made such tremendous progress that there is hardly a healthy human life left.”

5 Trillion Dollar Economy

Food production has gone up a hundred times and yet 38% of children below the age of five are stunted/ wasted from malnutrition. GDP has been growing at a remarkable 7%-8% for the last 15 years but unemployment is at a 45 year high. 13000 farmers commit suicide every year even though they are given free power and water, subsidies worth Rs. 75000 crores every year, and periodic loan waivers. Inflation is at an all time low and yet consumption, industrial production and household savings are showing a persistent decline. The country has 900 large dams/ reservoirs but 60%of agriculture is still dependent on the monsoons. We have some of the most draconian laws in the world and yet rapes, lynchings, mob violence, assault on children continue to rise: according to WHO India has the highest number of child abuse cases in the world. We have pledged to achieve a green cover of 30% of geographical area by 2030, to bring an additional one million hectares under trees, but we continue deforestation on a colossal scale- 1.6 million hectares denuded in the last ten years, 16 million trees felled. Our culture worships women but we kill millions of infant girls every year- the national sex ratio is 896 girls for every 1000 boys: in the “progressive” state of Haryana the figure is 833. We proudly boast of India’s trump card- the “demographic dividend”- but our education system is in shambles: students in class V cannot read class II texts and 67% of engineers are unemployable, according to a recent industry report. This is not a dividend, it is a primed grenade waiting to explode.

These are only some of the paradoxes and failures of our pure GDP focused growth. There is something fundamentally wrong with the political/economic path we have been following all these years. In following the same shibboleths of western economies we have dug ourselves into a hole and devastated our natural environment, all to no effect. Our national character, with the kind of role models we have in politics, industry, media and various professions, is unrecognizable from what it was when we proudly acquired independence in a different era. We have become a deeply divided, inequitable, heartless and lawless society and it shows in our ranking in the World Happiness Index- at 140 out of 155 countries. And the brutal, capital centric and materialistic policies of the present government are only making things worse. We are very much in danger of progressing from Lance Pritchett’s description of us as a “flailing state” to a “failed state” in terms of values, principles and character.

We need to move away from our unhealthy GDP obsession: it has to be balanced with wider considerations: of humaneness, equity, compassion, concern for the environment, responsiveness. Instead of being just a five trillion dollar economy, how about striving to become a Zero Infant Mortality Economy, or an Equal Sex-Ratio Society, or a Universal Health Care Economy, or a Zero Net Carbon Emission Economy or a Nobody Goes to Bed Hungry Economy? How about aspiring to go up on the Happiness or Environment Performance Index with the same zeal we show for the Ease of Doing Business Index?

If the distortions and perversions that have us in a stranglehold are not corrected-soon- it will not matter if we become a 5 trillion dollar economy or not for, as Milton Friedman famously remarked:  “So what if it meets all criteria of economic success except one: you cannot live there!”

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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