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Home > News > Columnists > Ashwin Mahesh

Balance of Aspirations

January 24, 2003

Each year the Worldwatch Institute publishes an assessment of the important environmental, economic, and social themes of the times, gathered together in a volume titled State of the World. The entries are fairly diverse, and often a sobering reminder of the true health of the planet; the sort of evaluation that doesn't show up in economists' findings of GDP growth alone.

Occasionally, a section of the book is devoted to studying a particular country; the 1995 issue included one such section titled 'Facing China's Limits.' In broad strokes the chapter presented the state of that nation's water resources, forests, energy needs and their impact on air quality, as well as some aspects of public health.

The essence of the report is captured in the following extract from it -- China's dilemma is that it has a huge population but a far smaller slice of the world's resources. It is roughly the same size as the United States but has four and a half times as many people. With 22 percent of the world's population, China has only 7 percent of its fresh water and cropland, 3 percent of its forests, and 2 percent of its oil. Given its population, the authors pointed out, China could not hope to attain the standards of prosperity seen in the western world by the same models of economic development. The arithmetic alone precluded that outcome.

There is occasion to remember those words now. The reigning economic opinion south of the Himalayas is that if only India can get to eight percent economic growth per year and sustain that level, we will inevitably become a powerful nation, our social tensions will decline, and we will find our place in the global community. There's only marginal evidence for this; the correlation between newfound economic power in formerly third world nations and the resulting global standing isn't at all clear. But even geopolitics aside, we will benefit from realistic expectations of what the nation can achieve in the decades ahead. There is great expectation of widespread prosperity and power, but ambition -- and nostalgia -- must be tempered by realism.

Sustained eight percent growth would be hugely better (by 50% or more) than anything we've actually experienced in the time since Independence. The environmental cost of even the current level of economic activity is troubling -- forest cover is down, fishing communities are up in arms, and agrarian land has degraded severely in many states. Social and public health costs are similarly high -- extractive industries and chemical-driven agriculture in unregulated markets destroy people we don't read about in the front pages. The government machinery responds to these inadequately -- genetic engineering is green-lighted without scrutiny, more and more people are simply moved off their lands and forgotten, and state services for the indigent are falling away as budgetary constraints and IMF idiocies take firm hold among the decision makers.

In sum, there's plenty of grief from the current socio-economic paths, and an acceleration of these will likely worsen things. Moreover, with the sort of calculation considered above -- India has even less land and other resources than China does, but roughly the same population -- widely shared and sustainable prosperity will remain elusive for the foreseeable future. This isn't Malthusian doom-and-gloom, it's arithmetic.

That's not to ignore the small prosperity there has been. After all, 5.5% growth is real enough, and material gains in some industries have been spectacular. The swankier establishments of the metropolitan city centres, the tax-subsidised housing boom, the various models of automobiles, and the nouveau cuisine from around the planet do count for something. What cannot be forgotten are the choices that have permitted these developments. If this early affluence is entirely from individuals striving harder and seizing the opportunities that presented themselves, there is reason to hope that others too can follow in their footsteps. Even here, though, we cannot afford the afterglow of limited prosperity; we must ask whether there are limits to the granite quarrying, forest logging and garbage burying behind this first wave of upward social mobility?

Chances are, probably not. An India understood by the appearance of her majority is starkly different. The reality of our nation is that some children still recycle old batteries by hand and others make firecrackers, in each case doomed to a life of disfigured health. Some children are forced to sit outside their classrooms, others are forced to sit in the back of their classes, simply because the accident of their birth has placed them 'low'. Some people are bonded to their labour by their poverty, others are tied to servility by their faith. Any imagination of a better nation ahead must address the obvious question -- shall we seek development that places such people too on roads to health and prosperity, or shall we abandon even the basic needs of the poor and disenfranchised and serve only the limited material needs of the already better-off?

Human ingenuity can never be discounted; we will always live with some optimism that today's apparently intractable problems will be overcome in the times ahead. Perhaps science and technology will provide answers. But the best expression of our intelligence does not lie in placing this great faith upon it. Any measure of sustained prosperity we strive towards is best obtained by seeking it wholesomely today, and not when pressed to the wall of diminishing resources tomorrow. This isn't just environmental smarts, it's also political sense and more than that, essential to the good society.

The temptation to resist such positive change is high, but this is partly a failing of leadership. We're used to the moral bankruptcy of the political class, but the limits of the natural world and the ways in which we turn it to our comforts are beginning to present a different face to us. We now see that the economic and political leadership lacks not merely the character to choose decently, but more than that the ability to choose wisely. This intellectual bankruptcy previously hidden behind walls of authority is worse than the moral zero -- because the former is a sign of inability to change, not unwillingness to do so. A privilegentsia that cannot imagine a non-aggressive way to retain its own gains is wedded to continuing exploitation of the impoverished, even though perfectly good alternatives may be available that would permit broader prosperity without divesting them of its privilege.

Our learning cannot derive from necessity alone; often the wise choice is known well in advance of failure. The water-harvesting schemes mushrooming in the cities are a fine example. Pressed by growing shortages, individual home-owners have begun to embrace water harvesting and conservation, and some city and state governments are adding their legislative might to this trend.

The wisdom of this choice, however, has been apparent for decades -- some would say centuries! Conservation found a significant footing only when it became apparent that the brick-and-mortar classes could no longer sate their growing thirst by the diversion of water resources from non-urban communities. If instead we had made the wise original commitment to conservation, the social costs of depriving the poor and the economic costs of tardy conservation could both have been avoided.

Selective prosperity is no substitute for a true balance of aspirations among the citizens. The belief that high economic growth will alleviate the social tensions within the land puts the cart before the horse. Despite decades of high economic growth, China's transition to stable prosperity remains hostage to the unanswered question of equity for its people; its future global standing and economic security hinge in part on squaring economic growth with the rural resentment and minority separatism bred by the choices made thus far. The authoritarians at the helm who today revel in the headlines of financial newspapers and magazines could find themselves judged very differently by history, if the social tensions turn unmanageable.

The Indian parallel is less grotesque, but dangerous nonetheless in our already highly heterogeneous society. Any prosperity that is derived from an aggravation of the socio-economic divide today is unlikely to lessen it in the years ahead. The nation-state cannot be strengthened by the systematic disenfranchisement of the many for the benefit of the few. Broad national prosperity, peace, unity and integrity all demand justice first. Our disregard for this backbone of democracy will inevitably run into the wall of unsustainability and a deeply riven society. Smart and just economic, environmental, and political choices, on the other hand, will bloom into the national affluence we only imagine now.

Good character, it turns out, can be intelligent public policy too. The eight percent growth will follow.

Ashwin Mahesh

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Number of User Comments: 14

Sub: Balance of Aspirations

This is a well thought out & well written article, however as Mr.Makarand says, too many issues have been raised in a single article, and ...

Posted by Tressa Albert

Sub: Economic Challenges

I agree with the author that we as a nation should strive for collective prosperity.Imagine what would happen if bulk of our labour force misses ...

Posted by Seyed Abdulkareem

Sub: RE:True Aspirations - There are no useless confusions

Mr. Ashwin Mahesh's language structure is simply exquisite though few may complain that it is quite complex. Here are 6 gems from his writings. 1--> ...

Posted by Nj Ramesh

Sub: Balance of Aspirations

Great Article!! A really nice and balanced article. Regards, Faruk

Posted by Faruk

Sub: Compassionately written article

The effects of unsustainable growth and the inability of the ruling classes is already upon us. This is visible starkly, not just in environmental degradation, ...

Posted by Ram Ariya



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