Our economic model is putting unsustainable pressures on our planetary boundaries. We can’t afford to continue ignoring how economic growth is generated, and how the gains from growth are distributed.
This article is part of the series — Post-Pandemic Development Priorities.
The global pandemic has left bare the face of socio-economic inequality, both in India and globally. In India, which has more than 90 percent of the population working in the informal sector, the strict measures of the lockdown reinforced social inequalities, as multiple photographs and articles emerged in the months following the 24 March 2020 declaration of “total lockdown.”
At the same time, many controversial large-scale projects received environmental clearances, resulting in protests and causing distress to marginalised communities already reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Projects such as the Hubballi-Ankola railway line projects in Karnataka, the Etalin hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh, three mega projects in Goa with plans to turn the state into a coal hub, and inauguration of commercial coal mining — all in the name of economic growth and development — have been met with multiple protests. These projects are a clear example of how the environment and local communities are side-lined in the name of economic growth, with the (ironic) argument that it is for the benefit of the said communities.
However, there are numerous studies which show that economic growth, measured in terms of GDP, doesn’t necessarily improve people’s lives. Such economic growth, which degrades the environment as well as destroys the livelihoods and cultural heritage of the poor and the marginalised has been termed as ‘predatory growth’ by economist Amit Bhaduri.
It leads to destruction of the people and planet for economic profits. A recent report by Oxfam India examined trends in consumption, income and wealth, and concluded that India is among the most unequal countries in the world. Not only is inequality high, it has been rising in recent decades — particularly since 1991, the year that liberal economic reforms were adopted. Last year, the richest 1% cornered 73% of the wealth generated in India. This inequality is not just monetary, but also translates into disparities in access to basic amenities such as health, education, and nutrition.
Our economic model is putting unsustainable pressures on our planetary boundaries. We can’t afford to continue ignoring how economic growth is generated, and how the gains from growth are distributed. Hence, in the post-pandemic world, as we strive to meet the UN Sustainability Goals or the SDGs, we must rethink the way our socio-economic systems work for justice and sustainability.
One idea that has gained prominence in recent years is ‘degrowth.’
The term degrowth originated in France in the early 2000s, and soon spread to other parts of Western Europe, particularly Spain. In contrast to how it is often reported in the media, degrowth is not simply about shrinking GDP. Instead, degrowth aims to re-politicise the debate on socio-ecological equity and justice by putting social and environmental well-being at the centre of economic decision-making. It calls for a fundamentally different kind of society, and not less of the same. It reimagines a society that is based on the concepts of democracy, equality and simplicity, free of discrimination based on class, race, gender, caste or religion.
However, despite multiple clear and coherent writings on degrowth principles and proposals, we are time and again questioned on how degrowth would be relevant in a Global South context.
Data on predatory growth, joblessness and rising inequality makes it clear that imagining socio-ecological justice without a focus on economic growth is the need of the hour. The focus must be on well-being, both of people and the planet. And the agenda must be context specific and framed in consultation with all the stakeholders involved.
Some activists and scholars in India have been creating space for such discussions on degrowth for more than half a decade now. In 2014, a two-day seminar was organised in New Delhi to discuss growth, green growth and degrowth in India, which was attended by 140 researchers, activists, policy makers and students.
However, it is important to remember that the utopic vision on degrowth is still a work in progress. My recent collaborative work with colleagues from the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona, who are also members of the research and activism collective, Research & Degrowth, demonstrates this clearly. We prove that despite a lot of lip service being paid to the need to address global inequalities, there is a lack of research to analyse the convergences and contradictions between degrowth and other intellectual and social movements from the Global South, including India.
Hence, in the post-pandemic world, if we are to seriously work towards the UN Agenda 2030, we must follow a research agenda ‘from the margins,’ which includes different theoretical and epistemological traditions, engaging with a pluriverse of alternatives. The needs and aspirations of the indigenous communities and their wealth of traditional knowledge for socio-environmental well-being must be consulted. Arturo Escobar points out how a degrowth agenda for Latin America would require focused proposals for degrowth of extractivism, and discussions on post-development. Similarly, a degrowth agenda for India will look much different from that in other parts of the world and must be forged in consultation with the multiple visions and voices of well-being and justice already present, such as radical ecological democracy.
For India, degrowth would not mean only decentering the imaginary of growth, but also ensuring dignity for marginalised communities, both as sources of wisdom and expertise, and as equal partners in a future focused on care, justice and well-being for the planet and all its inhabitants, both humans and non-humans.
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Brototi Roy is a PhD candidate at Institut de Ciencia i Tecnologia Ambientals Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) where she is researching environmental justice movements ...Read More +