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Development and Success - Is a New Perspective Desirable?

By ananthu at July 27, 2006 5:58 PM

Is it desirable that we re-examine our notions of development, progress and success?

To illustrate what I am trying to get at, let me take the example of Bangalore. For the last 15 years, I have been volunteering for Navadarshanam, which operates from a small village, not too far from Bangalore. Therefore, I have had a chance to watch Bangalore grow from a medium-sized city to the most prominent IT center in the world. It has been fascinating to note the changes that accompanied this growth. Bangalore’s citizens have become much richer, a vast variety of new goods and services is available, its skyline is becoming prominent, its traffic is becoming chaotic, its population is skyrocketing, its crime rate is increasing, its residents are no longer the easy-going, helpful people they used to be. These are changes that accompany any modern development effort, and are well known. The positive changes, especially the ones relating to increased income and availability of goods and services, are seen as a justification for the negative ones – and there are many well-meaning efforts to alleviate the suffering caused by the latter.

But in all this, we seem to forget one fundamental point: our aim in development, progress and success is to make us happier. Are we really becoming happier, or more tense and insecure, as a result of ‘development’ at the societal level, and ‘success’ at the individual level?

The above question is often dismissed as of no consequence because happiness is seen as a subjective, non-quantifiable entity – something difficult to measure, unlike GNP or income, and hence impossible to make as the criterion for our decisions. Therefore, let me raise a question that is fundamental even from the angle of material well-being:

Has development made it easier to access the most crucial physical needs of the human being – viz., air, water and food?

Let me start with air. To revert to the example of Bangalore - until 1965-70, the weather was so lovely that homes were never designed for ceiling fans, and the quality of the air available was so invigorating that doctors would recommend a holiday here for their patients suffering from COPD, TB and similar ailments. By 1990, fans had become a necessity, but the air was still fresh and invigorating. Now, many hanker for air-conditioning, and the level of pollution rivals that of Mexico City, Bangkok and Tokyo. I have a friend who stayed till recently in Acropolis, an apartment complex in the Koramangala area of Bangalore. This complex is very well-built (meaning, a lot of cement has been used, and it has facilities such as club house, swimming pool, etc), and each apartment is currently priced at well over a crore. But he decided to leave it for an interesting reason – the smoke that bellows from the cars that drive into the shopping mall built in the adjoining area was making it difficult for him to breathe. Others in the apartment complex are taking care of this problem by shutting themselves up in their air-conditioned rooms, but my friend did not want to do that, so he quit.

The water situation, though not so apparent, is actually even more alarming. Bangalore is now dotted with new multi-storied apartment complexes in different localities. Where is the water supply to come for each of these posh buildings? Ask anyone, and the standard answer is: ‘Cauvery’. The government has announced grandiose plans to divert Cauvery water to different localities in the city through the laying of an elaborate (though very costly) system of pipelines, and is levying a special charge on each residential unit in the city to fund this scheme. It all looks wonderful on paper, but everyone seems to forget that Cauvery does not have an endless supply of water, and what it has is now being fought over bitterly by the farmers of Mandya in Karnataka and Tanjore in TN. Thanks to ‘modern’ methods of agriculture, these farmers now need more and more water just to survive, and so are willing to go to any lengths - even dramatic suicides - in order to lay their claims on the limited water from Cauvery. Are they going to allow rich Bangaloreans to appropriate this claim? Will they really sit back and watch their crops go dry while the Cauvery water passes through their land in huge pipes? Or, are we going to be left with apartments in Bangalore that have all modern amenities including fancy bathroom fittings, but no water?

In the earlier days, Bangalore had no water problem – some homes had open wells, many others had borewells, and the municipality was in a position to supply water in plenty to those who did not. Now, most of these wells have dried up – and ‘development’ is directly responsible for this. The old lakes have been ‘reclaimed’ for ‘useful’ purposes (e.g., the Bangalore Bus Terminus has been built by filling up a magnificent lake that existed in the center of the city), excessive cementing has led to lack of recharging by rainwater, and, most important, use of ‘modern’ farming techniques has resulted in a rapidly falling water table.

If ‘modern’ farming practices had really resulted in solving our food problem, then at least there was some justification for the overuse of water in our farms. But this has not really happened – despite the statistics that point to increased production. Yes, it is true that the per acre yield shows a dramatic increase when modern techniques are used. But if we look at the amount of foodgrains that are lost in storage and transportation, and add to it those that get deliberately destroyed because the farmer finds it uneconomical to harvest his produce (because of steep price drops that always invariably accompany a bumper crop), the increase in production is not all that useful. And let us not forget that this increase is accompanied by a massive loss of soil humus – all modern agricultural practices are at the cost of the health of the soil, and so effectively we are eating up the basic capital that forms our good earth.

The land all around Navadarshanam is owned by traditional farmers, each having between one and ten acres. For centuries, they have grown their own basic food needs and survived on this land. In monetary terms, they have been classified as ‘very poor’ (on account of very low per capita income), but their basic needs were well met from their land holdings. Over the last 30-40 years, however, they have been gradually switching to ‘modern’ methods of farming, and thereby tied themselves to the outside economy. Many (though not all) of them now grow cash crops, take them to Bangalore for sale, and buy their requirements (even food) from the money they so earn. This does give them more cash, and so our statistics show their living standards have improved. But there is a very big catch. If their crop fails, they are of course doomed, especially because of the loan they have taken for buying fertilizers and pesticides. But even if they have a bumper crop, they often end up losers as the price of their produce also falls drastically. The net result is that sometimes a farmer having as much as ten acres of land finds he cannot get enough to eat, a situation that did not exist earlier except in years of severe drought.

In fact, farming – except on a very large scale – is becoming an increasingly uneconomical proposition. Almost without exception, our neighbouring farmers are all wanting to sell their land and move to ‘greener pastures’ (!) in the city. This trend portends ill for city dwellers too, for soon food supply will be controlled by a small coterie of people who own large tracts of farmland. The easy availability of vegetables and grains, taken for granted by all those who are living in the cities and belong to the middle and upper income brackets, will become a thing of the past.

The above problems may not seem obvious now, but as intellectuals and concerned citizens, I believe it is our duty to anticipate the future and prepare for it.

Having given these questions deep thought, we at Navadarshanam believe the only way out is for us to reverse the following five trends which form the core of modern development:

- Unchecked urbanization, including mushrooming metropolises and a disappearing farming community.
- Massive heavy industrialization, especially of the capital-intensive variety
- Total centralization, especially of power and decision-making, with the ordinary citizen, whether farmer or worker or voter, a helpless spectator to the horrors he is witnessing.
- Complete monetization, not only of all goods and services but even of the earth’s eco-systems and basic human values.
- Rampant militarization, both at government and non-government (including terrorist) levels.

But to move away from these trends requires a re-definition of development and success to include the non-material side of life. We at Navadarshanam are trying to do so in our small way. As part of this effort, we are looking into:

• Ways of restoring life to degraded land.

• Ways of growing food items with least amount of watering, tilling, and weeding, and with no chemicals and pesticides.

• Ways of generating energy locally, using sun, gobar gas, charcoal, bio-diesel etc.

• Ways of building homes that use minimum amount of cement and steel and maximum amount of locally available labour and material.

But such a new way of living is feasible only if it is accompanied by a new way of thinking – wherein our goal in life is not producing and consuming more and more, but is related to something deeper and greater. As Gandhi had put it, we need to ‘limit our material wants so that our religious [spiritual] growth can become illimitable’.

Let me end with what J. R. D. Tata said at the function in Bombay after he was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1992: “An American economist has predicted that in the next century India will be an economic superpower. I don't want India to be an economic superpower. I want India to be a happy country”.