Sunday, February 05, 2012

How Much Should A Person Consume? - Ramachandra Guha

I picked up this book because of the intriguing title. And also because it was Ramachandra Guha, of course. Guha is one of the very few Indian intellectuals who write well enough to make their subjects accessible to the layman. His India After Gandhi is a masterpiece on the history of India after independence.

In this collection of essays, Guha introduces the reader to the history of environmentalism  - mostly in India, but also in the West. Three of the nine essays are profiles of prominent environmentalists - Lewis Mumford, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Madhav Gadgil. The others are masterful criticisms of the hypocrisy of certain types of environmentalists. 

The unifying theme of the book is the close relationship between environmentalism and the rights of the poor. There are three main ways, Guha says, in which the two are linked. 

The first is the hypocrisy of the West, when it comes to the rest of the world. Over the past two-three centuries, the countries of the West have enjoyed high economic growth, and the associated socio-economic development. They were able to achieve this mostly by exploiting the resources of the less well-off countries of the southern hemisphere. These countries have managed to protect their own ecology, but have destroyed that of the countries they colonized. And now that they have achieved the requisite levels of development, they preach to these same countries on the virtues of protecting the environment.

The second linkage between environmentalism and the poor is the tussle between the government and the indigenous people. The government, says Guha, is a centralized, bureaucratic entity. In trying to protect the forests and the wildlife, the government creates insensitive policies that trespass on the rights of the poor. The indigenous people have used the forests as the source of their livelihood for centuries, but are now restricted from even entering these forests. Not only that, the government displays its two-facedness by denying the people access to  the forests, and then allowing businessmen to cut down the trees for their own ends.

The third issue springs from the previous one - the contradiction between the needs of the rural millions, and those of the smaller number in the cities. The cities over-consume, and the government takes away rural resources in order to satisfy the needs of the cities. An obvious example here is the building of large dams in order to provide electricity to the cities. Millions are displaced in the process - the government does not provide adequate rehabilitation to them. They end up in the slums of the nearest city.

Guha does not just proscribe - he also prescribes. The solution to the problem, he says, lies in decentralizing our systems. We should devolve power to the people. Each village or community must have the rights to manage its own forest resources. The government must not interfere unless absolutely necessary. 

In the eponymous essay, the final one, Guha points out the contradiction between the West's over-consumption (an average American consumes over 20 times the amount an average Indian consumes) and its arrogance in preaching to the developing countries that they need to reduce their population. 

He also quotes Gandhi, "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."

Believe it or not, he said that in 1928. And that's exactly what's happening today. Two gigantic countries, India and China, are scouring the world for the resources needed to meet their growing energy needs. Over-exploitation is hitting an all-time high, as the people of the world's largest countries (by population) start aping the consumption patterns of the already developed countries of the West. A scary prospect indeed.
• • •


mridu said...

Any solutions in there or is it just scary talk? the decentralized thing has been around for a long time...a clearer way to do it would help....
well anyway, indians need some scary talk before they realize how grave the situation is. not sure if thats a great strategy to change things though....

have to stop devouring your blog and get back to work! working on an essay looking at influencing behaviour change towards more that-oh-so-so-overused-and-almost-meaningless-word...tadaa! sustainability!
sorry about the cynism :P