June , 2020
Economic growth, the pandemic, and the convalescing nature
00:07 am

PP Nikhil Raj and Dr. PA Azeez

The economic situation in India has been precarious and on a persistent slide. The lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the economy further downhill. It has also compelled the government to come up with several special packages to revitalize the economy, the latest one being the stimulus package of `20 lakh crores. While admitting that the national economy has contracted significantly due to the lockdown, should the development of humankind be considered solely based on economic growth or GDP? Shouldn't ‘development’ be towards improvement in life quality, welfare, tolerance, and egalitarian access to basic resources?

There is a clear connection between ‘environmental impacts’ and ‘economic growth’. The situation of the environment, particularly in countries such as India, which are on the fast track to growth, can be attributed to that. The recent lockdown has improved significantly the otherwise much-fouled air, water, and land especially around urban centres and even in forested areas. Such improvement is evident in the much-spoiled air in cities such as Delhi. The Ganges River Dolphins were reportedly spotted in Meerut. Such changes, portraying the potentials of recovery of nature given a short break from anthropogenic pressures are indeed enticing. Such improvements, if amply long, would cause dividends. It will cause a fall in morbidity and rise in potential years of life or years of healthy life lost due to disabilities from pollution - which will in effect improve the economic condition of the citizens.

The advocators of economic growth, chiefly in terms of GDP, always claim that prosperity can be only achieved through ceaseless economic growth and by exploiting environmental resources as much as possible. Furthermore, the proponents of a techno-centric development model emphasize that even in case of a crunch in specific resources, there is no ‘limit to growth’ since ‘techno-fixing’ is possible. Yes, so far, the economy has grown to a great extent through techno-fixing but it may not any further. It is becoming increasingly lucid that techno-fixing cannot keep the economy on the path of ceaseless growth anchored in consumption, demand, production and capital. The earth is going through the sixth extinction, the driving force of which is the actions vehemently pursued by humankind. In that sense, this pandemic is an event giving an intermission to the race, providing a pause to the anthropogenic undesirable activities ripping the environment. It is a chance to retrospect the path of development in vogue in the Anthropocene. The choice is with us to choose the pause as momentary or as a turning point.

For the majority of the human race, it is ‘economic development’ that determines access to a multitude of products, services, leisure and pleasure, and at times perceptible well-being. It is also misconstrued that the West is the epitome of development or wealth.

Historically, the Industrial Revolution was probably a turning point. Since then, the entire humankind has been on the track to achieve ‘development’, which has remained alluring but elusive. In this race for progress, human beings had faced numerous local, regional, natural, and also anthropogenic challenges, wars, natural calamities and epidemics that had taken the lives of millions, but failed to stop that chase. Nevertheless, such events have given a twist to the course, but the belief in the ceaseless growth-based economic development model has endured.

In this globalised world, the present situation is unique. It resembles the pre-industrialised world to a great extent, where individual requirements are minimal, travel and transport highly restricted, waste generation is much less and recycling and reusing of materials higher. This calamity, in a way, is showing that people can live contentedly, not much depending on hyper-marketed consumable products from pushy profit-driven corporate houses. It has shown the community that its basic needs can be satiated by local sources. It has emphasised that time-tested social bonds and ecosystem-linkages can help humans tide over the stress of 'physical distancing' imperfectly christened as 'social distancing'.

Certainly, the present situation is pathetic for the low-income segments. The marginalised are getting further marginalised. The migrant labourers, far-off from their homes are highly vulnerable and distressed. The daily wage labourers, employees in shops, industries, construction sites, drivers, and those involved in small scale ventures are facing a severe crisis. Similar is the case of slum-dwellers, who cannot afford to meet the norms of physical distancing.

Labour migration has been widespread in India due to the extreme inequality in resource access and distribution. While India is a natural-resource-rich country, 80% of its resources is under the control of 20% of the total population and only the remaining 20% of the resources are shared by 80% of the population. Of the 80% of the population, a minor portion is the upper-middle-class who enjoys a major portion of the 20% of the resources. It is also said that India's top 1% owns 58% of the wealth. India is among high-inequality countries, in consumption, nutrition, income, or assets, and that inequality is on the rise. The migrant labourers, rural poor, slum dwellers, while contributing significantly to the GDP, seldom get much chance to enjoy the resources for their survival needs and are the most vulnerable to any economic crash, natural calamities or epidemics. The present-day migrant labourers were mostly rural farmers who seasonally produced food for the country. However, agrarian distress forced them to abandon agriculture and migrate (mostly to urban centres) for a living.

Of late, the world has been frequently experiencing regional outbreaks of epidemics (especially zoonotic diseases). The links between environmental degradation and epidemics are proved in many cases (Nipah or Ebola or Coronavirus for instance). The major reason for environmental degradation is nothing but the zeal for economic growth marked by extensive exploitation of natural resources and systems.

As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution annually kills seven million people globally. It is well-proved that this pattern of development with a fetish for economic growth can never sustain for long, and hence, the concept of development must be revisited. That requires a cultural radical transformation vis-à-vis growth. It demands deep cognizance of the fact that humans are biologically and ecologically symbiotic with other life forms, and the human economy is merely a sub-system in the finite natural system. The concept should integrate with the ideas of decentralisation, heterogeneity and diversity to ensure sustainability. That needs changes at various levels, including institutional, legal, and attitudinal.

Unfortunately, in the country, amidst the Covid-19 misery and chaos, the central government is pushing for further dilution of environmental clearance norms. The swift clearance for the hydel projects in the north-east, despite local protests and criticism, is a case in point.

The pandemic is an occasion for the present-day economy for a structural divergence to the concept of a "steady-state economy", an ideology parallel but divergent to the classical economic concept or even the 'stationary state' conceived since Adam Smith. It implies a steady-state after downsizing or de-growth. The 'steady-state economy' envisages a low level of consumption, maybe almost like what is seen now in this the lockdown period. Its central idea is a system conceived within ecological constraints and not much enticed by the technological optimism to conquer nature. In essence, it may be similar to 'Gandhian' idea of regional self-reliance and sustenance, focusing more on social welfare, decentralized governance, ensuring need-based access to natural resources to the citizens rather than unequally accumulating wealth, depriving the locals of their local resources to be entrusted to some capitalists to make profits to be siphoned out to be amassed elsewhere. 

The post-COVID version of development must focus on social welfare, decentralised governance, and ensuring need-based access to natural resources.   

- Dr. PP Nikhil Raj is associated with the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Coimbatore

— Dr. PA Azeez, Former Director, Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, India

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