What does India want?

Author:Sampat, Payal

The government in New Delhi sent a defiant message when it began setting off nuclear bombs in May. But hundreds of millions of Indians, if they had a voice, might have sent a very different message. The threat they feel most acutely - the destruction of their natural support systems - does not come from Pakistan or China but from within their own country.

It's safe to make just one generalization about India - which is that every other time you generalize about India, you're probably wrong. With over 400 living languages, 85 political parties and a 5,000-year-old cultural and intellectual history, India is defined by its heterogeneity. "All the convergent influences in the world run through this society," wrote historian E.P. Thompson. "There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind."

Perhaps the most noted modern representatives of this diversity of thought were Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who worked together in the first half of this century to get the British to "quit India," but differed sharply in their vision of what an independent nation should look like. At that time, their debate pertained only to the future of a former colony facing the challenges of self-governance. Today, the echoes of that famous debate still resonate-now in the accelerating development of the second-most populous nation, and with large implications for the world as a whole.

Nehru aspired to make India a leading industrial society, a force to reckon with in the global economy; it would be powered by modern machinery and giant dams - he called these the "new temples of modern India." Gandhi's hope, in contrast, was to strengthen India's grassroots village economies by promoting local self-reliance, and by using what would today be called "appropriate technology" - the kind of tool that increases a worker's productivity, but does not devalue or replace him.

In recent years, the intellectual successors to Nehru and Gandhi have polarized the issue in a way those early leaders may never have intended. The debate has taken different forms in the half-century since India's independence in 1947, but the tensions it expresses - over modernism and tradition, globalization and community, economic prosperity and voluntary simplicity - are now as familiar in Mexico, Nigeria, and Japan as they are in India.

Giving added urgency to the debate today is the fact that these issues are matters not only of political philosophy, but also of biological and economic survival. India's physical environment is deeply threatened, and so, as a result, are the one billion people and the economic activities that it supports. At a time when homogeneous prescriptions for economic development are being called into question, the sprawling diversity that has kept people debating for the past half-century may hold answers for India's biggest challenge yet: balancing the needs of its people with the natural systems that sustain them.

Fifty Years in the Making

At the time the British left India in 1947, the newly independent nation faced human deprivation of staggering dimensions. Nehru, as the nation's first prime minister, guided the country's development along the lines of the Soviet Union, a model that suited both his industrial aspirations and the need to overcome this poverty. Like the state planners of China and the Soviet Union, Nehru envisioned development on a grand scale. His government and its successors undertook an ambitious, ongoing campaign to construct dams, transcontinental highways, and nuclear power plants. Unlike the Soviet and Chinese regimes, however, the Indian government encouraged private ownership. In keeping with its long tradition of ideological plurality, it embraced a "mixed economy": although the state controlled some key sectors (electricity utilities, telecommunications, aviation, and mining, among them), private enterprise continued to be a vital part of the economy.

While Nehru's vision prevailed most visibly, Gandhi's ideas shaped the economy as well. His idea of swadeshi, putting emphasis on things "indigenously produced," played an important role in India's freedom struggle, and has strongly influenced India's economic philosophy - and its citizens' psyche - ever since. The idea was to empower ordinary people by fostering pride in what they produced themselves, and by encouraging self-reliance through activities like spinning cotton and growing food for their own consumption. By extension, swadeshi led to a policy of national self-sufficiency in food production. However, the means that were used to enact this policy - the "Green Revolution" with its heavy dependence on mechanization, agrochemical applications and centralized seed banks - had a decidedly Nehruvian spin. While bureaucrats in New Delhi have continued their pursuit of large-scale development, much of Gandhi's legacy has evolved in less conspicuous venues - in the rural villages and in India's 25,000 non-governmental organizations and grassroots movements involved in environmental and social reform.

Over the past decade, a third voice - promoting free-market policies - has been introduced to the old debate, and has brought rapid changes. The shakeup began in 1991, when India's economy faltered. A weak monsoon that year hit farmers hard. Since agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy (providing a third of the country's GDP and 70 percent of its jobs), the blow to agricultural growth sent repercussions throughout the economy. Later that year, the Soviet Union disintegrated and India lost its primary export market - and oil supplier. India's GDP, which had grown at about 5.5 percent per year throughout the 1980s, flattened to a growth of less than 1 percent in 1991. At the time, the country owed $90 billion in foreign loans it had taken out to finance its many infrastructure projects. With under $1 billion in foreign reserves, India found itself in a dangerously vulnerable position.

At that point, the International Monetary Fund stepped in with an offer to bail India out - on the condition that the country abandon its socialist planning for free-market policies. Like several other developing countries around the same period - Mexico and Vietnam, for example - India agreed to "liberalize" its economy: to reshape its laws to encourage foreign investment, to privatize certain state enterprises, and to dismantle trade barriers that protect domestic industry. These reforms met with hostility in a nation built on the concept of local self-determination. But economists, who had long complained about the inefficiencies of their country's protectionist policies, were relieved that India was finally poised to become a competitive force in the global economy.

Draining Groundwater

In the 50 years since its independence in 1947, India's economy has grown ninefold. While its population in that time has doubled, its grain production has nearly quadrupled - on the surface, an extremely good ratio. And during the same period, the country's electricity generation capacity has expanded 50 times. But much of its material progress has neglected - and often come at the devastating cost of - the natural resources that have fueled it.

In its efforts...

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