Construct a building, demolish it, reconstruct, break it down again, and go on repeating this meaningless exercise. You will have economic growth, as currently measured. But no net gain in employment during the endless cycle of construction and demolition, no net increase in productive capacity, and no appreciable change in poverty levels.

Add to this the ecological cost of mining materials and using energy for the construction. And when the owners of the building decide it is more profitable to employ machines instead of people, you’ll have net loss of livelihoods.

India’s growth story is, of course, not as caricaturish, but it is not far off. Despite many years of a cracking pace of growth, net increase in employment in the formal sector has been insignificant in the last two decades.

The latest data from the 2011 census reveals 14.5 per cent unemployment (with 20 per cent in the 15-24 age group). Amongst dalits and adivasis, the rates are much higher, at 18 and 19 per cent respectively. There is much more infrastructure, many more industries and shopping malls, but the benefits of these appear to have eluded most of the poor.

Over two-thirds of Indians remain deprived of one or more of the basic needs: adequate nutritious food, clean water and air, appropriate shelter and sanitation, energy, opportunities for learning and good health, and productive livelihoods. That explains the rationale for the National Food Security Act, 2013.

Flawed ideas

The assumption that growth will magically eradicate poverty and provide jobs is fundamentally flawed. Much of the gains of growth are cornered by the already rich, mechanisation offsets new job generation, and inflation makes things worse for much of the population. And it is ecologically suicidal. Humanity is already on ‘planetary overshoot’, we are consuming 1.5 times what the earth can sustain. In India, we are already consuming much more than our natural resources can sustain, and second, the negative consequences are knocking off all the GDP growth. These are not conclusions from rabid activists, but from the very institutions that otherwise champion unbridled growth, the Confederation of Indian Industries and the World Bank, respectively.

It follows that ‘green growth’ or ‘sustainable growth’ are oxymorons; growth is inevitably unsustainable. In any case in the current ‘developmentality’ mindset, if there is a conflict between growth and the environment, the former will rule.

The UPA okayed almost every ‘development’ project that came to it; NDA has already signalled its intention to fast-track clearances, and remove safeguards for ecologically sensitive regions.

And anything standing in its way has to be tarnished as anti-national and anti-development; witness the recent reports of the Intelligence Bureau against groups that are peacefully protesting the ecological and social damage caused by coal mining, thermal and nuclear power stations, and big dams.

What is the alternative?

I was recently in Jharkhand, and saw the work of Jharcraft, a State Government enterprise, in providing gainful employment to 2.5 lakh families within just six years, through the revival and marketing of textiles, crafts, and other skills. Then I visited Kuthambakkam, a village near Chennai, where over 200 families (mostly dalit) have got livelihoods with decentralised industrial manufacturing including of solar fan and light sets.

Elango R, the dalit sarpanch who made this possible, is now working with other panchayats towards village clusters that, through local production and trade, can be self-sufficient in most basic needs. In Andhra Pradesh, I have met with farmers of Timbaktu Collective and Deccan Development Society, who market their organic produce through democratically run cooperatives or companies (after making sure their own families have enough), significantly enhancing local livelihood and food security.

In Pune city, wastepickers have organised into a union (KKPKP) and a cooperative (SWaCH) to ensure greater returns, safer and more dignified work conditions, access to credit, educational and health facilities. In several villages of Vidarbha, Maharashtra, newly titled rights to forests have resulted in dramatic increases in non-timber forest produce incomes, reducing outmigration and solidifying the collective will for conservation.

In urban slums and rural areas of Karnataka and other states, the social enterprise Selco has enhanced educational and livelihood opportunities for over 200,000 families by enabling households to buy and own solar lighting systems through bank loans.

In Bihar, a village is being fully energised with decentralised solar power, facilitated by the same organisation the Intelligence Bureau characterises as ‘anti-development’ — Greenpeace India.

None of these and hundreds of other such initiatives (see had ‘growth’ as a mantra. They directly targeted livelihoods, regeneration of natural resources (the most important ‘infrastructure’ of 800 million people in India), the use of existing or building new skills for local production, linking this to local (and a few distant) markets, and the empowerment of people to take control over their lives and fight social or economic injustice. This is not the route a ‘growth at all costs’ mantra will enable.

If the Government truly means well, it needs to prioritise direct support to such inputs. There is enough money in the economy (especially if we recover the humungous amounts of ‘black’ money, as shown by economist Arun Kumar in his recent book on the Indian economy) to invest in the 93 per cent of India’s workforce that is in the informal sector.

The investment should be in building and sustaining productive capacity, to enable people to self-provision rather be dependent on government doles: farmers to obtain organic inputs, workers to set up producer-controlled companies and retail outlets to provide much of what people need, commuters to avail of good public transportation, visitors to enjoy homestays, artists and innovators to be publicly supported.

Collective power

If this can happen, there is no reason whatsoever why soaps and shoes and energy installations and fans and bulbs and furniture and housing material and vehicles and…. you name it … cannot be made by worker collectives.

As the several thousand women of Kudumbasree, a Kerala collective that focuses on such local production and consumption, say: “Are we so dirty that we need a multinational to make soap for us?” When the NDA moves to open up all sectors to foreign investment, it should consider this simple truth.

Such an economy is also more likely to keep ecological issues in mind than are powerful, unaccountable corporations.

To paraphrase Kudumbasree’s women: Are we so mentally bankrupt that we need the mandarins of economic growth to tell us how to feed, clothe, house, educate, and heal ourselves? And so stupid as to accept the IB’s labelling of groups fighting for a safe environment as being anti-national?

The writer is a member of Kalpavriksh, Pune