The scam of growth


I am working with the government of Bhutan to help the country become the world’s first wholly organic country. I am also working to redefine the economic paradigm to focus on the happiness (gross national happiness) and well being of its people and the health of its environment, instead of narrowly defined growth as gross domestic product.
Eighty per cent of Bhutan is forest. All streams and rivers are healthy and living. And this is a result of a conscious policy to protect nature and culture. From the local to the national level, policies are dedicated to “promotion of sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of culture and conservation of biodiversity in pursuit of a happy society”.
In the beautiful valley of Bumthang in central Bhutan, the government plans to set up a gross national happiness centre, and I have been invited to be on its executive council.
To reach the site of the centre, which is surrounded by protected conifer forests, we had to cross a gushing river in a basket on a rope bridge.
The forests and rivers took me back to my childhood in Garhwal and Kumaon where my father served as a forest conservator, and we trekked across the Himalayas through healthy forests and gushing rivers and streams. I could not have imagined as a child that our precious forests and rivers, which have sustained us through the centuries, would disappear in my lifetime because we would blindly start chasing a mirage of growth.
Forty years ago, the women of Garhwal stood up for their forests and started the Chipko Movement. They said that the real gifts of the forests were soil, water and pure air, not timbre, resin and revenue. After the 1978 floods, the government was forced to recognise that the costs of deforestation in terms of floods was much higher than the revenues collected from logging. In 1981, a ban was imposed on logging above 1,000 metres in the Ganga catchments.
In 1982, the ministry of environment asked us to do a study on the ecological impact of mining in the Doon Valley. In 20 years of mining, I had watched our streams and rivers disappear.
Our study showed that the limestone left in the mountains contributed more to the economy than its extraction through mining, because limestone is an aquifer and holds water in its cavities and caves. Friends of the Doon Valley mobilised the citizens and in 1983, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of the limestone mines and all the polluting industries dependent on it. The Doon Valley was declared an ecologically sensitive zone and a green valley.
Thirty years later, in violation of all laws, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, Vijay Bahuguna, signed an MoU with Coca Cola to set up a plant in village Charba. Wherever Coca Cola goes, it brings famine and pollution. This was the case in Plachimada in Kerala, where women started a movement and shut down the Coca Cola plant. Similar is the case in Mehdiganj near Varanasi. Each plant uses 1.5-2 million litres of water per day. This can create scarcity in the most water abundant region. On May 29, 2013, citizens from across India and the Doon Valley joined a solidarity rally of the Charba community to stop the Coca Cola plant.
Today, our forests and rivers are dying. And as a society, we don’t seem to care even though every community whose land, forests and water are being grabbed are rising in revolt. It is probably the biggest ecological movement in our history.
Tagore had called Indian civilisation “Aranya Sanskriti” and distinguished us from the Western industrial societies based on brick and mortar. But the economic and political powers that be do not think twice about chopping down forests for mines and concrete jungles.
When the protector becomes the predator, how can India’s forests survive?
And when the tribals and forest dwellers try to protect their forest homes from the predatory invasions of a corporate state, should we not pause and think about the future of our forests, our tribals, our democracy and the principles that made us an “aranya sanskriti”? Should we not look deeper at the roots of violence in our tribal areas?
How could we so completely have forgotten the foundations of our sustenance, our forests and rivers?
How could we have forgotten what it means to be a forest civilisation and a civilisation where rivers are our sacred mothers?
Why do mining corporations, real-estate corporations, dam corporations get priority over our Constitution and laws, the fundamental rights of Indian citizens, and environmental laws meant to protect nature? How have we reached a situation where the government rewards ecological criminals, and criminalises citizens working in defence of their ecosystems and the livelihoods and sustenance they provide?
There are, after all, forest conservation laws meant to protect our forests. There is a Panchayati Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act that recognises the rights of tribal communities and their sovereignty over their land and forests.
The justification is always “growth”. However, no short-term economic policy can trump the long-term economic policy of protecting the ecological foundations of all economy. Everywhere in the world, especially in Bhutan, the scam of “growth” is being recognised. All it measures is commercialisation and commodification of resources, and hence is actually the rate of extraction of resources from local ecosystems and local communities. It should, therefore, be interpreted as measuring ecological destruction and the creation of poverty, not as measuring wealth.
The real meaning of “wealth” is well being. A process that destroys nature and dispossesses local communities and hence destroys well being cannot be justified as wealth-creating. What it does lead to as a result of ecological and social exploitation and the conversion of nature’s resources into cash is the concentration of cash in the hands of a few.
And this cash can then be used for kickbacks and buying political influence, to further erode nature, people’s rights and democracy.
This is the vicious cycle we have got trapped in. And only people’s movements in the defence of nature and their rights can break it.

The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust

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