India's Rural Commons at Odds with Surging Industrialization

One issue largely absent from the agenda of this January’s global commons conference in Hyderabad, India was the idea of limits to consumption and material accumulation. There were presentations aplenty on how commons are being limited and threatened by development, land-grabbing, and ecological decay, but little discussion of how global consumption, notions of material ‘progress,’ and ‘development’ factor into the evolving equation of how humans and the planet will survive.

With Indian media reporting the likelihood of its nation producing the world’s seven-billionth human sometime this year, the 'inconvenient' question must be addressed forthrightly: how many cars, cell phones, satellite dishes, television sets, and other emblems of material ‘progress’ can the globe withstand? Beyond the more obvious urgency of climate change — the immediate need for radical emissions reductions and greatly expanded carbon sinks, among others — how much more room do the earth and the sky have for the material advancement of our ballooning populace?


Andra Pradesh village leader and trumpet player checks messages on his cell phone. Even remote rural areas have widespread cell phone use. (Photo by: Christopher Cook)

I have long resisted the population question myself, rooted as it has been in subtle and sometimes blatant racism as well as echoes of imperialism. The blaming of poorer, developing nations for overpopulation neglects America’s vastly higher per-capita (and until recently, aggregate) carbon footprint — and the profound unfairness of limiting growth in these nations after the industrial and carbon-spewing excesses of the U.S. and Europe must be addressed.

But the facts of climate chaos and the dire need to cut global emissions require an aggressively honest assessment of limits starting with U.S. and other ‘first world’ nations’ concepts of growth and materialism, but also more critically re-defining ‘developing world’ growth in the context of ironclad climatological and earthly limits.

This challenge is acutely of the moment, not only in climate change negotiations, but for another reason that is as inspiring as it is distressing: the agrarian and pastoral commons of India and other developing nations are still with us, and their survival holds the key not only to rural livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people across the world, but very possibly for the planet itself.

While the survival struggles of small Indian farming villages may seem remote to our global future, these are, in fact, contested terrains that the planet-threatening industrialization process has not yet conquered — where there’s actually something left to fight for.

These are the very commons that more than 600 activists and scholars from across the globe defended at the International Association for the Study of the Commons 13th biannual conference in India — common pasture lands, forests, and arable lands upon which millions have relied for basic survival for centuries, under threat now from the unrelenting growth imperative.


With help from the Foundation for Ecological Security, Andra Pradesh villagers are fighting to protect watersheds and improve their livelihoods, even as resources grow more scarce and contested. (Photo by: Christopher Cook)

Just as the U.S. features deep poverty and undernourishment amid phenomenal wealth and technological advancement, India's development is wildly uneven. A 2010 report by the United Nations found India has far more cell phones than toilets — 45 percent have cell phone access, while just 31 percent are afforded basic sanitation. ''It is a tragic irony to think that, in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones," so many do not have "the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet,'' said Zafar Adeel, Director of United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health.

The core problem is this: how do ‘developing’ nations, and the rural poor within those countries, improve their livelihoods and opportunities for a more comfortable and stable existence without replicating unsustainable Western-style ‘progress’? How can India, Bangladesh, and other nations with huge, largely impoverished agrarian populations find a new path for growth that does not entail climate-battering industrialization and mass material consumption?

These questions percolated as a smaller group of conference-goers ventured deep into the south Indian countryside to visit tribal villages dealing with ecological scarcity and the encroaching pressures of industrialization.

We thunder across India’s porous and shredded rural highways for hours in a huge, air-conditioned tour bus, blurring past a kaleidoscope of ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ — dust-coated shacks and tents made of plastic bags, businessmen on cell phones alongside ox carts, and bicycles laden with firewood and fruit, gaunt children, and elderly people staring into a malnourished fog.

The villages we visit — showcased by our host, the Foundation for Ecological Security, which funded my trip — are visibly poor and on a short ecological (and, it would appear, nutritional) leash. In some settlements, people are thinner and more anemic-looking; in others, there is an indeterminate mix that keeps you guessing: people are thin, flies are everywhere, yet children sprint gleefully in the dust and swim and shriek joyously in an irrigation pond.

Farm plots here are tiny, some just a few hundred square feet, but produce a bustling mix of foods: wheat, greens, bananas, pigeon peas and other pulses, tomatoes and mangoes in some areas, and squares of bright green rice paddies glistening in the sun. In these villages, in India’s southern province of Andra Pradesh, there is at least enough food to eat, if little more.


Young villagers in southern Andra Pradesh tribal area lead cattle home from a day of grazing and plowing. (Photo by: Christopher Cook)

But I’m aware we are seeing the villages favored by assistance from FES and other support, and wonder about the people and communities between these commons. What about all the shacks and roads and villages we pass that do not benefit from any protected ecological status?

Everywhere, the question hangs in the air and remains unanswered: how can these fragile yet resilient villages survive the ongoing encroachments of industry, new market streams, and land incursions from a government that appears increasingly responsive to big business interests? How long can these villages possibly survive in the furious mix of global industrial capitalism?

I weigh this as we hurtle through the Indian countryside from one village to the next, past long columns of lumbering semi-trucks, buzzing parades of auto-rickshaws, and small highway towns bustling with chai stalls, cell phone ads, stores peddling bright plastic pouches of candy and snacks. The countryside is all green, grass, coconut, palm and Neem trees, forests of Teak and invasive Eucalyptus, water buffaloes (and people) pulling loads of fodder along the roadside. Everywhere, the 'modern' passes the pastoral in a loud mashing thunder — yet the pastoral keeps trudging along, insistent and persistent.

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India is at once rising and crumbling. Even as the reminders of British colonialism are everywhere (from accents and a troubling economic and social subservience to an obsession with rules and hierarchy), India is surging economically, relentlessly growth-hungry, energetic, seemingly tossing away the final shackles of imperialism. There is an impatient industriousness in the air, furious activity, and plenty of pollution.

There is also a clear and decisive trajectory of industrialization and GDP growth at rates hovering around 9 percent, unheard of outside China. It’s true, as one businessman insists on a flight to Mumbai, that India is growing so rapidly in part because there’s so much room for growth. But there’s no denying that India is on a fast-track to Western-style development replete with booming industrialization, rising corporate power (both economic and political), and a ravenous thirst for middle- and upper-class lifestyles.

And India’s thirst for growth is nearly unrestrained; there is a significant state presence, but no communist- or socialist-style central planning to, at least, potentially check capitalism’s feverishly anarchic path (though state planning in China hasn’t led to any serious checks on air-choking industrial pollution, either).

Instead, what stands in hyper-development’s path are some concerned NGOs like my host and guide, the Foundation for Ecological Security, and a handful of politicians such as Jairam Ramesh, India’s controversial and erudite Minister of Environment and Forests who has blocked a number of dams on the upper Ganges River, much to the fury of fast-growth advocates and big business.

Perhaps the gravest internal threat to India’s growth rush has come from Maoist “Naxalite” rebels, whose campaigns of violence (primarily in the eastern states of Orissa and West Bengal) have slowed investment in some areas. As Reuters reported in August of 2010, “India's growing Maoist violence is worrying investors, forcing authorities to fight back aggressively in hopes of luring up to $7 billion in funds needed to boost coal and iron ore output vital for growth.”

The question that simmers throughout my trip is how can India (not to mention China) possibly continue to ‘grow’ and ‘develop’ in the Western industrial manner, mining its earth and waters and farmlands for GDP and middle-class consumption without destroying itself, eroding its rich and vital agrarian lands, and hastening our ecological demise?

It is profoundly unfair to demand restrictions on India, China, and other emerging nations after the U.S. and Europe have sucked the planet dry for the past century and a half. But this is where we stand now, and reams of climate-change evidence show there is no turning back the ecological clock.

And as 'emerging' nations pursue the classic 'modernization' model of favoring industrial manufacture over agriculture, how will this undermine domestic and global food security? How do we create a new economic system that promotes sustainable agrarian and pastoral lands and livelihoods — beyond preserving selected commons even as the rest of the countryside is imperiled?


Rich, green rice paddies sprawl across southern India's countryside, framed by power lines. Family plots are often about half an acre. (Photo by: Christopher Cook)

How can we ask India to restrain itself as it hurtles ahead to the very material comforts, profits, and pleasures that so many Americans and Europeans take for granted? The U.S. has zero — actually negative — credibility when it comes to setting ecologically responsible global standards, or for relinquishing any of its material excesses which contribute mightily to climate chaos. Not only have we already ‘had our fun’ plundering the planet, we continue to do so with the world’s largest per-capita carbon footprint, even as we pressure India and China to restrain their emissions.

Before demanding slower growth or less industrialization from India and China, it’s essential that the U.S. show some leadership in diminishing both production and consumption of non-essential goods mined from the earth. But that would require a direct confrontation with capitalism’s growth imperative (the unrelenting need for new markets and products, for ‘built-in obsolescence,’ and maximum profit). And that would run counter to the central underpinning of the once-vaunted American economy, now being replicated and steadily surpassed by other nations, eager to join the party.

Will anyone — can anyone — challenge the growth and consumption imperative, before it consumes us all?

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Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and writer who has written for Harper's, The Economist, Mother Jones, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. See more of his work at www.christopherdcook.com.

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