Growth without welfare is meaningless

By Aruna Roy & Nikhil Dey

In all probability the majority of us who might have access to this newspaper will not read this piece. It does not interest us because we have so easily managed to separate what we see as economic activity from the rest of society. Even our economics has narrowed down to money and profits. Our overwhelming interest lies in what happens in the stock market, in our so called investments, and in the achievements of the affluent classes.

We are so skewed in our vision that we look at the daily figures of the stock market with far more interest than we see the annual index of the human develpment report. We overlook the fact that our 8% economic growth rate is accompanied by a range of disturbing nutrition, literacy, health and povery indicators that are far more important reflection of our ill health as a nation. We call the growth of Maoism a security issue, the opposition to Tatas in Bengal , or BALCO in Orissa or SEZs across the country anti-development, and the ecological threats to the earth a conspiracy of environment fundamentalists. Our economics has something very wrong with it.

When we speak of economic vision, the first question that arises is that of the definition of the term itself. In the last century it has had an overwhelming dominance in the hierarchy of disciplines, and had perilously hung between being looked at as an analytical social science and its own self perception of being mathematically capable of predicting the future with precision. Many economic theories have therefore been ignored, or contradicted people's welfare and looked at the processes only from the point of view of profit.

As stock markets threaten to pull the rich of the world into a severe depression, we just might have a moment to reflect on the fragility and tenuousness of the model of economic growth the majority of our mainstream economists want to so passionately pursue. We have so called economic analysts who comment more on the betting and gambling in the sensex and stock markets than on any real indicators of people's economic lives.

We have an upper middle class that has become a gambling class dependent on the daily figures of the stock market to be able to pursue their dreams of joining the ranks of the world's most affluent list, and we have a nation whose economic strength is being judged on this illusory wealth of a tiny minority of its people. In the midst of all this we have a media empire that separates the economy and society, because its TRPs are based on the interest of the moneyed or purchasing class. It is time we realised how important it is for our collective future that we see economic, social and environmental health as intrgrally related to each other. Also that economics has to relate to all the people of the country, and the money and resources they have access to.

There are some basic truths that are very obvious. The growing gap between the rich and the poor is not sustainable. The western lifestyle we want to sell to the Indian middle class cannot be met from the earth's resources. We cannot dispossess people of their land and resources to build sand castles of development. The failure to guarantee our citizens basic needs of education, health and livelihood is more of a threat to our nation than any external force. The pace of growth of Maoism in our country, is not the biggest threat to the security of India as our prime minister has put it, but a reflection of the threat the poor of India perceive from the state and its propensity to function as an agent of corporate interests. The use of force will only undermine our democratic structure.

India today stands sharply divided, and we must show a basic commitment to democratic principles by respecting the voice of all our people rather than looking for militaristic solutions. It is the only way we can face the truth, and face the difficult questions of our economic future.

Democracy actually is our biggest hope. If we were to give every person behind the vote an equal place in our decision-making process, we would understand how much one class of people is growing at the cost of another. It would help us understand that develpoment and growth models have to be carefully worked out, so that decisions are taken through consensus and self-governance. Imperfect as it is in practice, our democracy has saved us from many a ctastrophe.

In our current scenario, we need to strengthen our democratic practice, give space to plurality and the voices of dissent, and realise that it is not only impossible to snuff out these protesting voices, it is most unwise to do so. If we listen to these voices of protest with humility, we will realise how basic, reasonable, and important their perceptions are.

[ Courtesy: The Economic Times, 22 September 2008]

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