Author: Aseem Shrivastava, Ashish Kothari
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 699
Grounded in research, rich with anecdotes and unabashedly ideological, Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari have written a book on India that should be mandatory reading for all gung-ho neo-liberals who work out of Yojana Bhavan and North Block, says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
There are some who sincerely believe that the rest of the world is so completely enamoured of India’s “growth story” that they are willing to ignore the simple fact that this country is home to the largest population of the poor, hungry and malnourished in any country on the planet. There are individuals who are firmly of the view that economic growth, usually measured in terms of the pace of expansion of gross domestic product, is the panacea for most of the ills that plague this nation, including pathetic public health-care facilities, inadequate primary education, a fast-deteriorating environment and left-wing extremism.
Whenever the words “equity” or “redistribution” enter the discourse, the adherents to such views vehemently argue that India will never be able to ensure that a substantial share of its population is lifted up from the miserable human development conditions they live in, conditions that are worse than those currently prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa; that is, unless the Indian economy grows faster and faster. The example of China invariably follows such a contention. Mention inequality, corruption and crony capitalism and this group will argue that these are supposedly inevitable consequences of two decades of economic liberalism and relatively fast growth and that the country can never revert to the bad old days of socialism, Indira Gandhi-style. The problem with this logic is the belief that the economic polices followed during the ’60s and the ’70s were indeed “socialistic”, which is quite dubious.
Although those in positions of power and authority repeatedly swear by the need for “inclusive growth” and genuflect whenever the name of the proverbial aam admi is invoked, in actual practice, the policies and prescriptions that have been followed over the past two decades and longer have widened economic inequalities, thereby contributing to mounting social tensions.
Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari marshal an array of incontrovertible facts and figures to highlight how much of India’s recent growth can be characterised as predatory – they question the paradigm of development followed by the country’s leadership that has, as a result, damaged the basis for ecologically-sustainable and truly democratic progress.
Shrivastava has more of an academic background in comparison to Kothari who has actively participated in various people’s movements. The two combine well in the volume which, while not lacking academic rigour, includes a wealth of anecdotal evidence chronicling conflicts over land, water and other natural resources.
Churning the Earth also considers how these issues have sharply polarised society by widening the divide — not only between India and Bharat — but also between the affluent and the underprivileged within urban and rural areas.
This book should be made mandatory reading for all those gung-ho neo-liberals who work out of Delhi’s Yojana Bhavan and North Block. But the chances are that they will prefer to remain cloistered in their gated colonies and not like to read a well-researched publication that systematically contradicts all their cherished views on the virtues of free-market capitalism in the Indian context — whether it be on the need for special economic zones or infrastructure projects that destroy the livelihoods of many to bring ephemeral benefits to a few.
In the section entitled “advance praise for the book”, author Amitav Ghosh is quoted saying, “Kothari and Shrivastava make it clear that they have no interest in grinding the usual ideological axes…” That’s not correct. The book is intensely ideological in every sense of the word. It questions the very ideological basis of economic liberalisation in India and the intellectual framework that seeks to justify corporate-led globalisation as the only — and best possible — alternative under the circumstances we live in at present. The book is a searing critique of the country’s recent development strategies. It questions the moral justifications that are given to support so-called reforms that are, in the opinion of the authors, threatening the future of India as a civilisation.
In terms of treatment and style of presentation, the cornucopia of hard facts coupled with stories of people and places by Shrivastava and Kothari ensure that they are successful in reaching out to the informed observer as well as the lay person. That is indeed an important quality of the book.
All critics of the government are often sought to be countered by the TINA (“there is no alternative”) argument. What the authors have done is meticulously documenting the alternatives that exist within an “overarching framework of radical ecological democracy”. Another world (in India) is indeed not only necessary but possible, they argue, as realists not as incorrigible optimists.