Is India’s growth Sustainable?

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell – Edward Abbey

Growth is good – but at whose expense? That is the question that Indian policy makers need to analyze. American style capitalism has been a role model of most of the developed economies of the world today, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The free market economy has externalized the costs and have made the products appear cheaper – which is actually not the case. Those costs are borne by the people who are left behind in the growth story and have no say in the economic system.

Returning to India after some 7 odd years hasn’t been all that bad. Foreign brands, huge shopping malls, super stores, items of daily convenience la $1 shops or 100 Yen shops have found their way in the metro cities – but at the same cost that I used to pay abroad. I was earning in yen earlier and now I’m earning in rupees, which is drastically lesser – as compared. So, in effect, what was common-place ‘there’ is luxury ‘here’. The consumption based model driving the economy is on the fast track – literally. The F1 race hosted in Delhi is a classic example – on one hand we have millions of dollars at stake with world class racers eyeing the Indian circuit while on the other, there are people living under a dollar just a few kilometers away near open landfills dotting the city.

Opposite the metro line

The metro rail in Delhi is another success story – but people living just 10 meters from the line – wash, bath and live in a slum cluster. We have exodus of immigrants from 3 tier cities flowing into the metros – bringing with them the increased stress on the basic infrastructure needs – people living off the grid, without paying any house tax, road tax or any tax whatsoever.

Growth is happening – but it’s isolated – in pockets. The whole systems thinking of growing holistically or organically is nowhere to be seen. It was a common sentiment among the public that instead building a multi-crore F1 track, we could’ve created something of value – with long term results. This is called delayed gratification – but the culture is instant gratification – diagonally opposite to what sustainable living and sustainable consumption offers.

Delhi has seen roads and flyovers criss-crossing the landscape. It’s a breeze to drive early in the morning – when the traffic is at its minimum. But that is not when we generally commute to work. Traffic has increased manyfold and it crawls! Road rage runs high. Shootings, incidents and fist fights are a common place.

Old and worn out city taxis are running on clean fuel and so are the highly unstable, risky and convenient 3-wheelers which are to be expected to increase by another 100k in the coming months! People are stressed just to make the living – leave alone the bombardment of fancy i-things and droids pushing them to live beyond their earning limits. There’s constant smog hanging all over.

Doing business is hard. Appointments are not kept. Saving one’s own is of prime concern…and on and on.

But that’s what Delhi life is. I’m attending 2 conferences in the next week – both geared towards Sustainability and challenges business and governments face to make it work in the Indian context. It’s a must in India – not a maybe thing! But when a country lacks on so many fronts, sustainability takes a back seat – and that is the essence of sustainability – instead of seeing it as a cost, it ought to be seen as a business opportunity – especially in the Indian scene.

On the side walk

Sustainable growth is what India needs – from the ground up, and not from the top. F1 races, malls et all are illusions that evaporate after consumption. Challenge is to blaze a trail of our own – and we don’t have anyone to look upto who has gone this route. All developed countries have polluted first and then got on the thing called sustainability. India can’t take that chance – if it does it does so at its own risk.

21st November: “Sustainability – The Outlook on business and government” by XLRI business school at WWF-India auditorium, Delhi

25th November: “Sustainability Solutions – Summit and Exhibition” by CII-ITC at Hotel The Lalit, Delhi


6 thoughts on “Is India’s growth Sustainable?

  1. The contrast you show through the pictures and what you write is incredible. Sitting here in Canada, it is hard to imagine what life in Delhi is like… Sadly it makes me think of the situation some of our aboriginal communities are going through in northern Canada. You have profitable mines and pipelines established with the promise of a better life for the neighboring communities. But, that’s never how it seems to turn out.
    I truly hope the people of India find to way to achieve something that approaches sustainable growth. And if they do, maybe we can all learn from it.

  2. Thanks for your comment. This is the ground reality…in spite of growth happening all around. I am attending a Sustainable Urban Mobility conference with all the seemingly right players at the table….but these are addressing end-of-pipe problems. We talk about culture change within organizations….India needs a huge culture change as a nation to optimize its growth.

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