Vision for the future

Print edition : August 17, 2018

Water extracted from a ditch dug in a waterhole in Gajdinapur village in Patan district in Gujarat. The book argues for a change of mindset where water is seen as a sustainer of ecosystems and harvested and governed locally as a common resource. Photo: AFP

Soliga Adivasis and NGOs discussing the conservation plan for the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple sanctuary in Karnataka. A file photograph.

A collection of essays mapping out viable sustainable alternatives to capitalist modernity.

I WAS skeptical when I started reading Alternative Futures: India Unshackled edited by Ashish Kothari and K.J. Joy. In the early 1990s when I worked at the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, the Centre actively publicised and promoted the “alternative” decentralised community-based natural resource management model practised in places such as Sukhomajri, Haryana, and Ralegaon Siddhi, Maharashtra as being ecologically sustainable and socially equitable.

Unfortunately, as years went by, there was no sign that such experiments were on the rise. Moreover, while critiques of capitalist modernity and neoliberal development were a dime a dozen, there were few, if any, detailed macro visions of a different path to sustainable and equitable development and also rigorous critiques of these micro-level “success” stories.

Despondency set in as neoliberal development gained pace and spread far and wide, making India an even more polarised society than it had always been.

The book under review is, however, different. Kothari and Joy, both being actively involved in sociopolitical and environmental movements for the past few decades, have assembled a group of activist scholars and scholar activists to imagine a future that offers a viable sustainable alternative to capitalist modernity.

What ties together an apparently disparate set of 32 essays covering a breadth of topics on ecological, political, economic and sociocultural themes is a critique of India’s current development path and a vision for a future grounded in real-life examples of sustainable alternatives emerging from state policies and/or civil society initiatives.

The writers have followed the brief given by the editors who say in their introduction: “Our brief to the exciting galaxy of authors in this volume was to indulge in some such vision-setting, for a moment letting the imagination run riot, and not get caught in the shackles of what is ‘realistic’ and ‘feasible’. But since we did not want this to be an exercise only in imagination, we also requested authors to build on the current context, and to provide actual examples and instances from the past or present that point to the real possibility of such visions coming true” (page 3).

The first couple of essays in the book deal with the building blocks of such a vision—namely a sustainable and equitable ecological future, a theme that in fact runs through most of the essays in the volume. Kartik Shanker, Nitin Rai and Meera Anna Oommen set the stage by arguing for a reconciliation ecology that emphasises diverse, multi-use landscapes where humans and non-humans can coexist. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised, given the current conservation paradigm that imagines largely a network of wildlife protected areas and reserved forests free of humans and human use without caring much for what happens outside them.

Conservation and social justice are inextricably linked in a densely populated country like India, and hence alternatives to fortress conservation must be explored along with local communities who depend on natural resources.

Sharachchandra Lele and Geetanjoy Sahu build on this call for a more equitable ecological future by arguing that environmental governance must embrace environmentalism as a way of life through a reworked institutional framework that emphasises social justice and democracy. They argue that translating such principles into practice will require much more decentralised nodes of environmental decision-making and more downward accountability and inclusiveness within the bureaucracy charged with administering environmental laws. They further contend that more public awareness will be required to ensure that such a decentralised system is held accountable and works.

Water as a  common resource

The other two chapters in the section on “Ecological Futures” are sector specific, focussing on water and energy. The water sector is perhaps the most emblematic of post-Independence India’s tryst with development. Jawaharlal Nehru’s temples of modernity, that is, large dams, were the focus of water policy. As Shripad Dharmadhikary and Himanshu Thakkar highlight in their essays, the aim of the policy was to store and use water and to deem the water not stored as waste. The result is there for us to see—dried up rivers and overexploited groundwater. To make things worse, many rivers have been polluted with no end in sight. Dharmadikhary and Thakkar argue for a change of mindset where water is seen as a sustainer of ecosystems and harvested and governed locally as commons. They point to the locally revived traditional water-harvesting systems such as johads and the larger systems such as the River Parliament to manage the Arvari, both in Rajasthan.

Ensuring these water systems are sustainable will, of course, depend on switching to less water-intensive crops. Here, one can think of the village of Hivre Bazaar in Maharashtra where water-intensive crops such as sugar cane have been banned by the village panchayat. The system of rice intensification (SRI), “the new and evolving alternative to conventional methods of rice cultivation”, is another option.

Similarly, energy, too, will have to become more decentralised, as Harish Hande, Vivek Shastry and Rachita Mishra suggest. While they recognise the importance of modern energy sources in meeting the aspirations of over 200 million people in rural areas who still do not have regular electricity, they argue that the centralised grid is already strained. Moreover, the costs of expanding it in terms of more coal-fired power plants and large hydro systems would not only be financially costly but environmentally and socially destructive. Development, lest the reader has forgotten, continues to destroy ecologically fragile landscapes and human lives through displacement. Again there are real-life examples of decentralissed energy systems, which cater to local livelihoods. These should be promoted, as the authors argue, through financing such pathways and upgrading local capacity through service networks.

Radical social democracy

Power structure holds the key to these imagined ecologically sustainable futures and, therefore, not surprisingly receives attention in the second section, “Political Futures”. A number of chapters in the section call for a more radical social democracy, as Aditya Nigam calls it in his essay titled “For a radical social democracy: Imagining possible Indian future/s”. Nigam argues that such a democracy would be a far cry from “the present form of party-based parliamentary democracy” which “reduces all politics and contestation to mass manipulation…” (page 155). Such an imagined democracy, Nigam adds, will build on the ideas of B.R. Ambedkar and M.N. Roy, while taking the positive elements from Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. We can add a host of other visionaries to that list such as Jyotiba Phule and ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy.

In the essay titlted “Allowing people to shape our democratic future”, Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Praavita Kashyap talk about how such a democracy might unfold and what a vision of such a democracy might look like. They highlight the importance of a rainbow coalition of social movements that help foster direct democracy that prioritises economic, social, ecological and political rights and show how such a coalition led to the Right to Information Act, 2005, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

Questions no doubt remain as to whether such alliances can be maintained and even expanded given the plurality of India’s actors and its large size. One also wonders how such rainbow alliances will translate into grass-roots democracy. True, examples such as the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, already exist. They require development projects in particular geographical areas to get the approval of the gram sabha concerned. However, in the gram sabhas often rules are not only not framed but their implementation also remains half-hearted.

Arpita Kodiveri, in the chapter titled “Legal futures for India”, proposes a third House of Parliament comprising village representatives who could debate and discuss Bills and whose two-thirds approval would be required to pass a Bill. This leaves us with the vexing question of social inequality in villages that Ambedkar warned about. Will radical social democracy overturn such inequalities? Presumably, direct democracy with adequate affirmative action safeguards will make it more likely than at present, but it remains a daunting challenge.

For a sustainable economy

The chapters under the section “Economic Futures” collectively chart out a vision for a more equitable and sustainable economy that is cognisant and appreciative of local knowledge systems and resources. Capitalist modernity has not only degraded, depleted and polluted nature but also killed vast reservoirs of biodiversity and marginalised knowledge systems associated with them. Bharat Mansata, Kavitha Kuruganti, Vijay Jardhari and Vasant Futane make a case for food sovereignty and security based on traditional knowledge systems as an alternative to the Green Revolution. They give the example of the Deccan Development Society in Telangana and its work with women’s sangams in repopularising traditional agriculture and millet cultivation. Ilse Kohler-Rollefsen and Hanwant Singh Rathore argue for an integrated pastoral production system that once again is cognisant of the traditional as opposed to mimicking the “efficient” but energy-intensive livestock production systems” (page 218) of the West.

In his chapter titled “Biomass-based rural revitalisation in future India”, Joy details the importance of a biomass-based economy that can be locally self-sufficient. These three chapters illustrate the possibility of an integrated approach to agriculture and allied activities. The rest of the chapters in this section speak of the other dimensions of the village as well as the urban economy. In “Crafts show the way for Indian industrialisation”, Uzramma argues that craft industries not only require minimal financial investment and infrastructure but embody cultural traits that have a significant market. Craft melas, which are fairly common in urban centres, are an example of this.

M.P. Parameswaran dreams of a village economy that is not only self-sufficient, but also minimalist and sustainable. Dunu Roy’s vision is equally big, namely cooperative-based industrialisation that moves away from competition and profit and ensures the dignity of labour. Rakesh Kapoor makes the case for a more dispersed urbanisation process while Sujit Patwardhan argues for a transport policy that is less car-centric and focusses on non-motorised transport nodes, which is possible if residential areas in urban centres are much more compact, reducing the need for travel. Dinesh Abrol talks about technological alternatives that are not driven by neoliberal logic but by people’s needs.

Diversity & tolerance

The final section of the book, “Socio-Cultural Futures”, contains a wide range of subjects, including language, education, arts, health, caste, religion and knowledge. What binds these chapters together is a broad call for embracing diversity and tolerance that builds upon the past but is cognisant of the need for change as well. Ganesh Devy points out that India, according to the People’s Linguistic Survey, has more than 700 living languages, each embedded in rich cultures. Sudha Gopalakrishnan speaks about art traditions such as Theyyam in Kerala that cross religious boundaries and illustrate ways towards a multicultural society.

Similarly, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta talks about the growth of alternative non-profit initiatives within the media and Rajeshwari Raina about more decentralised initiatives such as the one by the Timbuktu Foundation for knowledge production for agriculture. All these authors are, of course, aware that much more needs to be done to mainstream such initiatives and roll back the increasing corporatisation of our lives. This is perhaps most important in the education and health sectors, which continue to be driven mostly by profit motives.

As Rajesh Khindri and Tultul Biswas illustrate, while the Right to Education Act, 2009, aimed to make education more equitable, it has hardly made a dent in our stratified educational system. Similarly, despite Abhay Shukla and Rakhal Gaitonde’s call for a universal health care model that is publicly funded, it is private health care that continues to flourish and private hospitals that mushroom. We must, therefore, continue to push forward these alternative visions across sectors and also make the case for a future that grapples with and addresses social inequalities, especially those of caste and gender as Anand Teltumbde and Arvind Narrain respectively argue. “Imagining Utopia”, as Narrain puts it, is well worth it.

In their “Concluding Perspectives”, under “Looking back into the future: India, South Asia, and the world in 2100”, the editors suggest that we acknowledge the daunting task ahead in translating the collective imagined future dilineated in this volume into reality. History tells us that capitalism invariably responds to the crises it finds itself in. Today is no different. Many alternatives set out in this book, be it non-renewable energy or organic agriculture, have an increasing number of corporate actors involved. First, sustainable futures are being neoliberalised, and capital sees in such futures opportunities for further accumulation. The current political disposition depends significantly on keeping corporate India happy. Secondly, capitalism is successful in creating new subjects enticed by the market and consumption. How do we fight back against this, given that much of India aspires for a better life? The case for an alternative future needs to have a material foundation that people buy into.

Thirdly, these alternative futures based on real-life examples have not derailed the juggernaut of economic growth in India and its scant regard for the environmental laws on statute books, which are increasingly being watered down in the name of development. While there are victories to be celebrated such as the Supreme Court’s judgment in favour of the Dongria Kondh people’s right to reject the United Kingdom-based mining company Vedanta Resources’ bauxite mining in Niyamgiri Hills, these are few and far between. The recent closure of the Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, is a stark reminder of how far governments are willing to go when “development” is at stake.

Fourthly, we are now living in times when diversity appears to have lost value. The bogey of majoritarian nationalism is increasingly deployed to undermine alternative visions for the future and anything that comes in the way of nationalism and development as the government knows it. It remains to be seen, therefore, what space will exist in the near future for a more decentralised vision of development and democracy that is sustainable, equitable and inclusive.

Finally, even if such space exists for more decentralised development, it is worth keeping in mind that decentralisation can be socially exclusive and economically unjust. Trade-offs might exist between sustainable ecologies and egalitarian societies. We need to grapple with these complexities, much more than, perhaps, the authors of this volume were able to do, and chart out a vision that is cognisant of the shortcomings of “traditional” societies. Let us not forget that Indian society is hugely polarised on the lines of class, caste, gender and other identities. Feudal caste-based patriarchies are as much a threat as capitalist modernity. It is perhaps this sobering reminder of the challenges ahead that makes this book and the message it puts forth all the more valuable and a must read, however utopian it might appear.

Ajit Menon is professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies.

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