Tapping into the obsolete

In Gandhi's land of voluntary simplicity, the rush to turbo-capitalism leaves little room for earthly tech


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Mumbai, India – The upending of the old world order is being celebrated all this month, especially here in this city of 19 million formally called Bombay, where Bollywood films, information technology, call centres and the bright lights of the big city inspire and bankroll the road to riches across the country.

Business Today, India’s glossy knockoff of Fortune mag, has put out a special issue celebrating its own anniversary alongside the 15th birthday of the country’s explosive growth spurt. “India has transformed itself from a near basket case to the hottest emerging market story,” claims a feature that predicts the country is “destined for greatness”- if it continues with deregulation, privatization, foreign investment and exports.

Not surprisingly, I hear very few people during my month in southern India yell out, “Not so fast!” No one hankers for the good old days.

But to understand the missing pieces in this boom scenario, you have to consider the case of India’s elephants. The massive creatures are very high-profile here. The wild ones are frequently protected in national parks. They’re often at the gates of famous Hindu temples and sometimes used to do bull work in forests or fields.

And the popular god Ganesha is an elephant look-alike. He’s the can-do god, the remover of obstacles, always game for fun and out-of-the-box thinking.

But Ganesha is also the elephant in the room during India’s ongoing debate on future economic options, a debate that leaves out the alternatives most in keeping with the traditional heritage and futuristic possibilities of an agrarian-based village economy.

Strangely, despite widespread admiration for Gandhi, the country’s liberator and apostle of voluntary simplicity, and despite a very feisty tradition of left and alternative politics, the mentality of turbo-capitalism has left little space for discussion of a third economic development option.

Even the Communists of West Bengal insist heavy industry must replace agricultural reform, and the Communists of Kerala rely on money sent home by the well-educated Keralans recruited for stints in Arabian work camps.

Certainly, green economy initiatives are marginalized in the official grand plan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has prioritized “world-class infrastructure,” and as in the West, infrastructure is code for city-centred roads and airports, not schools, hospitals, housing, clean air and water or eco-agriculture.

The latter are presented as a drag on business development best postponed until they’re not an economic deadweight. This is a huge problem in the developing world. Even way back, “colonialism” was just another word for “deregulation and privatization,” so colonized countries got none of those public expenditures.

True, despite its reputation for desperate hunger and pathetic beggars, much of India seems to be on a joyride out of bleak, chronic poverty. Those forced to live on less than $2 (U.S.) a day are down from 38 to 22 per cent of the population, and the middle class has expanded to 300 million (out of a total population of about 1.1 billion). The country has gone from no malls in 1991 to 358 today, from no Coke, McDonald’s or Heat ‘n Serve to lots of all the ingredients of affluenza.

But in most of India, there’s no solid waste management, and conventional garbage, including plastics and other toxics-laden containers, is burnt in the open air. One morning, leaving my hotel too early, I was overcome by the stench of melting plastic water bottles, theoretically banned from most of India.

Walking the streets is always an exercise in choke management because two-stroke motors dominate, and their fumes add to the smog-fog combo. Sidewalks are few and far between, and “might makes right” is the honour code of the deregulated road.

All this is true despite the fact that this country has everything an earthly paradise could ever need. There’s a reason why the modern world was created by Europe’s obsession with the spices that grow so freely here. Coconut, papaya, mango, banana, tamarind, pepper – you name the delicacy, they all grow on trees that can be planted almost anywhere in the South, cooling and cleaning city air and preventing soil erosion from heavy monsoon rains.

Tamarind canopies, wizened and rich in character, that shade the roads of rural Tamil Nadu could do the same in cities, as could the rain trees now growing throughout Kerala’s countryside. On top of providing healthy food, air, soil and water, trees can be made into a huge range of industrial co-products. The coconut and its leaves, for example, go into about 50 products, including soap, fuel oils, rugs, brooms, roofs, construction poles and home fire kindling.

I visited a Kerala co-op of about 100 workers (but not one motor),where coconut was converted into mats, often with undermatting made from local rubber trees that are winning kudos from international fashionistas.

Such crops open up the possibility of a high-tech economy based on natural products that don’t require polluting levels of intense heat to transform them into consumer products – a technological process the West foisted on the world. India, along with other Southern countries rich in solar power and robust natural products, has no need or reason to imitate this now-obsolete Western approach.

Village rubber, for instance, begins with the tapping of a tree, just as with maple syrup. The gum is rolled into a ball, left on the road for cars to run over and flatten, then smoked to ward off germs. The flattened rubber is made into specialty products like surgical gloves and mats.

Agro-ecology is about producing fibre and fuel as well as food, creating village-scale economic resilience and self-reliance while leaving behind clean soil, air and water.

By combining what was good from the bygone era of natural materials with what the space age makes possible with small and flexible machines, India is in a position to pioneer some radically innovative hybrids. Shocking that the ongoing debate over the country’s future shows so little interest in this.

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