ourEconomy: Opinion

India should stop obsessing about GDP, and start focusing on what matters

India's economic slowdown is a cause for concern. But more economic growth is not the answer to India's problems.

Brototi Roy
13 February 2020
Women shout slogans as they take part in a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC during an evening in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi India kn 05 January 2020.
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Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto/PA Images

India’s economy is experiencing a major slowdown. According to recently published government data, the country’s GDP grew by 4.5% in the July-September quarter of 2019 – the lowest rate of growth since 2012-13. This is in stark contrast from the 2000s, when India was one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

This slowdown has many analysts and media commentators worried. Concern about slowing growth in India, and across the Global South in general, stems from the belief that economic growth is essential for increasing employment and reducing poverty.

However, many studies have shown that rising GDP doesn't necessarily improve people’s lives. The economist Amit Bhaduri has described India's economic boom in the 2000s as ‘predatory growth’, with forests and indigenous lands destroyed in the name of growth, shattering the livelihoods and heritages of the poor and marginalized.

Moreover, India’s rapid economic growth has led to spiralling inequality. In a recent report, Oxfam India examined trends in consumption, income and wealth, and concluded that India is among the most unequal countries in the world. Not only is inequality high, it has been rising in recent decades – particularly since 1991, the year that liberal economic reforms were adopted. Last year, the richest 1% cornered 73% of the wealth generated in India. Today India’s elites live a similar lifestyle to elites in other parts of the world, while millions live in poverty. But it’s not just about wealth: severe inequalities also exist when it comes to access to basic amenities such as health, education, and nutrition.

One argument used to justify such inequalities is the trickle-down effect, or the ‘Kuznet’s curve’. Simply put, this means we shouldn’t be concerned about the inequalities generated by economic growth because eventually the benefits of growth will ‘trickle down’. This concept was later also extended for the environment, in what came to be known as ‘environmental Kuznet’s curve’, which says we shouldn’t worry about environmental degradation because once the ‘adequate’ amount of growth is reached, the environmental damages will reduce as well.

But infinite growth in a finite planet is impossible. Our economic model is putting unsustainable pressures on our planetary boundaries. The social and ecological harms being inflicted by our current growth model means that there will soon be nothing left to ‘trickle-down’. We can’t afford to continue ignoring how economic growth is generated, and how the gains from growth are distributed.

At the same time, India is also facing a serious threat to its democracy. India’s new government recently introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – a law that would make it very difficult for minorities, and specifically Muslims, to acquire citizenship known. There has also been a rise in mob lynching of minorities, large scale destruction of the environment, and violence against the people who oppose it. According to a recent report from Global Witness, 23 environmental defenders were killed in India in 2018 ­­– the third highest in the world.

It’s clear that the status quo isn’t working – we need a new approach.

Degrowth: an alternative path for India’s future

One idea that has gained prominence in recent years is ‘degrowth’.

The term degrowth originated in France in the early 2000s, and soon spread to other parts of Western Europe, particularly Spain. In contrast to how it is often reported in the media, degrowth is not simply about shrinking GDP. Instead, degrowth aims to re-politicize the debate on socio-ecological equity and justice by putting social and environmental wellbeing at the centre of economic decision making. It calls for a fundamentally different kind of society – not less of the same. A society that is based on the concepts of democracy, equality and simplicity, free of discrimination based on class, race, gender, caste or religion.

The utopic vision of a degrowth is far from being a reality in India. However, these possibilities of alliances are not as far-fetched as one might think. Activists and scholars across India are already finding spaces to discuss degrowth. In 2014, a two-day seminar was organized in New Delhi to discuss growth, green growth and degrowth in India, which was attended by 140 researchers, activists, policy makers and students.

In recent weeks India has witnessed an unprecedented rise in protests and social discontent. Since 11 December 2019 – the day the CAA was passed – there has been a women-led sit in protest in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, which is now being replicated in other cities of the country. The constitution of India, which came into effect seventy years ago with the aim of securing justice, liberty, equality and fraternity to all its citizens, is being recited and invoked in the protests. This overwhelming resistance, with creative slogans, songs, banners and poems, shows that there is a desire for a different kind of society.

While these protests are not about degrowth, they represent a move in the direction of degrowth principles, such as equality and justice, while holding on to democratic and secular values. Only time will tell whether this resistance will grow into a wider movement demanding a more socially and ecologically just nation. But one thing is clear: the winds of change are blowing.

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