Monday, December 21, 2015

Read about capital stocks, and Mother Earth, and the corruption of taste. And we'll know India

These are times when the best refuge is history and the counsel of the wise -- times when things that should not happen, like the killing of writers, happen, and the killers are not pursued; when men are lynched in the name of faith and the lynchers are not pursued; when hate speeches are made and the perpetrators are not pursued; when the CBI, caged parrot turned hunting falcon, is trained to select its victims with unerring political judgment; when Teesta Setalvad is hounded with the same diligence with which Russian-French-British fighter jets hound ISIS terrorists; when even Hardik Patel is silenced with sedition cases. Yes, these are times when we need reminders about the purpose of life and the aim of nations.

In the days of innocence the purpose of life was to attain peace and the aim of nations was to help this process. In today's dog-eat-dog world peace for some is war for others while self-respecting nations chase peace and progress by exploiting other nations. In India a clear aim for the nation has been clearly proclaimed: Development. But what is development and how does -- or should -- a nation achieve it?

One of the most original economist thinkers of our time, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, defined development by saying that a country had four capital stocks: Material goods, natural capital (water, soil, forest), human capital (health, education) and social capital (mutual trust, harmony). Simultaneous progress of these four is development. If GDP alone is chased, he said, it would be promotion of one capital and destruction of the others. That would not be development.

It is difficult to disagree with that theory. If water, soil and forests are degraded, health and education are neglected and mutual trust and harmony among the people are non-existent, then how can increased industrial production and trade bring about development? In India three of our four capital stocks are in dire circumstances while the fourth is still to achieve its potential despite the finance ministry's brave claims.

The Stiglitz argument resonates in the works of our own writers who have no particular grounding in economics but whose folk wisdom and familiarity with rural realities equip them with insights that are profoundly humanistic. Aware of India being a "country with 64,000 castes, 33,000 deities and 12 calendars," Chandrasekhara Kambar recently cautioned: "Something is fundamentally wrong. Our relationship with the earth has changed. The earth was our mother, but now we see her as a cheap woman who can earn us quick money".

Kambar, leading Kannada playwright-novelist, is unequalled in his portrayal of the village and folk traditions. His latest novel is called Shivana Dangura, Shiva's drum that is supposed to beat the final warning. His thesis is that industrialisation at the cost of agriculture is the way to destruction. "Agriculture is the origin of all our festivals. Our scriptures come from agriculture. Without agriculture we have no peace". He is alarmed at the migration of villagers to the cities and the conversion of agricultural land to factory sites. "What a family of ten peasants earns in a year after great toiling is much less than what an IAS officer earns in a month. What is the use of such an economy"?

Kambar does not say that industrialisation is bad. Basically he is asking what many intellectuals keep asking -- whether the Western model of capitalist-industrial growth is the model we must follow. "Let us have the modern world, their thoughts, their debates. But let us not lose that we have. Give the farmers education, give them health. Only then will we have a world that can protect us from destruction". Of course it will be too late for the thousands of farmers who have taken their own lives as a result of the policies our governments pursue.

Sensible governments would have paid more attention to the ideas of intellectuals if only because their knowledge base was as wide as their perspectives. But the intellectual has always been suspect in the eyes of politicians and bureaucrats. This is more pronounced now with a constricted ideology, viscerally opposed to intellectuals, wielding power. What such forces do was summarised by Edward Gibbon as he described the degradation of the Roman Empire. "The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the Sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste".

Rome, 5th century. India, 2015.