Sunday, March 06, 2011

It is immoral for us to slow growth

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said last Sunday that his country’s annual growth target has been lowered to seven percent for the next five years. He made this remark in an on-line chat with the nation. “We must no longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth as that is unsustainable,” he said. He urged the government to shift its focus from GDP growth to the quality and benefits of growth.

Premier Wen’s statement comes in the wake of huge concerns in the West over the impact of China’s (and India’s) economic growth on the global environment. China's GDP growth reached 10.3 percent last year and is expected to be nine percent this year. Although he was talking to his netizens, Wen’s message was aimed at his critics in the West. His remarks appear to be eminently sensible--who could be against protecting nature? But is Premier Wen right to slow down the growth rate of a poor nation? I do not think so.

There is a saying that a woman can either be beautiful or faithful but not both. The proverb illustrates the human tendency to create mental boxes and fit people into them. Wen appears to have fallen into the ecological trap in believing that you can either have high growth or a clean environment. We too will soon be asked that if China is taking steps to lower its growth rate, why is India still obsessed with high growth? Indeed, the day after Wen’s online chat, India’s finance minister Pranab Mukherjee presented a road map in the Budget to achieve a 9% GDP growth rate, hoping that it might go higher.

The dichotomy between high growth and protecting the environment is false. A nation can grow rapidly and save its environment just as a woman can be both beautiful and faithful. The only sensible way to grow, in fact, is to make peace with nature and save the green-blue film on which life itself depends. But to ask a poor country to slow down its economic growth is immoral—it is to condemn its poor to penury. The past two hundred years teach us that the poor will only rise into the middle class unless there is growth. Growth creates jobs and wealth, which the government taxes and spends on roads, education and healthcare, and this enables the poor to rise. Indeed, 350 million Chinese and 225 million Indians have risen out of poverty in the past 25 years because of high growth.

Once upon a time I used to be a huge fan of the ecology movement, but I feel gloomy today. I am upset that so many fine projects have suffered from endless delay at the hands of activists. No one calculates the real cost of delay--the lost future of a starving child who does not realise a dream when a factory or power plant does not come up. The movement has evolved into an anti-science, anti-growth, secular religion. I shudder to think that if activists had been as zealous in the 1960s, they would have killed India’s ‘green revolution’, which multiplied our wheat and rice crop many times and succeeded in feeding 500 million additional mouths.

Meanwhile, bureaucrats and politicians have captured ecology and made it a lucrative business in India. Indeed, the prime minister complained in 2009, “Environmental clearances have become a new form of Licence Raj and corruption.” Hence, I was glad when a clean, modern minister came in 2009. But my optimism soured quickly when he turned activist and began to re-open major projects, such as Niyamgiri, Lavasa and POSCO, and proceeded to “make an example” of them. His arbitrariness resounded around the world and turned investors against India. The Reserve Bank reported recently that India’s foreign direct investment declined by 36% in the first half of 2010-11 primarily because of “environment policies in mining, integrated township projects and ports.” Of course, the environment ministry must ensure that projects meet standards, but it must do so by creating transparent institutions and not through arbitrary acts.

All of us must become sensitive to nature, especially with the rapid degradation of forest cover and global warming. But we must also be aware of the fundamentalist and irrational nature of the ecology movement, which is willing to sacrifice human opportunities to preserving nature. Environmentalists have nostalgia for vanishing, old lifestyles and refuse to admit that their earlier Malthusian predictions were wrong. Despite massive population growth, people around the world are better off today, and as prosperity and education spreads, population growth has begun to slow down in most countries. Obviously, we have to protect nature, but if it does come to a choice, human beings, I think, must precede nature. To believe the contrary is not only elitist but also immoral.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Politics of freebies promises a bleak future

The stench of corruption spreads quickly from Delhi. With the news that Tamilnadu chief minister’s daughter, Kanimozhi, is soon to be charged by the CBI, the money trail in Raja’s 2G scam seems to be established. The noose is tightening and DMK’s PR machine is working overtime to spread ‘sincere lies’ before the state election on April 13. Each of the major parties--the DMK and the AIDMK--commands the loyalty of about a third of the voters. The Congress, DMK’s junior partner, controls 12% to 15% of the vote and Vijaykanth, AIDMK’s partner, holds around 9%. The AIDMK has the anti-incumbency advantage but it will be a close contest. What should concern us, however, is another form of corruption raging under the bright Tamil sun that challenges our political morality.

The DMK believes it won the last election because it promised free television sets. To promise is one thing but the DMK government actually gave away millions of TVs! The sets were paid for from the state treasury--not party funds. In the coming election, voters are being promised fans, mixies, laptop computers, and 4 gm of gold for a poor bride’s mangalsutra. Tax payers in Tamilnadu are outraged but Kanimozhi asks, ‘what is wrong in giving people what they need?’ People wonder, however, if free TVs have a link to DMK owning a Tamil TV channel. Some greedily ask, will the next politician offer Rs one lakh cash?

It is not that Tamils don’t value integrity. They just don’t expect it from their politicians. They cynically believe that politics is the art of the sincere lie and cite the example of Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharata, who flourished through hypocrisy and nepotism. Chennai is not so different from Hastinapur and Tamil voters would prefer to be bribed openly. Populist give-aways have always been a great temptation. Roman politicians devised a plan in 140 B.C. to win votes of the poor by giving away cheap food and entertainment—they called it ‘bread and circuses’. Punjab’s politicians gave away free power and water to farmers, which destroyed the state’s finances and also the soil (as farmers over-pumped water). Hence, Haryana has supplanted Punjab as the nation’s leader in per capita income.

The idea of free TVs and mixies is morally troubling. The election commissioner has pleaded helplessness, saying that freebies only contravene the law when they are distributed before an election. Most of us do accept state spending on public goods. Roads, parks, and schools are examples of public goods as they are open to everyone. However, spending public money on private goods (such as TVs) seems offensive. It is legitimate for the state to equip schools and public libraries with computers but not to give free laptops to a section of the people. It is just as wrong to erect statues to oneself with public funds. But the Supreme Court has ruled otherwise. It has recently absolved Mayawati, arguing that the people of U.P. had elected her and can remove her at the next election if they object to her statues. There is a fine but important line between public and private goods.

Nothing quite explains Indian politics as the fact that we embraced democracy before capitalism. The rest of the world did it the other way around. India became a full fledged democracy in 1950 with universal suffrage and extensive human rights, but it was not until 1991 that it opened up to the accountability of market forces. This curious historic inversion means that we learned about rights before we learned about duties. In the market place, one has to produce before one consumes and earn a salary before one can buy a TV. In the same way, an election is supposed to enforce accountability in competitive politics. A voter should vote on the basis of performance. Instead, the Tamil voter is going to vote for a free mixie. Because democracy came before capitalism, Indian politicians have a tendency to distribute the pie before it is baked.

It is ironic that Tamilnad should be the setting for this corrupt practice. The state has high literacy and a reputation for being one of India’s best governed and most prosperous. It has had a succession of good administrations no matter which party was in power. Food rations actually reach PDS shops and NREGA wages are actually paid to the deserving! With prosperity, Tamils have outsourced menial work and are now learning Hindi in order to speak to their Bihari servants. But political morality evolves through experience.

Free TVs mean less money for investing in the future--in roads, ports, and schools. Eventually Tamilnad will pay a price—for without investment, growth will slow down. Ask the voters of Punjab. One day, the Tamil voter will also understand the trade-off—free TVs mean that their children will have a poorer future.