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$5 trillion economy goal is a wrong question in a wrong century, says Ashok Sircar of Azim Premji University

For long, every element of earth - land, water, forest, animals, minerals and plants - has been seen as an infinite economic resource to be exploited. But, it's only recently that scientists have understood that it is a fragile life support system, whose balance shouldn't be disturbed

Sonal Khetarpal        Last Updated: September 6, 2019  | 17:07 IST
$5 trillion economy goal is a wrong question in a wrong century, says Ashok Sircar of Azim Premji University

The target of reaching a $5 trillion economy is a wrong question in a wrong century, says Ashok Sircar, Director, School of Development, Azim Premji University. "It is not a matter of $5 trillion or $3 trillion any longer. It is a matter of 0 or 1; a matter of whether we will survive or not."

For long, every element of earth - land, water, forest, animals, minerals and plants - has been seen as an infinite economic resource to be exploited. But, it's only recently that scientists have understood that it is a fragile life support system, whose balance shouldn't be disturbed. Overpopulation and overconsumption have led to a loss of biodiversity like never before. It is estimated 90 per cent of the planet's biodiversity has been lost in the last seven decades and half of all the species on the planet could go extinct by 2050. Scientists have already warned that a sixth mass extinction in Earth's history is underway. It will also be the first that will be accelerated by humans.

Given this context, the larger question to be asked is, "Why do we have to develop the way we did in the20th century? Why can't we do development in a different way?, asks Sircar.

He adds, "If 20th century was the century of economics, 21st century has to be the century of ecology."  

In the 20th century, there was a need to grow but even 100 years later, we are following the same paradigms of development by exploiting natural resources, he says.

The common argument given by developing nations such as India is that given the country's per capita consumption is less, it needs to bring people up to the economic standards and hence, should be given more time to manage its green house emissions.

However, in this entire discourse, one forgets that India is the greatest hotspot to experience the impact of climate change. Much of North India is fed through the glacial river system, and the glaciers are melting twice as fast since the year 2000. Indian coastline is 7500 km long, much of which faces threat of sea level rise. In particular, Sunderbans face a threat of complete submergence in another three decades. 40 per cent of India is arid and drought prone, and faces more drought and steady desertification. Overall the situation is grim to say the least, say Sircar. And the poor and the marginalised will suffer the most.

Our focus in the 21st century must be to build a fair, just and sustainable society. To do that, he quotes Amartya Senas as saying, we have to think people as subject of development and not an object of development.  

He explains, when we treat people as object of development we assume people don't have agency; they are patients to be cured. It is the moral duty of the elite to 'cure them and introduce them to modernity'. "With this thought process we have become 'white colonisers and we look at people at large as patients who need to be cured and brought to civilised world. They become the object of the development story."

We need to make people subjects of development where they are the agents, the decision makers. "We need to reach a stage where we respect cultures and accept that every culture has things to learn and things to shun from," says Sircar. Take the case of Tsunami in 2004 that killed thousands of people but some primitive tribes such as the Shompen Tribe of the Nicobar Islands could sense the danger and went up the hills, thereby saved themselves.

 Sircar was speaking to the cohort at the India Leaders for Social Sector, a nine-day residential programme at Ashoka University to enable senior talent move to the development space and take up leadership positions with the social sector. The writer was invited by India Leaders for Social Sector to attend the programme.

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