Rapid economic growth in India during the last two decades has accentuated the demand for energy and natural resources related to water, land and forests. Based on a review of the current policy framework in these areas and data from fieldwork in the northeastern region of India, this paper addresses two inter-related themes: (i) how emerging economies like India have dealt with the question of access to resources in response to the opposing demands of “inclusive growth” and more equitable development aimed at closing “social divides”; and (ii) the specific case study of two seemingly contradictory development trajectories, namely the “Green Mission” and hydroelectric power (HEP) dams on the river Teesta in India’s northeastern Himalayan region. The authors' review of the policy agenda for water, land, forests and river dams suggests that current approaches toward growth have largely privileged a mainstream development perspective, promoted privatization and often aggravated existing social inequalities. The effectiveness of the so-called “green” or sustainable development approaches has largely been compromised due to their mainstream and increasingly neoliberal orientation conceptualized within a primarily techno-bureaucratic policy framework.
Data presented in this paper reveal that communities living within or adjacent to sites of conventional modes of development, such as HEP projects, have experienced displacement, loss of livelihood, social conflict and rapidly depleting natural resources. These socioeconomic and environmental problems have continued to replicate themselves in different parts of India despite a notable presence of the rhetoric of sustainability in policy documents on energy and responsible resource management at the national level.
Following this analysis, the paper proceeds to draw attention to some of the current challenges and questions for policy making that fast-growing developing economies like India face. How do we reconcile the requirements for growth and address increasing social and environmental unsustainability? Is it possible to reconcile the two opposing dimensions within the current growth paradigm? Do we need to search for a new paradigm?
The findings highlight the fact that appropriate policy cannot be formulated unless the question of environmental sustainability is considered and treated simultaneously as integral and fundamental to the institutional contexts behind people’s social, economic and material circumstances. Matters of ecology cannot be understood without political economy. Recognizing this is the first step for suggesting specific policy measures in the context of India. Policy makers should therefore seek to connect the following core concerns:
- environmental destruction is not primarily an ethical issue. Ecology of destruction is associated with forms of social and economic reproduction that are not democratically controlled, that are organized indirectly through markets and that are based on self-interested pursuit of profit;
- the relationship between growth strategies and displacement, unemployment, social exclusion, conflict, livelihoods and food security and so on;
- long-term social and environmental sustainability versus short-term economic growth;
- problems that growth periodically encounters cannot be resolved through market mechanisms;
- limits to environmental regulation or legislative interventions and relating implementation gaps in legislation (green or otherwise) with social and economic contexts;
- participatory governance processes and local knowledge versus private sector participation and public-private partnerships; and
- the need to identify and support social, cultural and political mechanisms like collective identities, norms and local contexts.
Payal Banerjee is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Smith College, United States. Her research focuses on globalization, migration, and development. Her work has been published in Critical Sociology; Race, Gender, and Class; International Feminist Journal of Politics; China Report; Women’s Studies Quarterly; Security and Peace; Social and Public Policy Review
and in other edited volumes.
Atul Sood is Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. His research focuses on political economy of development in India. His work has been published in Economic and Political Weekly
, by UNRISD and in several edited volumes.
This UNRISD Occasional Paper series, produced in collaboration with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) for Rio+20, aims to stimulate debate around the social dimensions of green economy and sustainable development.
For a list of the papers in this series, go to the project page