Development or Destruction?

The so called double dividend of economic development and environmental protection rarely exists, as we have been witnessing for many years now. The ideas like the environmental Kuznet’s curve (that environment improves as countries get richer beyond a certain threshold level) are still debated vigourously. At an international conference I was attending recently, one well known scholar said that the moneys spent on studying EKC is just a huge waste of research resource, trying to prove what is not provable. These issues are especially relevant for the fast developing economies like India and China, and these issues in these countries are precisely what are being picked up by the media. Moreover, the issues in these countries (and any other “developing” countries for that matter) is not just about economic development vs environmental protection, its also about who gets the slice of the pie, are people free to express their dissatisfactions, express their political views, practice their religion, celebrate their culture – overall, do they have basic freedom?

This morning the first BBC headline I saw in my news feed was about the opening of the “world’s highest railway“, a line that connects China proper with the capital of Tibet, Lasha.

Following big “development” projects in developing countries, particularly in India and China, we see the scale of devastation they are bringing to the people living in the catchment of those “development” sites. Be it Sardar Sarovar dam in India or the Three Gorges dam in China, these projects have submerged hundreds of villages, displacing millions of people and destroying sites of archaeological and cultural importance. We don’t have to look further than Arun III hydel project, which after much controversy was scrapped with the financiers like the World Bank pulling out, to see how controversial these massive projects become when their total costs (economic, environmental, socio-cultural) to the society are not considered.

Now coming back to the story that made me jot this in the first place, I have no doubt this massive railway is comparable to many of the big “development” projects that have become so controversial, and which could potentially be disastrous to the people in its catchment. Although the scale of disaster, in terms of human lives lost, will not be at the level of big dam disasters like that of Banqiao and Shimantan dams that killed more than 200,000 people altogether (strangely a lot of Chinese of our generation know very little or none about this 1975 disaster!), there is nonetheless some environmental risks – Tibetan highlands being such a delicate environment, and more importantly, there is a risk of massive influx of Chinese migrants into Tibet – crowding out indigenous Tibetan population, their tradition and culture, which are already threatened. No wonder, instead of welcoming this “magnificent feat by the Chinese people” (Hu Jintao), Tibetans all over the world seem to be protesting the opening of this line. There was a demo in London, apparently directed against GW Travel‘s involvement in the railway project. Press release by Free Tibet Campaign includes the following statement by Lhadon Tethong, a Tibetan and Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet:

China’s Tibet railway has been engineered to destroy the very fabric of Tibetan identity. China plans to use the railway to transport Chinese migrants directly into the heart of Tibet in order to overwhelm the Tibetan population and tighten its stranglehold over our people.

The reason I kept “development” in quotes is the very controversy surrounding this word. What is development? For some its just the economic progress, usually measured as GDP or GNP – getting richer is getting developed, while for others its not just economic progress of a country but overall progress in terms of the living standards of its people (Human Development Index measures?), and still for some, development goes into more philosophical, spiritual level – the progression of mind and body through knowledge. I think the definitions of “development” we see is usually very context specific, hence often unidimentional. The overall progress (= development) must be the concurrent progression in various fields – economic, social, political, environmental, or whatever the society wants to include.

Following paragraph from Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom captures the essence of the “development” dilemma.

Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedom to vast numbers – perhaps even the majority – of people. Sometimes the lack of substantive freedoms relates directly to economic poverty, which robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger, or to achieve sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illnesses, or the opportunity to be adequately clothed or sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities. In other cases, the unfreedom links closely to the lack of public facilities and social care, such as the absence of epidemiological programs, or of organized arrangements for health care or educational facilities, or of effective institutions for the maintenance of local peace and order. In still other cases, the violation of freedom results directly from a denial of political and civil liberties by authoritarian regimes and from imposed restrictions on the freedom to participate in the social, political and economic life of the community.

Question of note: Progress?: At what cost?