Friday, November 28, 2014

Just Growth (noTM) or just growth? *

Nandan Nawn

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Introduction: ecological disruptions from functioning of capitalist system

It is a fact that without an expanded reproduction, a capitalist economic system will die its own ‘natural death’. There can never be a ‘zero growth capitalism’. Alternatively, to sustain itself, such a system needs to exploit the sources that contributes to the value, so as to generate the necessary surplus value, or simply surplus. 139 years ago, K H Marx in Critique of the Gotha Programme had identified them:

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. […] And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission. [Emphasis as in original]

 In fact, in Capital, volume 1, chapter 15 titled ‘Machinery and Modern Industry’ he was more direct:
Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer.
Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer.

The two—admittedly long—quotes are indicative of the connections between the labourer and the soil (or natural resources for that matter), and their state and the status within a capitalist system. In this regard Marx had acknowledged many others’ contribution in the long and interdisciplinary history: a ‘practical capitalist farmer and an advanced agronomist for his time’ James Anderson, American Josse Buel, Scottish agricultural chemist James F W Johnston, American political economist Henry Carey, ‘Father of agricultural Chemistry’ Justus von Liebig, just to name a few (in particular see the last footnote in chapter 15 of Capital, volume 1; generally see, Foster 2000).

Mainstreaming of Ecology and Environment within the Justice question

A capitalist system’s ability to accumulate determines its ability to grow or in other words its rate of growth. Historically, it had capitalized on its ability to exploit the labourer; in contemporary times, the extent and form of informalisation and casualisation of the labour force has reached its zenith, to preclude this possibility any further—automatically, the focus is on exploiting and extracting the other source of value, natural resources.

Historically again, nature was abundant, and thus its regenerative capacity to act as a source for materials and its assimilative capacity to act as a sink for absorbing the waste from the economic system was taken for granted. However, in contemporary times, by most accounts, the scale of activity within the economic sub-system has been beyond the one which the larger ecosystem could support. That makes the natural resources rival in control, access, use, and consumption—the reason for the conflicts, resulting in movements seeking ‘environmental justice’ across the world.[2]

These contestations are not only contemporaneous but inter-generational for a vast variety of resources being non-renewable/exhaustible even within a reasonably long human time-frame—economic, social, political or cultural. Thus, it is not only the concentration of ownership and control of financial or physical assets, but also the natural ones is the crux of the problem, notwithstanding the ‘absurdities’:
From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition. (Capital, Vol III, Chapter 46: Building Site Rent. Rent in Mining. Price of Land)

As in the Economics discipline—both mainstream and heterodox alike—such  recognition of unequal distribution of natural capital as a praxis for analyzing discontents, dissents and discords in the social and political sphere is of a rather recent origin. Mainly due to the interventions made by the movements and struggles epitomizing ‘environmentalism of the poor’ (see, Martinez-Alier), access to natural resources and protection from pollution are now being increasingly recognized as an essential or inalienable component of livelihood security. Demands for right to (formal) work has made the way for the right to Jal, Jangal, Zameen and the like. 

The questions that this version of environmentalism or ecologism poses are different from and beyond the demands for being free from environmental pollution or its preservation by separating human beings from a given locality; it revolves around sustaining the livelihoods based on access to natural resources. It follows that the equity or fairness or distribution questions need to be restated to include an additional dimension; the focus cannot just be on the matter of employment creation (and/or upward wage revision) in the formal sector but of securing the livelihoods, for which access to natural resources is of crucial importance.

While most constituents of heterodox economics have argued against a separation of aggregate income (or even wealth) from its distribution as posited by the mainstream (new classical) economics, it has largely shied away from the recognition of material basis for securing livelihoods. Without the latter, however, the distribution of vulnerabilities ‘matrix’ remains incomplete if not incorrect. Unequal access to natural resources augments the susceptibilities of already marginalized population which may owe their origins in a different sphere: income, caste, gender, sexual orientation, professed religion, ability and the like.

In fact, concentration of control over natural resources and its exploitation can lead to irreversible changes that can impact over a vast array of population in catastrophic terms, not just in terms of snatching away the basis for livelihood but also in terms of exposure to environmental damages from such exploitation; history is replete with such examples (see, Goldfrank et al.). Even in the list of struggles that the Permanent People's Tribunal has supported in its three decades of activity includes environmental destruction.[3]

Locating causalities, exploring disconnects

While a desirable ecological, economic, environmental or social outcome can never be expected from the ‘market’ for various and obvious reasons including the prevalence of externalities to the economic decision making agents, even the balance sheet of supposedly socialist states are not better, albeit with notable exceptions. The central problem is of non-recognition of the connections, just like the disciplinary divide in academic discourse or the lack of imagination (and interest) in the political sphere to explore forging new solidarities or renewing older ones for a greater ‘common good’. An illustration follows from India on the matter of agrarian crisis prevailing across the country in recent times.

A tell-tale sign of this phenomenon has been the growing and widespread economic unviability of farming. It is a fact that the fragmented land with its present functional boundaries can hardly serve any purpose; it incentivises self-exploitation of the household labour, resulting in high morbidity rates which further incentivise a rise in the number of hands, and the cycle repeats itself.

It is obvious that for ensuring a dignified living of those with agriculture as the ‘major’ occupation or livelihood, finishing the land reform agenda is necessary that warrants land consolidation to exploit the economies of scale, apart from the cooperation and coordination of many other kinds. To illustrate, the fragmented parcels prevent the use of non-chemical inputs like bio-pesticides (with less potency than its chemical equivalents) unless similar practice is followed in the neighbouring parcels. Similarly, halting the contamination of aquifer warrants collective decision making and coordinated action. Put simply, there is hardly any possibility of an individual adopting or applying a different method, howsoever convinced on the unsustainabilities associated with the most prevailing practices and/or willing.

Responses: (grassroot) activists, (political) actors

It appears that not many activists are concerned over the multiple unsustainabilities that have resulted into the crisis. In most of the agrarian sites, the issue of ‘struggle’ is no longer the landlord versus the labourers, for the simple fact that the latter category has become virtually non-existent. Rather it is a motley group of farmer-cultivators with a range of gross cropped area under their command/control, for whom the sole objective is to get as much subsidy as possible from the government and/or as much remunerative price for the crops from the Food Corporation of India.

Indeed, the three things that characterise Indian agriculture are small farm size, input subsidies (fertiliser, water, electricity) and the government procurement policy, all having distinct and direct ecological and economic (just not fiscal) effects. There is hardly any effort to link the health of the labourer with that of soil, connected through the particular practice in question. Such an absence of application of mind is appalling, to put it mildly.

To illustrate, till date the health tragedy due to excessive use of a variety of agrochemicals in Malwa region of Punjab—from which as many as 70 patients per day travel (on average) on the ‘Cancer Express’ from Bathinda to the Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Centre in Bikaner, Rajasthan (Donthi 2010)—could not find a place in the agenda, of either the activists or the action plans. Even if one agrees that it is the inability of the farming practioners to administer the ‘optimal’ dose of inputs, one wonders whether any farmer’s organisation has made any attempt to address such an obvious gap.

On the other hand, it was the Kerala wing of Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) that had filed a petition seeking a ban on the use of Endosulfan in Kerala, which the Supreme Court had upheld in May, 2011. It followed a sit-in by the (now) nonagenarian former Chief Minister of Kerala, and a former Polit Bureau member of CPI(M) V S Achuthanandan in April, 2011 to force the UDF government demanding such a ban. The concern expressed by the Solicitor General representing the Union government is interesting: it was on the impact that an immediate ban would be having on the production of kharif crops, especially paddy and cotton, as if health of the agricultural workers does not matter. In fact, government’s defence was that endosulfan is cost effective! Of course, more interesting was the response from the bench: ‘money can't be the only yardstick to decide this matter’ (Juneja and Misra, 2011).

The above was to exemplify an unfortunate (recent) trend in the political and social sphere: to redress various forms of injustice, resorting to the judicial route rather than the political one, i.e. of engaging with, mobilising and leading the people. A classic case is the matters related to persons who had been marignalised due to their sexual orientations, i.e. the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgenders (LGBT). The mass or the dweller on the streets can neither understand nor comprehend the legal juggleries or nit-picking; it provides hardly any possibility of associating oneself. The decision to withdraw the outside support to UPA government by the Left parties on the Indo-US Nuclear deal is a similar example; one can wish that such a decision could follow matters related to the failure of the then government to ensure livelihood security owing to lack of access to its material basis—that would have enabled the progressive, secular, democratic political forces to forge solidarities in order to raise more central concerns over the functioning of the capitalist system, and seek its alternatives.

Responses: Action plans, Action taken

A search over the questions asked and responded between July 2, 2009 and May 22, 2012 at the Lok Sabha website,[4] revealed 646 questions with ‘agriculture/ agricultural’ in the subject field, most of which were on the macro aspects like policy, trade, supply chain, research institutions, climate change, etc. There were only four with ‘community development’ and nine with ‘reconstruction’ (mostly, on Tsunami). In addition, there were 465 questions with ‘farm’ in the subject field that focused on the farm level micro-issues. Of these, various aspects of credit contributed the most (99), followed by subsidy (41), assistance & package (33), and interestingly, various aspects of organic farming including use of bio-fertilisers (27).

The matter of ‘cooperation’, however, offers a contrasting picture. It is generally seen as a state subject by the central government, despite the National Policy of Farmers (2007) emphasising on the encouragement and support to small farmers’ cooperatives for taking up various activities. In any case, the central government’s role is limited to the schemes for increasing cooperative awareness among the farmers (by National Council for Cooperative Training) or programme through National Cooperative Development Corporation (NCDC) towards ‘development of cooperatives in agriculture and allied sectors, transforming cooperatives as multi-purpose entities and promoting horizontal and vertical functional linkages so as to enable the cooperatives to cater to the overall needs of rural community’.

Incidentally, not very long ago, the matters of food, agriculture, cooperation, community and rural development were connected as reveals the history of ‘business rules’ for the Department of ‘Agriculture and Cooperation’. As in any case of ‘naming and shaming’, this tiny history also provides a trajectory over the changing priorities of the government of the day.

In August 1979, D/o Cooperation which was taken out of M/o Agriculture (later M/o Agriculture and Irrigation) in 1974 was transferred back and merged with D/o Agriculture to make D/o Agriculture and Cooperation, as it exists today. At the same time, D/o Rural Development was carved out to become an independent ministry, of Rural Reconstruction. Later, in January 1985, this new ministry was merged with the M/o Agriculture, to form M/o Agriculture and Rural Reconstruction, with three departments, of Agriculture and Cooperation, Agricultural Research and Extension, and Rural Development. Subsequently, in September 1985, it was rechristened as M/o Agriculture and Rural Development; the two became separated in July, 1991.

As of today, M/o Rural Development works independently of M/o Agriculture, with the latter consisting of three Departments, of Agriculture & Cooperation, Agricultural Research and Education, and Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries. Incidentally, there is no website for the M/o Agriculture; the link from the portal points to the D/o Agriculture and Cooperation, pointing to the centrality of agricultural production, rather than anything else. It is growth, stupid!

M/o Rural Development, in 1995, was renamed as that of Rural Areas and Employment with three Departments, of Rural Employment and Poverty Alleviation, of Rural Development and of Wastelands Development. Again, in 1999-2000, the Ministry was re-christened back to the M/o Rural Development, with three Departments, of Rural Development, of Land Resources and of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MoRD). Here, the casualties were labour and livelihood, notwithstanding the establishment of National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in June 2010. Even the ‘Plan(s) of Action’ drawn for various divisions, departments and ministries of the Government of India towards operationalization of the National Policy for Farmers (2007) mostly aim at creating non-farm income, implicitly acknowledging the unsustainability of farming as a livelihood (see, DAC, n.d.b.).

Lack of a holistic vision can however be justified for the reasons of administrative convenience. But the disjuncture between agriculture and ecology/ environment in the respective policies of the government within the past twenty-five years is beyond any reasonable explanation. Agricultural Policy of the government does not include anything on the ecological aspects or cooperation or community development; neither the Environmental Policy includes farming, leave alone matters related to rural development. Call it growth fetishism, super specialisation, bureaucratic turf war or simply foolishness: an extinct Planning Commission is the final icing on the cake--there is no cake and there is no problem of eating it either.

Cooperation Experiences in Agriculture and Rural Reconstruction:

However, there have been efforts in the past, both distant and recent, towards establishing the connections between the multiple dimensions of unsustainability, in India and elsewhere. In some, the respective governments had been more active and in others, they were rather passive. As expected, the experience had been of a mix of success and failure.

Nearly a century ago, Rabindranath Tagore had started his ‘experiment’ of rural reconstruction. The environment within which it was conducted, was all conducive for the ‘production of happiness’: a benevolent zaminadar, conscious and sensitive to the needs of the raiyats, who was keen to exploit the benefits of economies of scale through cooperation, with a well-meaning team of village-workers led by a Cornell University trained agronomist, Leonard K Elmhirst. Tagore himself was also a keen observer of scientific developments, and their applicator in the matters of farming and health related problems of the villagers. There were cooperative banks set up with the Nobel Prize money as the start-up fund; ‘circulation of matter’, ‘robbery of the soil’, were not just buzzwords for both Tagore and Elmhirst, the principal architect of the programme. Even then, the bottom-up experiment had failed, perhaps due to the inability to address and adjust to the scaling-up of operations. A similar effort could be witnessed through the writings and workings of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and his trusted lieutenant J C Kumarappa. That experiment cannot also be regarded as a success by any means.

Outside India, there had been at least two instances related to incorporation of ecological aspects in agriculture: China, a classic case and Cuba, a more recent one. The first had been recorded even by Leibig, one hundred and fifty years ago, and the practice has been continued to this day, both in production brigades and in the collective farms, though it is in the decline. In Cuba, the developments in the international sphere towards the end of 1990s resulted in a massive reduction of import of chemical fertiliser or spare parts of machines, which had catapulted it into a kind of crisis, forcing it to depend on non-chemical inputs for agricultural production. Today, Cuba has not only recovered to the level of agricultural production prior to the crisis, but it is largely following ecologically sound methods. Common characteristic of these two experiences had been the cooperation, undoubtedly aided by a responsive and responsible state.

A New Beginning?

On 18th September this year, several mass organizations including All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM), People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Rajasthan), National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), and many other trade unions and organisations working on land rights, led by Medha Patkar (of NBA/NAPM) and former MLA Amra Ram (of AIKS/CPI(M)) had staged a protest against the recently tabled Rajasthan land acquisition bill (2014) and submitted a Joint Memorandum. The latter alleged that this ‘Bill is simply one as to how to hand over fertile agriculture land, grazing land, Sawai Chak land and forests to the corporates in the name of Infrastructure Development’ and also that ‘the Government to take away land which is sustaining people's lives and livelihoods’.[5] This ‘new’ solidarity between the otherwise potential allies is a sign of welcome change that was long overdue. One can only hope that similar actions are repeated across the country. The corporate friendly government presently in office can actually be a blessing in disguise--for likeminded political groups to shelve their differences and exploit this opportunity to mobilise the masses. 

Just Growth and not just growth

As an alternative to the growth that the capitalism offers, there have been calls for low-carbon growth, green growth, de-materialised growth or even de-growth, with each term attracting contested meanings. At the cost of simplicity, one can bracket the first two as efforts to make capitalism ecologically/environmentally more benign, which is an impossibility, for the inherent ‘contradictions’ a la James O’connor. The latter two on the other hand takes a clear anti-capitalist position:
Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions.[6]

For the people, communities, and governments in the resource rich yet income poor populous countries with most being dependent on access to natural resources for livelihood, a more relevant call can be for Just Growth, etymologically a more positive and (hopefully) popular term to communicate, convey and convince the masses. This term expects to capture the imaginations of an aspiring yet rising population, exposed to historic as well as prevailing inequities, which had to share the various costs disproportionately but not the benefits of the growth process that took place during either sides of attaining political independence.

Man is naturally prone to spoliation, and dreads nothing so much as to have to exert his mental faculties in the acquisition of what he needs […]. Necessity is the only compulsory agent that will ever make him move, and this will come soon enough (Justus von Liebig, 1859, ‘Letter X’ in Letters on modern agriculture: with addenda by a practical agriculturist. Embracing valuable suggestions, adapted to the wants of American farmers, J Wiley, New York, p. 196).


  1. All the references to Capital are from its Progress Publishers, Moscow three volume version of 1959 edition (1989 reprint).
  2. Some of the arguments are based on the ‘Inaugural Lecture’ by Jayati Ghosh, Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU, in the Symposium titled Growth, green growth or degrowth? New critical directions for India’s sustainability’ organised by TERI University and CSIR-NISTADS, September 12, 2014 in India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.

Other references:
DAC, n.d.a, ‘Organisational History of the Department of Agriculture & Cooperation’, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, accessed at, last accessed on July 1, 2012.
DAC, n.d.b, Action Reported by Ministries/ Departments/ Divisions of DAC on Steps/Points Identified in the Plan of Action for Operationalisation of NPF 2007. Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, New Delhi, accessed at on 12 October 2013.
Donthi, Praveen, 2010, ‘Cancer Express’, Hindustan Times, January 16, accessed at, on November 11, 2014
Foster, John Bellamy, 2000, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Monthly Review Press
Goldfrank, Walter L., David Goodman, and Andrew Szasz, eds., 1999, Ecology and the World-system, Greenwood Press.
Juneja, Sugandh and Savvy Soumya Misra, 2011, ‘Supreme Court bans endosulfan: Order to be effective till ICMR submits report’, Down to Earth, May 13.
Martinez-Alier, Joan, 2002, The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation, Edward Elgar
MoRD, n.d., ‘Organisation’, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, New Delhi, accessed at, on July 1, 2012.

* (noTM) stands for no Trademark, like Copy Left; i.e. there is no Trademark associated with the phrase ‘Just Growth’. There is no copyright associated with this article as well. Anyone is free to use both the phrase and the article in whatever way one may like to. A recognition of this author’s labour is more than sufficient.
This phrase came up for the first time in a conversation between four ecological economists, Kanchan Chopra, Juan Martinez-alier, Pranab Mukhopdhyay and the author on the way back to Guwahati from Tezpur after participating in the Seventh Biennial Conference of Indian Society for Ecological Economics (INSEE), titled ‘Global Change, Ecosystems, Sustainability’, of which all four are life members. KC had been its President twice (1998-2000, and 2010-2012), JMA has been the first President of the International Society of Ecological Economics (ISEE) the parent body of INSEE, PM had been the Secretary, INSEE (2012-2014), and NN had been the Joint Secretary, INSEE (2010-12).
[2] See, in general. Its mission statement reads, ‘EJOLT is a global research project bringing science and society together to catalogue and analyze ecological distribution conflicts and confront environmental injustice’.
[3] For example, Agrochemical transnational corporation (Bangalore, 3-6 December 2011), Transnational corporations and peoples’ rights in Colombia (2006-2008), Chernobyl, consequences for the environment, health, human rights (Vienna, 12-15 April 1996), Industrial hazards and human rights – Bhopal II (London, 28 November-2 December 1994) and Industrial hazards and human rights – Bhopal I (Bhopal, 19-23 October 1992) [Lelio and Lisli Basso Foundation, n.d. ‘Tribunale Permanente dei Popoli—Introduction’ accessed at on November 11, 2014
[4] Accessed online at, last accessed on June 20, 2012. The entry in the ‘subject’ field is usually entered by the Lok Sabha Secretariat/ concerned ministries, and each answer carries only one entry.
[5] All India Kisan Sabha and 13 other organisations, 2014, Joint Memorandum of People’s Organisation to take back the Rajasthan Land Acquisition Bill 2014, submitted to Chief Minister of Rajasthan, 18 September. Also see, Counterview, 2014, ‘Drop "draconian" Rajasthan land acquisition bill, seeking to jail and fine protesters: Demonstrators to CM’, accessed at, on 07/11/14
[6], n.d., ‘Introduction’, accessed at on 11th Novermber, 2014

The author is Associate Professor at TERI University, Delhi (

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