Inside a Delhi mall, the frequent ringing of cash counters heralds the arrival of India's consuming class. The heady aroma of perfume from Shopper's Stop intersects with the smell of coffee drifting out of Starbucks. The exotic potpourri then wafts into the food court, where Delhi's middle class celebrate their immersion into the global marketplace by biting into a Subway BLT.
Gandhi worried about the ethical question of how things were produced more than where they were produced.
Op-eds from experts have poured in like ghee into a ceremonial fire of India's growth story. McKinsey Global Institute suggests that at current rates of growth, India will become the world's fifth-largest consumer economy by 2025. Some economists believe that the growth fuelled by consumption has helped to pull out 200 million people out of poverty in India. Globally, however, the "trickle-down" model of economic growth has proved to be snake oil. While India currently is on a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) joyride, the criterion itself has been criticised for being a "swindle"—a false indicator of "development". The current paradox of high GDP and low job generation is a case in point. Industrialised economies are increasingly getting sceptical of the model of endless growth, and proponents of degrowth—a movement that seeks to de-addict economies from growth—is finding a political constituency in Europe and the United Kingdom.
One of the earliest critics of industrialised growth was Mahatma Gandhi. In 1928 in Young India he wrote:
"God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip of the world bare like locusts."
When it came to the pitfalls of pursuing a consumption-driven model of growth, Gandhi was remarkably prescient. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi worried about the ethical question of how things were produced more than where they were produced. When the Swadeshi movement in Bengal called for a boycott of all British-made goods in 1905, Gandhi supported it wholeheartedly, but he wanted it to go one step up. It was not just about boycotting Manchester-made cloth, but any kind of cloth produced through exploitation.
"By using Manchester cloth, we would only waste our money, but, by reproducing Manchester in India, we shall keep our money at the price of our own blood, because our moral being will be sapped.......And those who have amassed wealth out of factories are not likely to be better than other rich men. It would be folly to assume that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than the American Rockefeller."
As calls for boycotting Chinese goods gains political traction in India, Gandhi's thoughts on the ethics of production should prompt us to look beyond populist politics.
As calls for boycotting Chinese goods gains political traction in India, Gandhi's thoughts on the ethics of production should prompt us to look beyond populist politics. In a country where mornings are considered incomplete without a cup of tea, little do consumers know about hunger deaths, malnutrition and exploitation of labour in India's tea plantations. The sugar that sweetens our tea comes from groundwater-depleting sugarcane. Our manufacturing sector is plagued with labour exploitation and low wages. Every year Indians spend US$450 million on fireworks to celebrate Diwali. Under the garb of a festive spirit, we not only choke our cities with pollution but also cover up the fact that 90% of fireworks in India are manufactured through child labour in an industrial town called Sivakasi in the state of Tamil Nadu. Finally, rising consumption has triggered a race for mining minerals and India is now a world leader in environmental conflicts.
Almost a century ago, Gandhi worried about an uncaring middle class in India, disconnected from the exploitation of labour and nature all around them. His solution to this was simple. Reconnect Indians to their civilisational virtues—simplicity, perseverance, patience, frugality and otherworldliness. He juxtaposed this with the dominant Western civilisational traits of enterprise, impatience and pursuit of material wealth. If India had to take its place in the world, Gandhi had argued, it had to be on our own civilisational terms. Our notions of well being and development had to be guided by our own virtues, and not by the cultural traits of the West.
Gandhi worried about an uncaring middle class in India, disconnected from the exploitation of labour and nature... His solution to this was simple. Reconnect Indians to their civilisational virtues—simplicity, perseverance, patience, frugality...
Today, conspicuous consumption in India is increasingly finding it difficult to mask the inequality on which it is anchored. In India, the top 1% of the population owns 58.4% of the nation's wealth. Little surprise therefore that it now ranks 132 out of 152 countries in its commitment to reducing inequality. By 2020, India's labour force will expand to almost 160-170 million, and the current model of growth—which prefers automation and machines over human workers—will only escalate an unemployment crisis. The romanticised economic model that promised that increased consumption would lead to increased production, which in turn would produce more employment, has run its course in the West and will soon follow suit in the East.
India's greatest strength, as Gandhi reminded us time and again, is its people. Today, a majority remain woefully underinvested in. India ranks 131st out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index. Our public education, housing and healthcare systems are crumbling, leaving behind people to fend off for themselves. While Western industrialised countries are beginning to engage with small-scale production, social entrepreneurship, increased corporate regulation, guaranteed minimum wages and encouraging voluntary simplicity and frugality, in India, the birthplace of Swaraj, we are going the other way.
India's middle classes need to seriously reflect on how it lives, what it consumes and how it consumes. An ethical form of production and consumption could be the first step towards building a bridge over troubled waters of inequality and discontent.