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Archive for January 2020

India’s material burden, gigantic and unseen

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Mumbai, view from a descending aircraft

Mumbai as seen from an aircraft coming in to land. Neither city households nor wards care about the material throughput they cause and live with every day, week, month. Electricity and water, packaging and food, all contribute to the household footprint.

Should a trend continue as it has done for the last ten years, then in February or March of 2021 India’s annual extraction of material will cross 7.5 billion tons. It was in 2011, only eight years ago, that the country’s material extraction had crossed six billion tons. This stupendous mass comprises what are called non-metallic minerals, most of it limestone, structural clays, and the several kinds of mixtures of sand, gravel and crushed rock that are used for construction, which in 2017 amounted to an estimated 3.2 billion tons.

There was biomass, by which is meant harvested crops – foodgrain, horticultural crops, pulses, sugarcane and plantation crops – and crop residues, both straw and leaves, which was an estimated 2.8 billion tons (sugarcane accounting for nearly 370 million tons), coal of 732 million tons and wood of an estimated 242 million tons (of which about 210 million tons were used as fuel). Collated from data provided by national agencies, the International Resource Panel of UN Environment maintains the material use profiles of nearly every country.

Apportioned by household, at the beginning of 2020 this vast material budget can be atomised to about 26 tons for each, in much the same way as per capita income is calculated, as a notional distribution, for each individual of India. Yet material allocation is a measure that, for all its tangible bulk, is treated as nearly invisible. Money and income, wages and savings, credit and assets are calculated and assessed to the third decimal by the financial services industry. But there is no corresponding industry to measure, assess and pronounce upon the solvency of the material intake of a household, whether in quintals or in kilograms, whether as fluid diesel or as grain or as burnt brick.

When it comes to the physical basis for the household’s shelter, its roster of daily consumption, the durable goods purchased and disposed of, its tribe of electronic gadgets, there is no literacy effort to be found run by any industry, or by government, or even by centres of higher education. The Indian household – whether amongst the estimated 96 million in urban centres or the 183 million in villages – is transiting from circumspection born of scarcity to profligacy in material accumulation.

Landscape of Pondicherry region from aircraft

The forms and vegetal densities of a typical ruralscape of coastal Tamil Nadu, this being near Pondicherry. Unlike the overground forms of a town, here there is no disharmony. Dwellings, orchards, crop fields, bunds, tracks, ponds all blend in material balance.

That the consequences of such a trend cannot be contained or managed in a meaningful way was already being signalled to us a generation ago, when our mega-metropolises (cities and adjacent urban agglomerations with a combined population of 10 million and more) found no alternative to the small hills of refuse and compacted rubbish that towered over some unfortunate outlying ward. Those hills have only become larger at a faster pace, and they are joined – as a new category of topological landform – by the waste and rubbish pits (‘landfills’ in the American vernacular) that the great majority of our class 1 cities (population of 100,000 and more) turn to as their means to deal with the accumulation of unwanted material.

How did the material burden of our settlements grow so quickly? Part of the reason must be ascribed to the collective race away from poverty, both monetary and of basic goods. It is rare to find today a discussion about whether a poverty line is reasonable or not, although a generation ago it was an important subject just as it was in the previous generation. The race has been set as one by the intentions and terminologies of a kind of economics based almost wholly on the concept of development. Thus one of the standard references for many years, the Cambridge Economic History of India, advised that “the declared goals of development policy were to bring about a rapid increase in living standards, provide full employment at an adequate wage, and reduce inequalities arising from the uneven distribution of income and wealth.”

Yet the development policies of the socialists, of those who designed the ‘command economy’, of the licence raj mandarins, of the globalisers, of the commodities capitalists, of the services barons, of the infotech-biotech persuasions, not one of these policy pathways has advised where sufficiency lies, and what to do after we have consumed our way out of poverty and into maintenance. None of these can, because ‘growth’ and market control is the engine that motivates their methods. Sufficiency – or consumption stability – also has the accompanying corollaries of societies making purchases last (by repairing and reusing them) and not purchasing at all.