Misguided Mr Mishra

Posted in politics by jrahman on June 30, 2006

I liked Pankaj Mishra’s pieces in Granta and New York Review of Books.  I also followed with amusement the debate William Dalrymple and Ramachandra Guha had in Outlook India about who can authoritatively speak for the ‘real India’.  And his new book, on how we can become modern without blowing ourselves up has received a good review from these rabid neoliberal imperialists, tempting me to add the book to my list of books to read.

But will I read the book?  His attempt at selling it in this Guardian piece is very unconvincing.  Referring to India and China, Mishra summarizes his article as: Both made their most impressive gains when they rejected the free market.

I’ll not talk about China, but what is his supporting evidence for this claim as far as India is concerned?

India registered its most impressive gains from 1951 to 1980, after emerging from more than two centuries of systematic colonial exploitation, during which it was, in effect, deindustrialised.  Until 1980 India achieved an average annual economic growth of 3.5% – as much as most countries achieved.  In this period India’s much derided socialistic economy also helped create the country’s industrial capacity.

According to the IMF data, in the quarter century to 2005, India’s economic growth was 5.8% per year, and only 13 countries achieved faster growth.  What is Mishra talking about?

He is on safer ground when he says India was, in effect, deindustrialized by the British.  But is his last sentence correct?

The Tata family opened India’s first steel mill in Jamshedpur in 1911.  This is what Angus Maddison says in ‘The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective’:

Indian firms in industry, insurance and banking were given a boost from 1905 onwards by the swadeshi movement, which was a nationalist boycott of British goods in favour of Indian enterprise.  During the First World War, lack of British imports strengthened the hold of Indian firms on the home markets for textiles and steel.

India in 1947 already had an industrial capacity.  For good or ill, this capacity was sheltered from global competition by the ‘much derided socialistic economy’, but it is simply wrong to say that socialism created industrial capacity in India.

Now economic growth is just one measure of improvement in living standard, albeit it is highly correlated with most other measures.  Still, Iraq’s economy grew strongly in 2005, so perhaps we need to look at other things.  Mishra does: In India, … facilities for healthcare and primary education have deteriorated.

Is this true?  Not according to the United Nations’ Human Development Indicator.  Sure there are lots of things wrong with India, but that’s not what is Mishra saying here though.  What is he talking about?  He goes on to say: In any case, the hope that … billions of customers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans is an absurd and dangerous fantasy (that) condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots.

This is an incredible assertion!  Millions of Chinese and Indians have already attained lifestyles of Europeans and Americans in the past decade.  Millions of Koreans and Taiwanese attained this in the previous couple of decades.  And millions of Japanese did so in earlier decades.  To be sure, it is not self evident that billions of Indians and Chinese will be able to replicate this feat, but it certainly isn’t self evident that they won’t.

And as for condemning the global environment to early destruction, two points can be made.  Firstly, a cranky old man argued in similar vein nearly two centuries ago, and history hasn’t been kind to him.  Technological progress has helped humanity in the past couple of centuries.  Now, as Jared Diamond says, the environment can collapse even in the presence of technological progress.  This brings us to the second point — in a world where 5% of humanity accounts for a quarter of its consumption, it is quite offensive to say that the aspiration of billions of Indians and Chinese will kill the planet.

Mishra is right when he notes that Europe’s transition to modernity involved unprecedented violence and suffering.  He is right when he concludes that: peace in this century depends on India and China finding a less calamitous way of becoming modern.

He is talking about South Asia (and beyond) accepting modernity.  Unlike Gandhi or Bin Laden, he hasn’t turned his back on modernity.  That’s a start.  Presumably he outlines what he thinks are less calamitous ways in the book.  But if his ‘sales pitch’ is so poorly constructed, do I want to read the book?

Originally posted at A-A-A.


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