The annual Mansion House speech by the Governor of the Bank of England is an old tradition for Londons financial establishment, and it's all about money-matters. There is now also an Alternative Mansion House Speech, organized by the New Economics Foundation, which offers a more holistic perspective linking finance to issues of ecological sustainability. In 2003 the honor of making this speech was given to an Indian activist, Stan Thekaekara, who works with tribals in Kerala. Yet, Thekaekara with his knowledge about fair trade and more sustainable, equitable modes of prosperity, remains virtually unknown within India.
Similarly, few people seem aware that the World Social Forum, held in Mumbai this January, was a vital dimension of Indias growing presence in the global scene. The euphoria about the Rise of India is focused on Indian businesses. But the story is not complete without asking why the WSF was held here and understanding how the voices and energies it manifests are equally crucial for building an India that actually shines through and through.
It will be a mistake to view the WSF merely as a platform for those dispossessed and displaced by market-driven globalization. It could instead be seen as a window that offers glimpses of neglected opportunities -- a showcase for ways of ensuring livelihood for all. What are some of these opportunities? Why does India have an important place in the emerging global civil society platforms?
First it is important to clarify some common misconceptions. One: Much of the opposition to the current model of market-driven globalization is really an opposition to market fundamentalism, not markets as such.
Two: Most of those who point out the failures and limitations of the market mechanism are not proposing a return to centralized state-controlled economies. Instead they are concerned with evolving a combination of norms and institutions that enable everyone to participate on more equitable terms, thus making markets truly work for the common good.
Three: The clamor against globalization is not a call for local isolation. Instead there are efforts to promote a cosmopolitan localism, that is, inter-linked networks of empowered local economies that meet the national and international sphere from a position of strength. Local is also sometimes defined not in geographical terms but on the basis of shared values and interests.
Four: The call for globalization of values and an economics of hope is often easily dismissed as being too soft to make a difference within a global economy driven by the quest for profits. Yet new economics is a growing body of ideas and actions which shows the way to more sustained profits based on a triple-bottom-line -- that is, gains in terms of human welfare, environmental balance and money.
The Alternative Mansion House speech, mentioned above, is a small example of expanding space for these ideas. In the United Kingdom, the New Economics Foundation -- which calls itself a think-and-do tank -- has become and effective pressure group for pushing eco-taxes, more comprehensive development indicators, ethical investments and micro-enterprises. The WSF is a platform for these and other, more radical, ideas. India became a natural choice for hosting the WSF because it is home to a wide variety of creative initiatives which are evidence of the slogan Another World Is Possible.
These include a vast array of tried and tested methods for harnessing water, that enhance social and economic opportunities without displacing millions of the people. Most such methods also feed into land and forest regeneration, thus building instead of depleting natural capital. Similarly there are numerous initiatives that have demonstrated efficient ways to deploy the renewable energy of sun, wind, biogas and biomass. The Center for Environment Education in Ahmedabad has brought out a series of publications which have not only documented micro-level successes but also shown its potential at the macro level. The most notable among these is the book by K.R. Datye called Banking on Biomass: A New Strategy for Sustainable Prosperity based on Renewable Energy and Dispersed Industrialization. In this book Datye shows how industrial growth based on renewable energy and appropriate technologies can dove-tail with environmental renewal and thus provide livelihood for all.
Such ideas and related work at the ground level in India are still treated as marginal, both by mainstream media and politics. Thus there is little awareness about this vast reservoir of untapped creative energy and its potential for building a truly prosperous India. This is largely because most of these ideas challenge the axioms of the prevailing economic orthodoxy, such as its insistence on perpetual material growth. New economics requires us to acknowledge that money is not wealth, it is only a token of exchange. Real wealth consists of indefinitely available natural capital -- which includes not merely forests, oceans, air, fresh water and vegetation but healthy, well-fed and well-housed people.
Then we can move towards a model of growth which is based not merely on goods produced and exchanged but on renewal of natural resources and realized human welfare. In order to do this the measure of economic performance will have to change. The concept of Gross National Product will have to be replaced with a concept like Genuine Progress Indicators, being developed by a San Francisco think-tank called Redefining Progress. We could also take inspiration from the government of Bhutan which is already in the process of organizing its economy around the concept of Gross National Happiness.
As Thekaekara says: The challenge for us today is to create a radically new structure, which will directly link consumers and producer communities and enable them to transact their trade and exchanges in a manner that is different from the global marketplace. ...A structure that will measure the success of an economy not just by the profits generated, but by how equitably this profit has been distributed.
The WSF is an open platform where these and other aspirations find expression. The first WSF was held at Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001 -- partly as a counter to the World Economic Forum (WEF) which meets in Davos every year. The WSF emerged after a year of impassioned street-level protests across the world in 2000. The focus of the anger at these mass protests were the institutions that are driving the prevailing version of globalization, namely, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the WEF. Mainstream media coverage dubbed these as simply anti-globalization protests. Thus the WSF aims to draw attention to the positive vision of a different form of globalization.
Over the last three years there has been popular pressure, within the international activist community, for the WSF to be shifted to India. Even the regional level Asia Social Forum was held at Hyderabad, in January 2003. This is largely because peoples movements and NGOs within India are held in very high regard by the international fraternity of people working towards a just and ecologically sustainable economic and social order.
The message on the wall is loud and clear. On its present course India could well become one of the worlds leading economies in terms of GNP and still also have a large mass of ill-fed and under-employed people. This will not change unless economic opportunities are multiplied on a much wider, deeper scale and more sustained basis.
We could begin to move in that direction if the powers that be fully appreciate the significance of India hosting the World Social Forum. This could then be an impetus for building a Green Economy that creates wealth beyond measure in three-dimensions, namely ecological regeneration, human well-being and material goods. Such an economy cannot be legislated from above, nor delivered by the free market nor taken out of some ready-made manifesto. It will have to be muddled towards and evolved out of the raw energies floating about right here in India and manifest on the world stage at forums like the WSF.