Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Growing Pains in Asia
Asiaweek, Jan 1999
Two works promote homegrown strategies

Development equals progress equals happiness. Right? Wrong, say the authors of The Dispossessed: Victims of Development in Asia (Arena Press, Hong Kong, 466 pages) which questions the development model followed by Asian countries over the past two decades. Authored by members of the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA), the ten nation study argues that Asia’s race to catch up with the West is wrenching millions of people away from their traditional lifestyles and putting them on the breadline. Coming at a time when Asia’s “bubble” economies have burst, its message deserves some attention.

While the book’s timing is good, its presentation is not. A book on such a complex issue could probably never be an easy read, but it could make a decent stab at being readable. Much of the book is written in the form of a “glossary”—an overlong list of woes caused by development through the region. These are divided into broad categories, such as “Social maladies”, “Child labour”, “Power projects”, and “Tourism,” with a couple of paragraphs devoted to each. This format is apparently intended to provide a “general overview”, but instead gives the impression of a cut and paste job culled from newspaper reports, albeit a detailed one. One can’t help feeling that the authors might have done better to focus on certain key issues, such as the Asia wide displacement of rural communities by mega dams, in more detail, rather than try and cover every possible ailment.

The case studies are more helpful. The contributors make the common point that unchecked industrialization in Asia has deprived millions of their traditional livelihoods, caused horrific industrial disasters and destroyed delicate ecologies. Among the cases discussed—Japan’s Minamata mercury poisoning incident, the Bhopal gas tragedy in India, and the Three Gorges Dam in China. Interviews with the victims make for moving reading, and dispel the myth that bigger, better factories and higher GNPs inevitably lead to better lives. However, there are some baffling inconsistencies. China, the country which is soon to become the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, gets just 43 pages while India takes up almost a quarter of the book. Indonesia, another ecological time bomb, is omitted completely, except for a half page mention of the infamous haze.

Dispossessed also succumbs to the temptation of clouding undeniable facts with one-sided sermons and purple prose. The section on India is an example of this ideological overkill. Commenting on the demerits of globalisation in India, co-editor Vinod Raina rants, “Baywatch is probably watched by more television viewers in urban India than in the country of its origin...The proliferation of Star and other global networks…are swaying urban Indian audiences and influencing cultural preferences.. A homogenized global culture, decadent and desensitizing, is taking root..” Raina has obviously not watched Star TV’s Indian version for a while. In recent times, there are more Hindi sitcoms, pop music countdowns and talk shows during prime time than there are English programs. If anything, it is India that has influenced Star’s preferences. Besides, the theory that Pamela Anderson’s gyrations may demolish a culture as ancient and resilient as India’s is a little hard to swallow. Sifting through such tiresome rhetoric is tough going, perhaps too tough for many readers.

In another example, while attacking the entry of several mega-power plants in Southern India, Raina writes that the “craze for power” in the Southern state of Karnataka has lead to a situation where “the battle cry remains, ‘power at any cost’”. As a former resident of Karnataka for over a decade, I could tell him that brownouts of up to 12 hours a day may have something to do with the government’s haste. Raina might have pointed out that India is desperately short of power, with an estimated 11% supply deficiency, and power cuts in effect all over the country. Besides, India gets nearly all its power from burning coal, an inefficient, polluting and most importantly finite resource. While overdevelopment may well have contributed to the power crunch, the question still remains—what do we do about the millions of villages still lit by candles?

Which brings us to the book’s most important deficiency. For a book which aims to “seek alternative ways of thinking and practice” there are surprisingly few tangible alternatives offered. There are brief mentions of some alternative movements— the Chipko movement in Northern India, a movement for community forest management in Thailand—but no substantial details on their modus operandi. There is enormous potential for renewable energy projects in Asia, using solar, wind and waste resources. Several such projects already exist in India, some sponsored by the World Bank (cast as the villain of this book). My own parents, who live in power-starved Bangalore, Karnataka, have been able to halve their electricity bills by using a solar heater. Discussing such alternatives rather than overdosing on ideology would have made the book a lot more useful.

Ultimately, the book does make a valid point: what is good for the West may not be good for largely agrarian Asia. Development is not a one size fits all garment; Asia needs to tailor its own model.

Mother knows best. That’s the message of another analysis of Western development and its impact on women-The Daughters of Development: Women in a Changing environment.(Zed Books, London & New York, 153 pgs). The book begins with author Sinith Sittirak’s journey to Canada to study developmental issues. It then comes full circle with her return to her native Thailand, after realizing that the recipe for a self-sufficient lifestyle lay in her own backyard.

“My mother doesn’t busy herself. wearing a Reduce-Reuse-Recycle button- she has been doing it all her life…”says Sittirak wryly, pointing out that Thai women had developed their own form of “sustainable” development long before green consumerism became trendy in the West. In a charming series of photographs of her mother doing her daily chores (though a papaya plant is labeled wrongly as a coconut tree), she describes many ecofriendly and economical tools and practices common all over Asia: coconut husk scrubbers, ash as detergent, banana leaves instead of foil wraps, brooms made from coconut leaves.

Elsewhere, Sittirak convincingly describes how “progress” is forcing Thai women from farming communities into prostitution, as their lands are swallowed up by tourist resorts or power projects. She ends by urging a revival of traditional indigenous knowledge, arguing that Western development has imposed a “global consumer monoculture’ under the banner of progress. 

That’s the good part. The bad part is that the book literally groans under its baggage of sociological jargon, excerpts and footnotes. This is probably because it originally started out as Sittirak’s term paper, but it seems a pity to restrict her potential readership to academics. At the very beginning of the book, one is confronted by the following sentence, “ The goal of my study is to integrate and synthesise the components of my area of concentration, i.e., the exploration of the conceptual background and concrete conditions of development, women and environment as they are related to, affected by or reflected in each other.” Not exactly a page-turner. Sittirak also quotes excessively, and tiresomely, from various other developmental theorists and publications, to the point where very little of the book actually seems to be her own work.

Still, original or not, the book raises an issue worth considering: the answers to Asia’s developmental dilemmas may not be as far away as we think. As Sittirak says, “Who would dare to quote from our great-grandparents as a reference in graduate school?” Her book is a step, however small, to ensuring that future generations may do just that.