“India should see the warning signals from China’s growth models. China’s top down, non-inclusive policy-making has kept social and environmental concerns out of its economic growth plan at great cost to its people and the quality of their life.”
We have looked to China these past several years partly as competitor, part in fear and often as an economic growth role model. The new Prime Minister is thought to have a good relationship with the leaders in China and the government is likely to build on that.
One of the first people to congratulate Narendra Modi and his government was Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and exchanges with Chinese leaders continue at a high level. The latest has been the very cordial meeting between Mr Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Brics Summit in Brazil.
There is much to emulate from China, starting with its discipline. The Chinese have invested heavily in basic education, health, agriculture and rural employment. They have become manufacturing giants and developed markets for their products. One of their interesting models is the chain of township and village enterprises which links rural produce to urban markets. China is also known for its firm policy-making aimed almost entirely at maintaining high growth figures. It is precisely this aspect that we need to observe with caution.
The new government is trying to move fast to make up for the years of policy paralysis of the last government, but it must hurry slowly. One single statement that projects worth `80,000 crore, which were held up by the environment ministry, will be cleared immediately has been sufficient to set off the disquiet. It is certain that many projects were held up because of bureaucratic red tape, but surely there were others that were held up because of serious enough shortcomings to warrant a review and even denial of permission.
Unbridled economic growth can extract a high price as we have seen in many countries including our own. In case of China, some of the consequences have been severe, especially in the field of agriculture and food production. According to Chinese reports, the country is battling with an unprecedented contamination of its agricultural land, a phenomenon that is assuming alarming proportions. The situation is so serious that large tracts of arable land have become unfit for food cultivation. Not just food, altogether 3.5 million hectares are thought to be so polluted now that they cannot support any kind of agriculture at all. Chinese scientists hold the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and indiscriminate dumping of industrial waste to be responsible for the poisoning of the land.
A study conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to evaluate the future of China’s food production potential came up with shocking findings. The study found that 40 per cent of China’s land is degraded and 20 per cent is so fouled up by industrial effluents, farm chemicals, sewage and waste water run-off from mining sites, as to have become almost unusable. The water resources are equally contaminated because a lot of water is being diverted to coal mining areas and the water that flows out from there is a toxic mix of chemicals. Contamination of the soil and water with toxic heavy metals like cadmium, nickel and arsenic is growing and is particularly high in the south-west region, which is China’s rice belt. The situation is so bad that large tracts of land are being abandoned by farmers who are afraid to eat the produce cultivated on such land.
The soil and water toxicity is impacting the food chain and contaminating the food. Rice samples taken from shops and restaurants traced the contaminated rice to the Hunan province, one of China’s most important rice growing regions. Contamination of food in the Hunan region should come as no surprise, given the fact that several industries in this area have come up in the vicinity of agricultural land and the heavily contaminated factory effluent flows straight into the rice fields. There are reports that high incidence of cancer is found in the regions near the polluting factories. This should remind us of our own “cancer train” running from Punjab to hospitals in Rajasthan. These trains carry cancer patients, mostly from farming areas which have been using deadly cocktails of chemical pesticides and excessive doses of chemical fertilisers. We should know we cannot allow this terrible situation to get any worse.
All this contamination of arable land and its becoming unfit for food production has high level policy implications. The situation is considered so grave by Chinese analysts that they fear for the country’s food security and food sovereignty. There is a real fear in policy circles that China may not be able to produce sufficient safe food to feed itself. Already affluent families that can afford to, are relying on imported foods and bottled water to feed their families. According to some reports, there is hoarding of food and water and a climate of fear about being able to eat safe food and drink clean water.
India should see the warning signals from such growth models and draw lessons from it. China’s top down, non-inclusive policy-making has kept social and environmental concerns out of its economic growth plan at great cost to its people and the quality of their life. The country already faces a challenge to its food security and the health of the environment has become a serious cause for concern. We must be cautioned by the China experience and do things differently. Yes, there must be firmness in policy-making and there must be timely and determined action. But the social and environmental aspects must be part of economic decision-making. The cost-benefit analysis of every project must be honest and transparent and inform the ultimate decision. Squandering our social capital for economic gains will be short sighted if not outright self-destructive.
The writer is a scientist and chairperson of Gene Campaign. She can be reached at email@example.com
The Asian Age, 14 August 2014, http://www.asianage.com/columnists/not-china-way-899