What type of growth do we want? Stories from Bhutan and India

Progress Namibia - What type of growth do we want? Stories from Bhutan and India
04 April 2017

When you travel around Bhutan, a small country squeezed in by the Himalayas on one side, and the two giants India and China on the other, you immediately see small colourful flags on strings pulled between trees, on mountain sides, over bridges, over rivers. Everywhere.

I asked my colleague, who picked me up from the Paro airport, what they were about. He said, smiling, that they are blessing flags. They have inscribed blessings printed on them. So people hang them up in areas all over the country. Mostly in areas of wind and water. As the wind passes through the flags, they pick up the blessings from the flags, and so the wind then blesses everything down wind or down water. The birds, the fish, the deer, the soil, the trees, the people. All life. I found this quite beautiful. So I found myself on my way to meetings to discuss how ecosystem services are being integrated into the economy in Bhutan. I was happy to find myself in the clean, fresh air of the mountains (after having come from New Delhi, which I will speak about in the second part of this story).

Bhutan is a 'poor' country, in the way we define country economies. But in fact it is quite rich. The government looks after its people. Traditions are important. Families are important. Everyone has access to food and water. The country, for a long time, uses Gross National Happiness as a tool to inform development. The Gross National Happiness Commission sits very high up in Government, and is in charge of acquiring, through various indicators, information on citizen life quality, that then informs their five year development plans.

Knowing the work that we do in Namibia to find alternative indicators to measure progress, it was nice to be in Bhutan and learn from their experiences with this. Of course, there is mounting pressure to use GDP as a comparable economic progress indicator, and thus mounting pressure to make money has resulted in mass development of hydropower in the country and trade with India.

Which brings me on to India. I had to overnight in Delhi on my way to Bhutan from Windhoek. When I descended into Delhi early in the morning on the Sunday, I could not see the city below us. The air was brown. When I left the airport, I could not see more than 200 metres in front of me, the air was thick with brown smog. As we drove around the streets of Delhi, angry, chaotic driving, I saw starving dogs, dirty, desperate children and adults sleeping on the street among the traffic. Everywhere I saw this. I wondered to myself, how do people live here? By 'live' I don't mean 'how do they take it'. I mean actually survive. Not only is the pollution so bad that one cannot see or breathe, people who have money then go hide-away in their offices and houses and push the dial on the air conditioning to the extreme (unknowingly exacerbating the situation because they are contributing in this way to more pollution, creating a vicious cycle). The poor are left in the streets to breathe this air not caused by them and if they do get sick as a result, tough luck, they can't afford any medical care. I had heard about this problem (and of course its even worse in China), on a Ted Talk recently where a man was told he had to leave New Delhi because his lungs could not take it. Instead he decided to put an immense amount of plants in his office building to clean the air (which apparently worked quite effectively).

China and India are heralded as being growth machines, and such fast-growing economies are supposedly great. In China, in 2015, Beijing suffered its worst pollution crisis ever when people were forbidden to leave their homes. The Chinese pledged to solve the pollution crisis, but instead merely increased the level at which it is considered safe to breathe. In China, 1.2 million people die per year from pollution related illnesses. And inequality in this country has been getting worse and worse. My question: How is this improving quality of life? How can we look to these countries and think: this is the development model I want to follow for my country. So, I wonder to myself. Why do we do this? Where are we, as humanity, going? Is this what we really want? Are we willing to destroy everything and risk everything in the name of economic growth? At what cost? Why do we not actually measure our outcomes against real costs? And here we have a list of the costs: biodiversity loss (healthy top soil anyone?), possibly highest levels of inequality in history, migrants and refugees, conflicts, and of course catastrophic climate change.

I was severely depressed when I took off from Delhi and watched the birds flying around in the brown smog, no flags blessing them down wind. I wondered to myself - why is not everyone questioning this system? Are we so removed that we see our life support system, nature, as a separate entity that we don't really need? And if we do, and we are destroying it in the pursuit this ghost we call any and all type of growth, are we really happy?

Photo credit: Justine Braby, Bhutan