Sunday, 25 September 2011

Dead starters and live economic growth

It was a year before he died. I used to work in Chennai those days and had gone to Thrissur on a holiday. The tube-light in the dining room was not working, and my father asked me to check it out. It seemed that the starter was dead. I got ready to leave for the store to buy a new one.

A green smokestack?
Father stopped me. He asked me to follow him to his study. His lung disease had progressed by then and he panted with the excitement of the effort. He took out a brown paper cover from inside a plastic box and said, "try one of these, it may work." I turned the brown paper cover to loosen the rubber band and saw his label for the contents inside the cover - 'Dead starters'.

My father was born in 1917, the year Indian soldiers who fought for the British in the First World War returned to their villages. Just two years before he was born, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, an Indian lawyer had returned from South Africa. Though not as an active participant, he had lived through the freedom movement and World War II. He had experienced scarcity, rationing and queues. For him there was nothing wrong in coaxing a dead starter to work for a few more months. 

Though the economic reforms were initiated in 1991, in 1995 (when my father tried to resuscitate starters) the Indian economy was not soaring. But even by then the use and throw culture was slowly coming into practice. Summer this year, when I had parked my Maruti 800 in Swaraj Round, Thrissur, I found a friendly message hanging from my rear view mirror. "Exchange your old car for a new Nissan Micra," it read. Just like that?

High domestic production and high domestic consumption is good for the economy. It is better than the export-led economies (like in South-East Asia before the crash of 1997), or the import-led economies (like in much of Africa). However, when consumption becomes an end in itself, when today's goods and services are bought from tomorrow's expected earnings, there could be danger ahead.

I was a journalist when Sir Richard Jolly, lead author of the 1996 Human Development Report which focused on 'consumption', came to Chennai to release the report. Explaining the concept of consumption to us, Sir Richard said that when the human waistline expands beyond 34 inches then the problems due to consumption starts. I presume the conceptual 34-inch waistline also exists for national economies.

Mall owners in Chennai today will assure me that waist size does not matter. They have jeans for all sizes. They also have jeans of all brands. They have enough jeans chasing my money.

This summer the contrast was yet stronger for me, since I was coming to Chennai from Cotonou in Benin, West Africa. In Cotonou, good money has to go chasing for goods and services. In fact, the city has a used-jeans market. I do not know how the supply chain to this market works, but I would not be surprised if the jeans used and put aside in Chennai would find their way here through a network of international traders.

To get a snapshot picture of the Indian socio-economy between 1995 and the present, I referred the United Nations Millennium Development Goal indicators. Infant mortality dropped from 72 per thousand births in 1995 (starting year for all remaining comparisons) to 48 per thousand births in 2010. Under-five mortality dropped from 100 per thousand births to 63 per thousand births in 2010. Maternal mortality dropped from 470 per 100,000 live births to 230 per 100,000 live births in 2008. The percentage of HIV incidence rate (mid point) in 15 to 49-year old decreased from 0.06% to 0.02% in 2009. With the exception of tuberculosis, which showed a slight increase both in prevalence and death rate, all other health indicators have improved between 1995 and 2011.

People's access to improved drinking water source increased from 76% in 1995 to 88% in 2008. Access to improved sanitation facilities, though still abysmal, increased from 21% to 31% in 2008. Telephone lines increased from 1.24 per hundred population to 2.87 in 2010. Mobile phones registered a dramatic increase. It increased from 0.01 per 100 population to 61.42 in 2010. Internet connectivity increased from 0.03 connections per 100 population to 7.50 in 2010.

However, all this was not without a cost. India's carbon dioxide emissions increased from 0.92 billion tonnes in 1995 to 1.74 billion tonnes in 2008 (more recent figures not available on the chart). The per capita carbon dioxide emissions increased from 0.96 tonnes in 1995 to 1.47 tonnes in 2008.

India comes 145th on the list in terms of per capita emissions, keeping pace with Georgia, Gabon and Angola. Qatar takes the top position with 53.5 tonnes emissions per capita in 2008; the USA in the 12th position with 17.5 tonnes; and the UK in the 43rd position with 8.5 tonnes.

When the country figures are listed, India comes third after China and the USA, and fourth if the European Union is counted as a block. Despite the ranking, the differences are considerable. In 2008, China had an emission of 7.03 billion tonnes (23.33% of the global total); the USA 5.46 billion tonnes (18.11%); the EU 4.17 billion tonnes (14.04%); and India 1.74 billion tonnes (5.78%). This data and analysis was made by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center of the US Department of Energy for the United Nations.

This is the data on which the entire India vis-à-vis the world climate change discussion revolves. There are two ways of looking at it. While one can argue that India is a major emitter, the counter argument is that a country with 17.28% of the world population only shares 5.78% of the emissions, and global warming is caused due to present and historical emissions. India's economic growth and increase in emissions is a recent development. The per capita emissions is amongst the lowest in the world.

I do not know how much of these arguments my father would have read through the newspaper. Even if he had, his philosophy would have been simple - if a tube-light starter can be brought back to life it should not be thrown away.


  1. Well written Gopi, I am sure many of us to try to bring back life to the starters, unfortunately when it becomes more expensive that a new one, we are forced to increase the carbon emission....though most probably on china's account... .

  2. This is a wonderful blog!! The way you connected the starters and economic growth was simply brilliant!!

  3. Thanks Arif and Saji for your comments.

  4. Great piece, Gopi! It is interesting to note the corelation between wealth, growth and emission. Qatar with the highest per-capita emission has also the highest per-capita GDP. All boils down to sustainability and growth.

  5. Super blog. Well written. Starters or even old cars or for that matter any old things, we never had habit to throwing it away. We will do something like tinkering and all our age old creative techs and make it work and feel happy. That was sustainable living. THe use and throw culture from US has come along with capitalism. This is root cause for emission rise and also destruction to the environment.
    Simply it boils down to the point. Unless we can stop consumerism and that mind set, we just cannot stop carbon emission.........

  6. Gopi, that's an excellent explanation.

  7. Great piece Gopi, I hear the argument on emissions by developing countries vs developed countries often on NPR. It is a vicious circle, people have the mentality to throw away things only because it's cheaper to buy a new one than get it repaired, a very western mentality.

    Oh, that smokestack picture is hilarious!

  8. Thanks Bhakti and Sudha for your comments. It is not just the case of something being cheaper to replace than to repair, technology itself is being packaged in such a way that obsolescence for some products is built into it. Computers, for instance, have to be replaced every few years, even if the user's need has not increased. Water: Consumption and growth is inevitable, but more-than-necessary consumption is perhaps avoidable. I know it is each one his choice in this matter. TNM: I didn't know that Qatar had the highest per capita income, but I was really surprised to see it standing first in per-capita emissions that is three times that of the USA.