Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism"

Rahul Goswami

As a young boy in urban India, I recall households in which our common materials to scrub cooking vessels, and eating vessels, were still used: the fibrous husk of the dried coconut shell and wood ash into which water would be sprinkled so that it became a paste. This was the way in most of village India, and such ways traveled into the urban India of the 1960s and 1970s and were found quite unremarkable then. The strands of the plastic scrubbers, quite soberly colored those days in standard shades of red or blue, sometimes green, would tear quickly, especially under the force required to get properly rid of the oil and charred cooking residues in the vessels, and so while they and the (usually deep blue) “dish-washing” bars of soap (as they were called) looked pretty, and cost pretty too, they were as practical kitchen equipment no match for the coconut fiber-and-ash real thing.

As youngsters, we had no idea what “biodegradable” meant, and it was many years later that I first heard about or read about the term. We did have water pipes and taps in our flats, and there were hours when water did flow through them. This, for that era of urban India gradually becoming “modern,” was still remarkable. Water flowed at times through pipes and out of taps (we call them taps and not faucets), and electricity was conducted (more frequently than water flowed) through wires and lit up our rooms through 40 watt bulbs (60 and 100 watt bulbs were for special occasions) and turned our ceiling fans. Air conditioning was boasted about by those lucky enough to work in offices so air-conditioned; for the rest of us, it was experienced during the occasional family outing to the cinema (as we called it then), but the cinema houses would also have, standing alone the side aisles like so many circular sentries, large pedestal fans for the times when the air conditioning would not work. When neither worked, the patrons would stream out, loiter about chatting, and wait for the watts to become available once more.

Few homes had a telephone. These were the black, heavy Bakelite rotary dial instruments. We could all hear the sound of the telephone bell ringing in the home of the neighbor who owned one, and that ring was akin to us to the cry of the telegram man from the department of posts and telegraph (as it was called then), for a telegram meant only one of three things: bad news, a posting (for those in the armed forces or in the public sector), or a standard festival greeting (you went to the telegraph office and asked for, say, Number 23 greeting to be sent, there being a table helpfully provided which listed the possible festival greetings an Indian family may want to convey). When television came to our homes, the first sets created a sensation, and it was typical for a home thus equipped to be crowded with neighboring families, children, domestic help, and the apartment building’s watchman (as he was called) and his family too all clustered in front of a single TV set. The watchmen became experts at correcting the direction and angle of the external television antenna (crows liked to perch on them).

Very few households owned a vehicle, as they were called then. In India, we had three kinds only. A very few of the wealthy business or aristocratic families had what we called imported cars, usually of American or British make. Almost everyone got around the city using public transport of one kind or another: the bus, trams (for as long as they were run), cycle-rickshaws, or the hand-pulled rickshaw. People walked a great deal and ate sparingly, and their body shape was most usually lean. This is a very fleeting glimpse of the India in which I was a young boy, and these conditions were more or less the same until my mid-teens. Thereafter, there was increasingly more talk about “liberalization of the economy.” For most people my age, the attractions of such a change, whatever it meant, seemed to come from the expectation that we needn’t think only of a job with a public sector company (or a government department, for those both bright enough and with the required connections). And for those who lived not in a city but in a small town or a village, the advice of their elders was that they could look forward to a “career” and not labor, season after hard season, in the fields.

But things moved slowly in the India of the later 1980s and the early 1990s. I read about the “Hindu rate of growth” (about 3% per year, whatever that meant, and we were too fearful to ask what it was that was growing), about labor rights and trade unions, about external debt (why did we owe other countries money and for what had we borrowed?), and about foreign investment. Still, to most of us, these were complicated and uncomfortable ideas. They seemed remote yet menacing, not for what they meant to our world, but for the kind of world they represented—one filled with charts and graphs, with equations and tables full of dense numbers, percentages, and decimals. Slowly, these ideas began to take over our still fairly simple lives. It was no longer all right to have a job and have enough time to spend with family and friends. One must have a career, and not just any old career, but a good one, and the best ones to be had were for those who were able to get a degree called MBA, or those who became chartered accountants.

More changes came and the very subject of change began to be what the newest media in India reported on and discussed. No longer did we have a single television broadcaster, a state agency. We had cable TV in 10 languages and in 300 cities. Most of what they aired was in the genre of regionalized varieties of the Bollywood film industry storytelling, and a good bit were what we had only lately learned were sitcoms, but there was also news, and this news was controlled by politicians and regional big business. When I look back at where we saw some kind of “growth,” and this was counted first of all in the number of people who would actually watch these channels, it was in the new television media of India. From cable, the method of broadcast became satellite. By now, India had a number of cities with populations of more than a million. These, we were told, would be the new centers of GDP growth. Those who had begun to say so were the new cadre of banks (our old banks, the ones with which we still had savings accounts whose passbooks were still updated by clerks with ballpoint pens), and these had begun to decide on our behalf, voters old and young alike, what our country needed to do in order to grow GDP and the economy.

We scarcely recognized it then, but that was the start of the dominance of something called the “services” sector of the economy, although we had begun to see the steady migration of households and families from rural India to the cities, where they took up all variety of small jobs and works, physical and labor-intensive in nature, like carrying bricks in building construction sites, loading weighty crates onto lorries in the new industrial and technology “parks” (a label new to us, we who had whiled away afternoons under mango trees in our town parks), and pulling hefty cables into new cement-lined trenches along roads. What of the fields these families had left behind? It did not occur to us to ask at the time.

The vocabularies of those around us too were not what they used to be. The better “qualified” who now had well-paying jobs in private sector banks, in the financial services industry, in the consumer goods companies, in the corporate law firms, in the automotive ancillaries sector, in software services, in logistics and freight (so many new areas of efficient and modern new business, we would think to ourselves privately, for to say so publicly would invite derision for being rather ignorant about the new shapes and forces of the modern world), they sounded very different from what they used to be when they had been more like us. Some had chauffeur-driven imported cars now, and were able to afford family holidays abroad. They spoke of investment avenues, of sunrise sectors, of demographic advantages, of info-tech and bio-tech. The replacement of one kind of vocabulary with another disturbed me in ways that could not find enough voice.

Less and less would I hear the well-crafted tales that surrounded our great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the lengthy and colourful descriptions of the festivals and customs that had so filled our youth, whether in town or in village. Fewer and fewer became the references to our freedom fighters, social reformers, writers and poets, musicians and craftspeople. It was as if over the course of a generation or less, an entire civilizational ethos had begun being unwoven, strand by strand. Nor was this a change we saw only in our contemporaries, the friends of our childhood and the comrades with whom we had stolen train rides and the odd savory to eat when times were tough. This was the refrain in Parliament too, where elected Members now discussed big dam projects, big highway projects, airports, special economic zones, subsidies, tariffs and duties, taxes, and public debt. Where were the debates that had once filled these halls, and had once crackled for us over radio waves, about values and culture, about the citizen’s duties and the state’s obligations, about our reverence for nature and the age-old sites of our sacred geographies, of the many shades of learning gleaned through generations of reflection on our six systems of philosophy? Surely they could not have disappeared?

They have not entirely, but their means of survival has been caused to shrink and at times come close to withering altogether. This has taken place in a country where one can quite easily find accounts of our educational curricula during the classical and later Vedic periods, the ideal sixty-four arts are listed as subjects (these include mechanical, practical, artistic, spiritual study, abstract), and these include sculpture, pottery, weaving, astronomy and astrology, mathematics, weights and measures, philosophy, the study of “shastra” (scripture), agriculture, navigation, trade and shipping, knowledge of time and its measurement, logic, psychology, ayurveda, and so on. Of economics, there is no account, no trace, no mention.

Norgaard has called this kind of thinking, and the practice it entails, a sort of church or a sort of faith. It is very probably that, in its methods and its wide appeal, the enticements and inducements of economism have become like that of the rootless cults which have appeared (more notably in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) to great acclaim, only to wipe themselves out in a self-destructive blaze. If a cult it is, then economism is better constructed than all others for it has enwrapped tens of millions of households in its coils, whether they know it or not. It is very likely that many are unaware of its working, because of the two great machineries of economism that were set in motion after the second world war, and these are “development” and “poverty alleviation.” So any transformation (promised or delivered in some form or another) that brings about one and removes the other propels the household and individual over the threshold that marks balanced civilization and into the technology-finance zone, a cultural desert, of economism.

Rahul Goswami
Rahul Goswami is a UNESCO expert on intangible cultural heritage. He advises government officials, researchers, traditional knowledge bearers, and practitioners in South-East and East Asia on methods to identify, document, and safeguard traditional knowledge systems.

Cite as Rahul Goswami, contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism," Great Transition Initiative (December 2015),

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