The Cost of Growth in India

The Cost of Growth in India

Article from The New Yorker online about coastal erosion in South India. An accompaniment to the print article from the previous week. Be sure to also check out the accompanying slide show.

S. Manavalan, the South Indian postman I wrote about for this week’s issue, has a thing for fish. He grew up by the sea, in the village of Kadapakkam, and as far back as he can remember he’s eaten fish nearly every day for lunch. Unusually for a man of his generation (he is sixty-two years old), Manavalan does much of the cooking at home; he specializes in fried fish and fish curry. He says he learned the dishes from his mother, and that he cooks them in what he calls “the old-fashioned ways.”

Most mornings, Manavalan can be found at the village fish market, down on a stretch of yellow sand bordering the Bay of Bengal. It is a crowded, hectic place, a tangle of fishing nets, brightly painted motorboats, hungry stray dogs, and fish vendors with their catch spread over plastic sheets. Crabs crawl nervously in every direction; the sand is speckled with silver bits of fish that glint in the sun.

I met Manavalan at the market early one morning. We walked around and talked about the many ways his village has changed over the years. This is what we usually talked about: I was writing an article on the impact of a highway built through Kadapakkam, and Manavalan, who has worked as a postman in the area for over three decades, was full of stories. That morning, he told me how the highway, known as the East Coast Road, had made it easier for fishermen to transport their catch to distant markets, and about how prices had risen as a result. He pointed to a group of men alighting from a car and said that they were traders—“businessmen,” he called them—who drove along the coast, snatching up the best fish for hotels and restaurants. This, too, had led to an increase in prices for fishermen.

Not all the changes Manavalan spoke about were positive, though, and not all were linked to the highway. As we walked around, dodging elderly villagers who accosted him demanding to know when their welfare checks would show up in the mail, Manavalan complained that fish stocks weren’t as plentiful as they had once been. The ocean was rougher, he said, and fishermen had to go farther out to fill their nets. “Before, it was easy to get fish as big as me,” he said, spreading his hands wide. Like many fishermen I spoke to in the area, he told me that the ocean had changed. It was hard to pin people down when they said this: the sense of disappointment was vague but undeniable, like the sundering of a relationship between these coastal villages and an ocean that has, for centuries, provided them with a livelihood.

I have lived by this ocean for pretty much my entire life. I, too, can vouch that it has changed. The nature of that transformation (and the menace it poses) is much clearer just a few miles down the road from Kadapakkam, where an insidious process of erosion has been creeping up the coast, swallowing ever-larger slices of the beach and the villages that border it. This erosion has several causes. One of the most important is a harbor built farther along the coast, outside the town of Pondicherry. The harbor, designed to create new economic opportunities, has had the unintended consequence of blocking sand flows that nourished the beach from the south. Today, the beach immediately south of the harbor stretches for hundreds of metres; to the north, a once-wide stretch of sand has virtually disappeared.

Kadapakkam has thus far been largely spared the worst of this erosion. Some people say that the ocean has crept a little closer over the years, and fishermen complain about rougher waters (probably the result of erosion in underwater sandbanks that once softened the waves). But Kadapakkam’s beach is still largely intact, and no homes have been swept away. Local environmentalists warn, however, that the process of erosion appears to be accelerating, and that it is likely to intensify if a proposed port project in the area goes forward. It seems only a matter of time before the sandy beach where Manavalan and I visited the fish market that morning is washed away.

I was in Kadapakkam because I was interested in understanding the impact of large infrastructure projects on people’s lives. The conventional wisdom among policymakers and development experts is that poor infrastructure is holding back India’s growth. K.P.M.G., the consulting and accounting company, calculates that the nation’s transportation and logistics bottlenecks reduce its growth rate by up to two per cent a year. A government report that came out last week estimates that infrastructure projects worth some two hundred and fifty billion dollars are stalled, mired in red tape. Last year, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said that India must meet its infrastructure-spending targets over the next five years “at any cost.”

But what, really, are the costs of large infrastructure projects? When the East Coast Road was first built, many activists and environmentalists protested the ecological destruction they were sure would soon follow. Such protests have become common in recent years. Throughout the country, at the sites of proposed roads, power plants, dams, and industrial projects, India has witnessed a series of disputes over the price of economic development. These disagreements played out again a few years ago on the East Coast Road, when a group of villagers blocked the highway and stopped traffic in anger at the erosion being caused by the harbor.

I visited the area of the protests around that time, for an earlier article I wrote on the erosion. This week, I went back, to the fishing village of Periyamudaliarchavadi. The last time I had been there, Periyamudaliarchavadi’s beach was still wide, but its neighbor to the south had been devastated. Now, the devastation has moved up. What I found on the beach in Periyamudaliarchavadi was a sight that has become all too familiar around here over the years: fallen trees, concrete debris, churning waters perilously close to people’s homes, and bits of human lives—combs and bottles and rubber sandals and pieces of furniture—strewn across a narrow strip of remaining sand. Men and women walked along that strip, pausing every now and then to stare out at the ocean, as if they couldn’t quite believe what had happened to their village.

On a bit of higher ground set back from the waves, I met a man named L. Subramaniam. He was sixty-eight years old. He worked as a vendor on the beach, selling coconuts, bananas, guavas, and loose cigarettes out of a red cart. In the past, he said, he also ran an ice-cream stall. But the beach was gone, there were hardly any customers anymore, and he didn’t make enough money these days to rent the stall. He told me he used to make around five hundred rupees and sell at least fifty coconuts a day; now, he’s lucky if he makes a hundred rupees and sells ten coconuts.

I walked along the beach, watching as a few persistent college students waded in the murky waters, trying to ignore the destruction around them. I returned to the higher ground, where Subramaniam was packing up. He told me about better days. In the past, he said, he would cycle his ice-cream stall along the East Coast Road. He’d been to Kadapakkam a few times; business was good there, as it was everywhere on the highway. But he was old now, he said, and he didn’t have the strength to cycle under the hot sun anymore. He hadn’t been on the East Coast Road in years.

A man and a woman walked by and Subramaniam stopped talking to me. He looked at his potential customers hopefully. They kept going. “Probably I’ll have to go back to the Road,” Subramaniam said, and he laughed, and it was a nervous laugh, maybe despairing, certainly not mirthful. “It’s difficult and I don’t know how I will manage,” he said. “But I can’t go on here. There’s nothing left here anymore.”

Comment (1)

  • Arti Laher

    "Only the insane, and economists, believe infinite growth in a finite system is possible.." -- Some intellectual smart aleck. The measure of progress in our world today is only ever framed in economic terms. There exist two ubiquitous economic concepts which are deeply corrosive to the environment and the prospect of our civilisation continuing (in India and world wide) . The first is the use of GDP as a measure of a country's affluence and the second is the religious obsession with economic growth - the two being intrinsically linked. GDP is a broad and inaccurate statistic which obscures the data of economic activity into a single number. It can be and is often very misleading as an indicator of economic health. For further details, I recommend the recent article in Nature. As a life scientist, I find this latter concept striking in its similarity to the behaviour of a cancer in the body. Growth requires consumption - be it of material resources or energy. A growth rate, in mathematical terms, is indicative of an exponential function, with a doubling time set by it. Thus the axiom of modern economics, that growth is an imperrative of a healthy economy, requires that consumption increases exponentially. This then suggests, that rather than measuring the health of the organism that we are collectively a part of: we are measuring the health of the cancer which is killing us - and are proudly claiming that the world is a better place for it. I feel that what your article shows, is the true cost above and beyond the economic one - the natural one (which many would assume doesn't include the human cost, but I suggest it should).

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