The taxi ride from Singapore airport to the city was exhilarating. Beautiful greenery abounds all around. Well laid out roads and regulated traffic ensure a relaxing and comfortable ride. Tastefully landscaped housing estates & commercial buildings peep through lush shrubbery. Dense trees line the roads. The ‘Garden City’ is being transformed into a ‘City in a Garden’. The city is rich. Social infrastructure – education, healthcare, housing, etc. – built by the government is awesome. People go about their lives with a widely held optimism that they will continue to thrive and do well for generations to come.

The inevitable questions pop-up. When will India become like this? Can we become like Singapore at all?

But a more relevant question should be – Should we become like Singapore at all?

What will it take for the big urban cities in India to become mini-Singapores?  >30% of Indian population is urban, and this is growing fast. What about the rural & semi-rural population? They can’t be left behind. Shouldn’t they also be granted Singapore style infrastructure & amenities?

Is this possible? Where will such efforts lead us to?

We would need to consume humongous amounts of energy & resources in order to become a developed country (as it is currently defined in terms of per capita GDP). Of course, development is not just physical infrastructure. We also need to ramp up on many other fronts – social, economic, political, scientific, business, cultural, arts etc.

We are growing at about 7% pa, and if we continue at this rate, we would double our economic output in about 10 years. But will this be equitable growth? What about destruction of the environment such a growth will entail? We cannot say our story will unfold differently. We just need to look at other developed nations, their growth path and outcomes. In our case, the impact of such a fast paced growth would be even more terrible because of our sheer size.

Successive governments, since we opened up our economy in 1991, has pursued economic growth as the primary goal. The singular argument has been that economic growth and rising incomes will pull the masses out of poverty. But that has not been the experience of many rich & developed countries, including the US. Our own rich culture & philosophy warns against excessive wealth, and talks about how blind pursuit of wealth can be destructive, both for the individual and the state.

The idea of low-growth, zero-growth & even negative-growth economies has been around for sometime. Climate change, ecological destruction, social inequities & unrest, and other challenges brought about by policies supporting unbridled economic growth at all costs have brought the idea of low/no growth scenarios to the forefront, at least in some developed countries. The realization that wealth beyond a certain point does not lead to happiness & well-being is gaining ground.

glo slow

But what can India do? We have millions of poor. We need more jobs, more income, more food & shelter, better physical & social infrastructure. Can we afford low growth? Instead of 7%, can we choose to grow at, say, 3%?

We have huge inefficiencies in administering policies. Leakages & corruption are rampant. Tax collection, redistribution, capital allocation etc. can be improved significantly. Degradation of our environment is accelerating. Our economic & development policies are just aping the west. We are just doing what the developed nations did decades back, when they were a developing economy. All these are known facts. How will our outcome be any different?

  • Rather than trying to accelerate our growth, shouldn’t we explore scenarios to slow down?
  • Shouldn’t we improve our governance & efficiencies in administration to compensate for a low-growth economy?
  • Shouldn’t we protect and nurture our environment on a war footing, for our own good and for future generations, accepting the discomforts of a slower growth?
  • Won’t more efficient wealth redistribution and capital allocation policies provide better physical & social infrastructure, over time?

Trying to build mini-Singapores in India can lead to destruction & chaos.

The taxi ride from Singapore airport was contemplative. It does make one envious & angry. Why are we struggling? Why can’t we do something like this?

Singapore reinvented itself. We can also reinvent India. But our path has to be different.

Slower growth & better governance should be our mantra.

Questioning Economic Growth