What the GDP hype about China and India hides

(This column was published in DNA edition dated August 18, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

For the faithful flock of GDP worshippers, China and India provide ever more evangelical reason to praise the lord of macroeconomy. Just yesterday came statistical validation that China is on course to become the world’s second largest economy this year – and that India, although relatively a much smaller economy, will likely outpace China’s per-year GDP growth rate in the next few years. At a time when the old-faithful ‘gods’ – the developed economies in Europe and the US – have forsaken them, devout born-again GDP worshippers are singing the ‘Chindia’ chalisa with a fervour that borders on the fanatical.

There is of course much to commend about high-speed macroeconomic growth, particularly in low-income developing countries such as China and India: it enlarges the economic pie and unleashes entrepreneurial forces that have the potential to enrich societies. But what the obsession with topline GDP growth overlooks is that beneath those inarguably admirable numbers are civil societies (in both countries) that are the ultimate dystopian nightmare of the future.

The failings of the Indian state have been sufficiently well chronicled: from mass poverty to widespread child malnutrition to low literacy levels, the stark reality of India-that-is-Bharat presents a sobering contrast to the hype about our verging-on-10-per-cent GDP growth rate. News of farmers’ suicides is now so passé that it now has to be offered as cinematic entertainment for it to seep into our consciousness. And our urban decay is now so appalling that lowly malarial and dengue epidemics in our metropolitan cities are unworthy of our attention – unless they afflict our princely Yuvraj-es on foreign shores. It takes a ‘Superbug’ of alleged Indian provenance to get us sufficiently outraged. 

And across the border in China, the object of our veneration and envy for its record of maintaining 10% average GDP growth for 30 years, the picture is just as illusory. Beyond those shiny economic data and the gleaming showcase cities that inspire shock and awe is a country that’s choking on its own waste – and slow-poisoning the world.

As Jonathan Watts, The Guardian’s Asia environment correspondent, notes in his recent book When a Billion Chinese Jump…, China, having poisoned many of its own rivers, lakes and forests in its pursuit of high-octane economic growth, is now ‘exporting’ widespread environmental ruin to other countries. By 2020, the volume of urban rubbish in China is expected to reach 400 million tonnes: that’s as much waste as the entire world generated in 1997. Industrial regulation in China routinely lags behind economic growth, and there has in recent years been an epidemic of instances of wilful poisoning of, in the most perverse cases, baby milk powder.

In 2007 the World Bank estimated that pollution was eating away 5.8 per cent of its China’s GDP; less conservative estimates put it as high 12 per cent. After factoring these figures in, China’s GDP growth may seem a lot less inspiring to diehard GDP worshippers.

It’s true, of course, that even developed economies went through this messy and environmentally ruinous phase of industrial revolution. But China, and to a lesser extent India, are more than compensating for their low per-capita carbon emissions with their billion-plus population and the fact that, given that much of their population is still poor, their capacity to inflict wholesale ruin is limitless.

But let’s not break the bad news to ‘Chindia’ chalisa chanters and GDP worshippers: we wouldn’t want to interrupt their trance…


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
This entry was posted in China, Columns, Economy, India and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What the GDP hype about China and India hides

  1. Pingback: Wen a neighbour comes calling… | It's only words…

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