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Liberal Development Trap, environment and quality of life

18 January 2016 06:31 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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t is highly fashionable to talk about sustainable development  today. But much of what happens in the name of development amounts to  increasing exploitation of non-renewable resources. In a way, this is  understandable. We need water, land, minerals, etc. to produce  commodities. We also talk about economic prosperity as a legitimate goal  to be achieved by the countries in the developing world. This often  means mass production and consumption of goods and services. When all  these things happen, it is difficult to imagine how the natural  environment can be preserved, non-renewable resources conserved and  environmental pollution averted, unless we come up with a different  development model. Then comes the issue of quality of life; how can the  quality of life of the masses be improved in a fast moving  socio-economic environment created by rapid urbanization, hyper mobility  of people and growing social and spatial disparities? The spread of  non-communicable diseases in such an environment coupled with increasing  substance abuse, accidents, crime, etc. lowers the quality of life for  many people, in particular, the disadvantaged sections of the  population.  There is almost no need to mention the  negative impact on quality of life of increasing environmental pollution  caused by increasing toxic and other wastes generated by an affluent  life style mostly based on private consumption. 



What is outlined above shows how difficult it is to balance  development with environmental protection and quality of life. In a  liberal economic environment, private investors often drive the  development process and it is natural for them to look for more and more  profitable investments, be it in manufacturing, construction, real  estate development or in tourism. There are not many countries in the  world that strive to find an alternative model of development, a notable  exception being Bhutan. Sri Lanka is not an exception in the above  regard. Faced with a socio-economic crisis characterized by massive  public debts, growing income disparities and increasing expectations of a  vast low income population, the present leaders of the country are  looking for ways to get out of the present social and economic mess  brought about by a long period of conflict and a decade of poor  governance. 



The economic base of the country is weak. In the absence of a strong industrial base coupled with a weak and stagnant  agricultural  sector, more and more people have come to depend on an ever expanding  service sector which is heavily dependent on imports for its sustenance  and growth. Inflationary pressures generated partly by the service  sector and partly by a vast, largely unproductive state sector, have  continued to push the wages and prices up, making life difficult for low  income people encouraging them to look for foreign employment.  Overseas  employment itself has become a source of inflationary pressure as much  of the remittances sent by workers fuel consumption of goods and  services. In the absence of attractive industrial or agricultural  employment, most of the unskilled workers have moved into the informal  sector in urban areas. So, unless new, regular employment opportunities  are created in the productive sectors, the present economic and social  trends are more than likely to persist with their adverse consequences. 
 


"As is well known, the rapid expansion of private transport in many  countries often at the expense of public transport has in fact slowed  down traffic leading to many adverse consequences, both socio-economic  and environmental "




We are living in an increasingly inter-dependent world. It is  natural for countries to engage in international trade in goods and  services in the context of a global economy characterized by a high  degree of division of labour and specialization. Yet, ecological  imperatives  force us to strike a balance between globalization and localization in  both production and consumption. For instance, it is nonsensical for a  family to travel ten thousand miles across the world to have a short  holiday. Similarly, a country that can easily produce much of its staple  food needs cannot justify importing the same food from countries that  are thousands of miles away. Similar observations can be made with  respect to many other areas of production and consumption. But the main  point that needs emphasis here is that it is human needs much more than  human greed that should guide human endeavours. 



Another significant trend in global development in recent years  is the increasing dominance of private consumption even in areas where  public consumption can easily and more efficiently fulfill people’s  needs. In this regard, public transport is a clear case in point. The  same is also true for many other areas such as health, education and  social security.
As is well known, the rapid expansion of private transport in many  countries often at the expense of public transport has in fact slowed  down traffic leading to many adverse consequences, both socio-economic  and environmental. As a result, private transport  in the  final analysis has not enhanced the quality of life of most people. Yet, it  is not possible in a liberal economic environment to cut back private  transport to accommodate public transport. This is clearly evident from  the present emphasis on road development as a solution to traffic  congestion in Sri Lanka. In the area of health, escalating private  healthcare costs have made life miserable for many low income people.  Increasing costs of private education, health and other services have  compelled many middle class people to rely on various forms of rent  seeking to earn money. Such rent seeking behaviour is a means to an end  for those who wield power, influence and authority but is often an  agonizing experience for the hapless masses. 



It is possible to reverse within a few years  some  of the negative trends in development, transport, health, education,  etc. But, to do this, we need to revisit the present development  paradigm. This could perhaps be done in the context of the new SDG  framework put forward by the Unite Nations. We need to initiate that discourse in  this country without delay. 

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