Can small still be beautiful?

On each of my visits to India in the last few years, the effects of the globalized economy have been increasingly apparent. Streets that once carried mostly buses and a few private vehicles are now clogged with cars, and the foul-smelling air is full of auto exhaust. The buses are still running but seem badly in need of maintenance and are jammed with office workers.

Though the vast majority of the population will never be able to afford cars, nor can many of the roads take much more traffic, very little effort seems to have gone into improving public transport.

I've been visiting Bangalore, often called India's Silicon Valley for its fast- expanding technology industry. US high-tech giants like Intel and Cisco have development centers there, employing well-educated Indian engineers to design products that used to be made in California's Silicon Valley.

A US engineer's salary can pay for three or more engineers in India. By one measure, India has done well in the global economy by taking away relatively high-paying technology jobs from the US and other wealthy nations. But India is typical of many developing nations in that more than 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas and many depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood.

A controversial expressway is being planned between Bangalore and a neighboring city. It is expected to consume thousands of acres of agricultural and forest land, and will impact the livelihoods of many small farmers and farmworkers. Even though there seem to be alternatives, such as improving existing railroad and highway links, the expressway is clearly intended to promote the use of private vehicles.

As in China, there seems to be a determination among India's leaders and elite to duplicate the Western model of development. India is spending scarce resources on closing the digital divide while hundreds of millions literally go without adequate food, water, and sanitation. Internet connections are being provided to remote villages that have no road connections yet.

Fifty million tons of surplus wheat bought by the Indian government to support farmers is rotting in warehouses. But the poor have no way of getting any of it. The problem isn't shortage of food or inadequacy of technology, but a lack of purchasing power on the part of the poor.

The question that governments and international development agencies have never really answered is how exactly capital-intensive technologies would help lift the enormous numbers of poor in countries like India and China to minimally acceptable living conditions. These countries possess an excess of human resources - people available for employment - and limited natural resources such as fossil fuels, fresh water, forests, land for housing and agriculture, space for dumping waste, and the capacity of natural systems to absorb pollution.

The Western economic model mimicked by these nations pushes "economic growth" - which amounts to converting these finite natural resources into products and services, usually at rates too fast for the resources to remain healthy, while eliminating human labor, where possible, using automation.

These countries are also quickly adopting a Western economic ideology that expects all members of society to consume as much as possible in order to keep the economy growing. The evidence of this consumption is visible most directly in the trash - large amounts of plastic bottles, bags, and other disposable objects that would have been unusual in India just a decade ago.

There is a real danger that a resource-limited developing nation will be caught in the same consumption trap as Western countries, where it is nearly impossible to eliminate gratuitous consumption while sustaining a healthy economy. The result is likely to be a highly degraded environment and serious depletion of resources, rather than the elimination of poverty.

The capital-intensive global economy relentlessly pursues increases in labor productivity and precludes any shift to smaller-scale technologies that encourage an optimal level of human involvement. It would seem more logical that new technologies adopted by developing countries help maximize the efficiency of resource use in agricultural and industrial production, while maximizing employment.

Developing countries do need to increase their per capita production to the point where everyone can obtain basic necessities. But the only way the poor in these countries can benefit from the increased production is if they're employed and earn living wages. The question is whether the current form of the global economy will ever allow this to happen.

Kumar Venkat, who was born and raised in India, works in Silicon Valley's high-tech industry and writes frequently about the social impacts of technology.

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