Andree-Marie Dussault on the Cell-phone and the Soul

Partha Desikan

Fast food, tobacco and alcohol are pouring into India, promoting a consumer culture. India should beware. It must not repeat the mistakes of the West, says Andrée-Marie Dussault in his article entitled Cellphone and the Soul, in the Times of India, dated 24th January 2010. Andrée-Marie is a Delhi-based correspondent of a Swiss newspaper.

I am quoting his thought-provoking article below:

India is so lively and refreshing. From here, the West looks somewhat old, gray and struggling. Indeed, India looks all set to regain the centre-stage it occupied a few centuries ago. But while it is developing very fast and its elite is striving to match up with the West, is it not, at the same time, putting at stake much of its precious environment, culture, traditions and values? Of course, the great country has absorbed influences of many previous invaders and colonizers without losing its identity. But presently, its “westernization” seems to be taking place at a frightening speed. Foreign trade delegations are rushing into the country even during the hottest months of the year. Starry-eyed businessmen, dressed in crisp black suits are hopping from one five-star hotel to another, cracking mega deals. Market scales and huge figures make them drool. They all want their chunk of the great Indian curry. However, the West is not always exporting its very best to India. Because it’s not just higher standards of safety or environmental friendliness, or valuable technologies and know-how that are flowing from the western world. Fast food, tobacco, alcohol and toxic skin-whitening creams are pouring into India. This wave is promoting a western lifestyle based on consumerism, individualism and meaninglessness. And the pace of consumption is indeed picking up in India. Manufacturers of goods as different as cars, clothes or cellphones have noticed that in recent years the life cycle of products has shortened. While the older generation of Indians would buy a new product only when the previous one’s useful life had ended, the young generation tends to fall for novelty. People want the latest generation of gadgets because they have more money and more access to such goods. But mostly, they are made to believe, by ever increasing and omnipresent publicity, that they will feel happier with the new product. To encourage this shopping frenzy, a quiet revolution is taking place in the form of rapidly increasing credit penetration. For historical and cultural reasons, well-to-do Indians traditionally avoided indebting themselves. This may be one less talked about reasons why the country’s economy avoided major trouble during the recent crisis. Only 20 million Indians possess a credit card and personal loans represent about 10% of GDP. Whilst in most western economies, the latter account for approximately 100% of it. But all this is about to change with a booming credit industry. These trends may be healthy ingredients for thriving capitalism. But they may not prove soothing for the soul. Even if they all possess their own television, car, washing machine and fridge, Westerners are not necessarily a happier lot. Surveys show that their happiness has declined in correlation with the development of consumerism since World War II. Moreover, most people in the so-called developed nations suffer from obesity, loneliness depression and addiction to prescribed drugs. Maybe once upon a time they danced, sang songs and told stories, but now, free time often means watching TV or shopping. To meet the growing demand, natural resources are now being exploited in India, displacing millions of tribal people towards urban slums, fuelling growing pockets of civil war-like conflicts across the country. Efforts may be made to fight the old caste system, but a social stratification based on consumption power is emerging. Along with this, India’s comparatively good criminality track record is bound to go on the rise in the coming years. From an environmental perspective, the current scenario is downright terrifying. Mountains are being blown up, forests are being shaved, soil and sacred rivers are being polluted to cater to the endless production of goods that are meant to be replaced as fast as possible. And whilst the West exports its toxic junk to places like India, where it is “recycled” in dangerous conditions by the informal sector for peanuts, where will the Indians’ rapidly growing waste be dumped? Maybe 50 years ago, the effects of massive consumption were largely ignored. But today, most people acknowledge many planets would be required if everyone picked up American consumer habits. Even the western toilets have become a status symbol in Indian middle-class homes. Millions of fancy flush toilets are added every year to new trendy restaurants, malls, condominiums and five-star hotels in Indian cities. Instead of adopting unsustainable imports from the West, there are areas wherein India should inspire the latter. With its traditional squatting toilet for instance. Not just because it is cheaper, more hygienic and better adapted to the human anatomy, but mostly, in a context where clean water is increasingly rare and pricy, because it requires much less of it. Countless other sustainable concepts, values and products from India could benefit Westerners. Strong extended family ties, respect for elders, kriya yoga and tongue-scrapers are just a few of them. India needs to avoid repeating the West’s mistakes. Only enlightened citizens can show the way towards a more viable economy by putting pressure on government, stressing that India’s success should not be measured by GDP growth rates and spending habits alone. Nor should it aspire to become like the US or China. Concerned and responsible Indian citizens can encourage sensible consumption behaviour — by shopping less and wasting even lesser. By buying local products to keep the cottage industries, bazaar culture, traditional crafts and wisdom alive. In essence, by valuing their rich heritage and living simple and meaningful lives, Indians can set an example, and show the West that Mother India is much more than a well of business opportunities. It’s not just a matter of common sense; it’s about our survival.

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