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An Ecological Critique of the Ideology of Developmentalism

By Survesh Pratap Singh


This article aims to provide a historical and conceptual understanding of developmentalism to its readers. Throughout, an attempt has been made to communicate the features and ecological consequences of developmentalist thinking and practices. Ecological issues have gained unprecedented attention in recent times at the national as well as the global level. The youth has emerged as the flagbearer of ecological activism around the world of which the #FridaysForFuture movement is an emphatic example. This article hopes to capture the essence of developmentalism and itemize its various problematics which will help the reader to assess the model of development currently being pursued and a further interrogation into its desirability. A brief overview of what is to follow is necessary. After detailing the historical context and features of developmentalism the second section will shift the discussion to the tourism industry, its role and importance in the entire developmentalist paradigm and the ecological costs that the industry incurs. Finally, in our search for an alternative to developmentalism, we will get familiar with numerous theoretical and intellectual positions arguing against developmentalism. In the same section, certain principles have been devised which should become the bedrock of an alternative ideological formulation, in this author’s opinion.

The doctrine of developmentalism

The two world wars left an enduring legacy and the times we are living in does not decisively discount the possibility of a third world war as the unfolding Ukraine crisis shows. Post World- War II, an immediate need was felt to rebuild and rehabilitate the world, especially Europe. The massive and unprecedented destruction of life and material meant that a quick-fire solution had to be envisaged and devised. ‘Development’ was the solution that managed to get legitimacy all around the world. Development became the buzzword! Every country wanted to see itself develop and climb up the ladder of development hoping to get closer and closer to the top. In the ‘decolonizing’ world which was witnessing the birth of several newly independent (at least politically) countries, development in the economic sense was thought to be an essential requirement for political development (Chatterjee). Intellectuals, politicians, policy makers started thinking and figuring out the best way to pursue the magical goal of development by propelling new experiments in theoretical and practical terms. In what follows, I intend to unpack the idea of development that gained prominence in the context of the post-World War world and elaborate on its essential features.

The idea of development is premised on the belief that human progress is a continuous and forward-moving process with no fixed or visible end. The conceptualization of what human progress means in the doctrine of developmentalism is restrictive, limited and deeply problematic as it primarily and majorly talks merely about material advancement of human beings. This endless (I am inclined to say mindless as well) pursuit of progress has tremendous implications for the ecology. In its traditional sense, development meant aiming and working to achieve rapid economic growth measured in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). High rate of increase in GDP meant that development is taking place. Certain features are always associated with development, such as industrialization and urbanization. The linear theory on how human society progresses postulates that a shift has to happen from agriculture as the dominant economic activity to industrialization. And then, from industrialization to the services sector, to what is now known as the information-economy. This shift from the agriculture to industry and then to services is taken to be a sign of development. Thus, massive industrialization became a big feature of development. Industrialization helped pace up material production of commodities (in variety and in quantity) which was seen as a good sign from the lens of development. Regular advancement in the scientific and technological field was also considered crucial as it would help improve the process of industrialization. Many post-colonial countries opted for a strong-centralized state, India was one of them, for many reasons one of which was the objective of development. The state was deemed to be the best agent for ensuring development. This led to the inception and rise of ‘developmental state’ in many countries.

The coherent working of the set of features outlined above in a concerted form is what transforms development into developmentalism. The basket of ideas associated with development when taken to be the ideal to be pursued relentlessly becomes an ideology, the ideology of developmentalism. It portrays development as the supreme ideal which all humans and all societies must tread towards. Human existence should be utilized for pursuing development, and development, in return, will improve the quality of human existence.  According to William Easterly, development is an ideology because it promises or claims to provide satisfactory solutions to all the versatile and myriad of human problems, ranging from extreme poverty to despicable social inequality (Easterly, 2007). However, like all ideologies, the ideology of developmentalism too has many limitations.

Tourism, development, and ecology

In the discourse of development that surrounds us, huge importance is given to the services (or the tertiary) sector. A booming services sector is good from the developmentalist viewpoint. Tourism is a major component of the services sector. Thus, promotion of tourism helps the services sector to enlarge and expand itself. Tourism and development are intimately related to each other. A thriving tourism industry, in the current understanding, unquestionably means development. As the national portal of the government of India says: “Travel and tourism is the largest service industry in India.” Tourism has become a crucial department in the overall economic setup by virtue of possessing immense potential to contribute to economic growth and development of the country. In one estimate, “India ranks 7th in terms of travel & tourism’s total contribution to GDP in 2020.” On the same web page, it is mentioned that “In 2020, the travel & tourism industry’s contribution to the GDP was US$ 121.9 billion; this is expected to reach US$ 512 billion by 2028.” Another benefit that tourism   tends to provide is in terms of growing employment opportunities. Note this, for evidence: “In FY20, tourism sector in India accounted for 39 million jobs, which was 8.0% of the total employment in the country. By 2029, it is expected to account for about 53 million jobs.” In    a globalized world where national economies are inextricably linked to each other and trade happens at a large scale, the presence of a healthy reserve of foreign exchange is critical for any country. Tourism is a prominent source of earning foreign exchange reserves. A 2019 government report says, “Tourism continues to play an important role as a foreign exchange earner for the country. In 2018, foreign exchange earnings (FEE) from tourism were US $ 28.59 billion as compared to US $ 27.31 billion in 2017, registering a growth of 4.7%.”[1] Impetus to economic activities and growth, boost to employment prospects and augmenting foreign exchange reserves are the apparent gains of a burgeoning tourism industry. These gains,   however, have serious ecological repercussions.

The first thing that developmentalism dictates is that natural resources are to be exploited for our survival, and not just for survival, but for securing profits. This ideology views natural resources of this world as a means for material fulfilment and betterment. In this pursuit, it tends to disregard the fact that natural resources are present in a limited quantity and excessive exploitation may cause depletion of these resources at a fast pace leading to severe shortage of essential resources. In addition to this, development-related activities cause the deterioration of the quality of natural resources. Industrialization, for example, leads to extreme    reduction in the quality of air. Thus, both in terms of quantity and quality, natural resources are experiencing significant degradation. Tourism means the movement of people to a certain area for a certain period of time, and these areas are quite often ecologically fragile and vulnerable, as we notice with places like Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in the Indian subcontinent. To   make mountainous places like these habitable for the tourists, land and water pattern must be drastically changed. This manipulation of the natural setting of these areas begins with large- scale deforestation and then goes on to the establishment of numerous hotels adjacent to each other, camp areas, spots for adventure sports, water connection, etc. All of these have huge ecological costs. The presence of humans in these ecologically delicate areas is also accompanied by great number of vehicles which is a major source of air pollution. The biodiversity of these hilly regions is also witnessing existential threat (Rana; Kumar), mainly owing to the tourism industry.

To facilitate tourism, massive construction activities are undertaken in the designated areas which are also called tourist hotspots. Connectivity has now emerged as the magic word associated almost always with development. With better and efficient connectivity, we can register higher economic growth as movement of goods and people becomes easier and cheaper. Connectivity patently means that physical infrastructure has to be augmented which involves construction of roads, bridges, tunnels, railway lines, etc. For such construction activities, penetration of the mountains using heavy machinery is performed. Take a recent example of the Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojana (Char Dham Highway Development Project) of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), which is a highway expansion project launched to widen the 889 km of hill roads and aims to “provide all-weather connectivity in the Char Dham circuit” covering the holy sites of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri (all sites are in the state of Uttarakhand). The initial and primary goal of the project was to make the Char Dham yatra much more tourist friendly (Char Dham is an example of religious tourism) and developing an improved travel facility between the four holy shrines. This flagship project can also be defended by putting forward what can be called the ‘security logic of development’ which means that development is possible only when the territory of the country is safe and intact. The project has been challenged for its potential to harm the environment as widening of the roads would require “additional slope cutting, blasting, tunnelling, dumping and deforestation – all of which will further destabilize the Himalayan terrain, and increase vulnerability to landslides and flash floods.” The Supreme court has allowed the project to go ahead.

In hilly states like Himachal Pradesh (HP) which are major tourist attractions, people are dependent on agriculture for their sustenance. The effects of climate change can be seen in changing rainfall patterns and increasing temperature. A study done on the Kullu district (which is a prominent tourist place) of HP substantiates the point that climate change, to which tourism contributes, is having an adverse impact on agriculture and horticulture activities (Kapoor; Shaban, 2014). This is a major cause of concern as about 75% of the district population depends on such activities. The study also brings forth the point that adverse effects on ecology will naturally have an impact on the economic prospects and opportunities as tourism will suffer if these places start running short of natural resources, such as water. Environmental disasters like landslides, which are partly the result of excessive human   interference motivated by economic profits, work as a detriment to the interests of the tourism industry (Agrawal et al., 2019). People living in these tourist places are critically dependent on nature for their survival and livelihood. Thus, there seems to be a circular and co-dependent relationship between economy and ecology, thereby implying that economic prosperity is only possible with a healthy ecology. A serious consideration of these consequences will prompt us to seek an alternative to our current thinking about development and in what follows, I shall discuss the rudiments of such an alternative.

Search for an alternative

Arguing for the need of a sustainable and equitable alternative to the currently dominant model of economic development, Ashish Kothari has proposed the idea of a “Radical Ecological Democracy” as the pathway to be followed (Kothari, 2014). His proposed paradigm puts “collectives and communities at the center of governance and the economy” and not individual corporates, market, or the state. A model of development that keeps the people at its core and not some misplaced notion of mere increase in the value of final goods and services as constituting development, is what Kothari’s model seems to be offering us. In this regard, the radical ecological democracy model is quite close to what the Human development model suggests – that development should be people-centric and that its objective should be to “expand  what people are able to do and be” (Alkire; Deneulin, 2009). Ecological sustainability and human equity are the two core principles on which the edifice of Kothari’s radical ecological democracy model is premised upon. While tracing the different ideological flavors that are present in Indian environmentalism, Ramachandra Guha (1988) stands in support of radical ecology which he also sees as the successor of socialism. Any ecologically supportive alternative to developmentalism must not be rigid, so as to dictate measures and decisions that completely ignore the local geographical and societal conditions.

Environmentalism should be context-specific, embedded in the local understanding, practices and values of different societies. Thus, there is a need to sincerely study the relationship between society and environment if we are to come close to an appropriate and systematic alternative to developmentalism (Patel, 1997). One of the stringent critiques of developmentalism has been advanced by a brand of scholarship known as ‘Ecofeminism’. They point out that women and nature are closely connected and have an intimate relationship. So, the harmful effects on environment of developmentalism has an overbearing impact on women. Ecofeminists, such as Vandana Shiva, argue that the current model of economic development is based on Western ideas and values   which are primarily masculine and neglects women’s viewpoints and experiences. This Western patriarchal model of economic development views nature merely as an entity which can be exploited without any restriction, for private profit motives. It is this thinking that has resulted in the shocking state of environmental degradation that we are witnessing today. Since women and nature are closely connected, environmental degradation and destruction has more severe implications for women and children (Shiva, 2014). Therefore, the necessity of promoting women’s participation to bring in the dimension of gender equality and justice in the discourse on development. Ecofeminism is a novel attempt in this direction, which can richly contribute to our endeavor of formulating an alternative to developmentalism.

That the prevailing notion of development is neither ideal nor sustainable is authoritatively established by various theoretical positions like sustainable development, human development, post-development, ecofeminism, etc. A systematic, coherent and ideological alternative to developmentalism can most definitely borrow from any theoretical understanding but it must have certain essential principles that will constitute the foundations of it. The alternative must uphold these core and fundamental principles.

The finity principle: Developmentalism believes in the idea of infinite progress meaning that we can keep on developing and that development is the one true goal of all humans in all societies. This endless, boundless pursuit of development must be comprehensively challenged. We must recognize and acknowledge that material development (the western notion of development) has finite limits.

The harmony principle: Human beings must act to build a harmonious and compassionate relationship with nature as the former’s survival depends on the latter. Earth is a self-regulating entity and a harmonious relationship between humans and nature will ensure that human activities are not disrupting the complex interactions that take place within this planet. It must be kept in mind that nature is a part of the same physical environment that we humans are and  any harm done to the ecological system will most assuredly have dangerous consequences for  us as well.

The diversity principle: Developmentalist thinking puts the people and societies under two broad categories of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’. Those who are portrayed as ‘developed’ seemed to have reached an endpoint where humans enjoy the highest state of living. This, of course, is devoid of truth as the ‘developed’ societies are facing compelling problems such as gross inequality, social-cultural alienation, environmental deterioration, etc. Also, projecting a group people as ‘under’ developed means that they are being defined in terms of what they are not (or what they have not yet become) and the sole uniting factor in this category is lack of development (Sachs, 1992, p.3). This dual classification tends to ignore the inherent diversity of both the categories. A suitable successor of developmentalism must be mindful of the diversity that exists in different societies.

Principle of localism: Environmental and developmental related issues must be dealt with the help of local knowledge; finding local solutions to local problems whenever required through participation of people at the grassroots level. Decentralization will be a boon for ecological governance.

The human-centrality principle: Human beings must be the subject as well as the agent of development. Development must lead to the enhancement of all the faculties of humans. The wholesome development of individuals will only be possible when we keep humans and nature at center of our developmental discourse and actions.

In conclusion

The road to development that we have chosen to follow has done tremendous harm to our ecology. There is a desperate and urgent need to adopt a different path which is not ecologically destructive. The alternative to developmentalism must have solid grounding and this ground can be prepared through faithful adherence to the principles that are emphasized upon, in the preceding section. “The road ahead is long and hard,, proclaimed Ban Ki-Moon[2] and it remains true today as well but wholehearted attempts for alternatives must be made if an existential crisis is to be averted.

[1] Report titled “India Tourism Statistics 2019” published by Ministry of Tourism, Government of India.

[2] In his capacity as the UN Secretary General at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, 2012.


Agrawal, Rohan et al. (2019). The Story of Climate Change in Himachal Pradesh, a study conducted by IIT Mandi.

Alkire, Sabina; Deneulin, Severine (2009). Chapter 2: Introducing the Human Development and Capability Approach, Draft chapter for their book eventually published as An Introduction to Human Development and Capability Approach: Freedom and Agency, Routledge.

Chatterjee, Partha, Political development and question of Political stability in Sudipta Kaviraj et al. (Ed.s), The State of Political Theory: Some Marxist Essays, Research India publications, Calcutta (undated).

Easterly, William. (2007). The Ideology of Development published by Slate group, LLC.

Guha, Ramachandra. (1988). Ideological Trends in Indian Environmentalism published by Economic and Political Weekly.

Kapoor, Mohit and Shaban, Abdul. (2014). Climate Change in Himachal: Evidence from Kullu region, published by Economic and Political Weekly.

Kothari, Ashish. (2014). Radical Ecological Democracy: A path forward for India and beyond, Society for International Development.

Patel, Sujata. (1997). Ecology and Development published by Economic and Political Weekly.

Rana, Gaurav and Kumar, Suneel. Prospects and Problems of Tourism Industry in Uttarakhand

Sachs, W. (Ed.). (1992). The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power. London, England: Zed Books.

Shiva, Vandana. (2014). Chapter 5: The Impoverishment of the Environment: Women and Children last, Ed. Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva Ecofeminism, Zed Books. 


Survesh Pratap Singh
, M.A. student at Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). You may send your comments or queries to


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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