India’s unseen material burden

No policy pathway since Independence has advised where sufficiency may be found, and what to do after we have consumed our way out of poverty

Published: 15th February 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th February 2020 03:05 AM   |  A+A-

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Should a trend continue as it has done for the last decade, then in February or March of 2021 India’s annual extraction of material will cross 7.5 billion tonnes. This stupendous mass comprises non-metallic minerals, most of it limestone, structural clays, and several kinds of mixtures of sand, gravel and crushed rock that are used for construction, which in 2017 amounted to an estimated 3.2 billion tonnes.
There is biomass, i.e., harvested crops—foodgrain, horticultural crops, pulses, sugarcane and plantation crops—and crop residues, both straw and leaves, which was an estimated 2.8 billion tonnes (sugarcane accounting for 370 million tonnes), coal of 732 million tonnes and wood of an estimated 242 million tonnes (of which about 210 million tonnes were used as fuel).

Collated from data provided by national agencies, the International Resource Panel of UN Environment maintains the material use profiles of nearly every country. It was in 2011, only eight years ago, that India’s material extraction had crossed six billion tonnes. At the beginning of 2020, this mammoth material budget can be atomised to about 26 tonnes for each household (96 million urban, 183 million rural), in much the same way as per capita income is calculated, as a notional distribution, for each individual of India. Yet material awareness is scant. Money and income, wages and savings, credit and assets are calculated and assessed to the third decimal by the financial services industry. But there is no corresponding service to measure, assess and pronounce upon the solvency of the material intake of a household, whether in quintals or in kilograms, whether as fluid diesel or as grain or burnt brick.

That the consequences of such a trend cannot be contained or managed in a meaningful way was signalled to us a generation ago, when our mega-metropolises found no alternative to the small hills of refuse and compacted rubbish that towered over some unfortunate outlying ward. How did the material burden of our settlements grow so quickly? Part of the reason must be ascribed to the collective race away from poverty, both monetary and of basic goods. It is rare to find today a discussion about whether a poverty line is reasonable or not, although a generation ago it was an important subject just as it was in the previous generation.

Yet not one of the development policies of the socialists, of those who designed the ‘command economy’, of the licence raj mandarins, the globalisers, the commodities capitalists, the services barons or the infotech-biotech czars has advised where sufficiency lies, and what to do after we have consumed our way out of poverty. None of these can, because ‘growth’ and market control is the engine that motivates their methods. Conversely, sufficiency—or even consumption stability—also has the accompanying corollaries of societies making purchases last (by repairing and reusing them) and also not purchasing at all.

For Indian Railways, material movement has helped increase, by more than five-fold, the freight traffic handled over 40 years: 220 million tonnes moved in 1980-81 has ballooned to 1,175 million tonnes in 2018-19. Movement is an industry, and so the household’s automobile has multiplied from one to 
two and several, and these personal transportation machines have grown dramatically in size, weight and cosmetic ‘features’.

Every tonne of a primary material that forms the basis of an intermediate good (such as a metal sheet) and a finished good (such as a mixer-grinder) is extracted with machinery that runs on fuel, is moved, sorted, industrially processed (furnace, and that means an energy source), cut and stored, moved again, shaped again (more energy), outfitted with knobs, pipes, plastic trim, rubber, gaskets, electricals or electronics, packaged and moved again to be sold as a finished good. Its life in a household may be a couple of years or several.

When replaced, it may make its way to a metals recycler (but our materials recycling rate is at best 25%, compared with western Europe’s 70%), or more likely rust away, with its plastic components destabilising into millimetre-sized granules, at the bottom of a thousand-tonne pile of heterogeneous refuse on the outskirts of a town like Raniganj, Bilaspur, Alwar or Guntur. Late but welcome is the effort by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to foster responsibility for our material footprint, whether as a city, taluk or household. This has taken the form of the National Resource Efficiency Policy (2019), for it is now abundantly clear that in outracing poverty we have become uncaring about the effects of this race upon the land, water, forests and those tens of thousands of species, large and small, that also depend entirely on natural materials.

 All but lost in the noisy din of breakneck acquisition and replacement is the wisdom of not so long ago. “Indeed the true purpose of earning money and other activities of ours must be to know this culture fully, live in consonance with its spirit and experience and sense of fulfilment.” This part-admonition, part-instruction are the words of Pujyashri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swami, the Sage of Kanchi, who discerned the beginning of this trend over 50 years ago.

It is now abundantly clear that in outracing poverty we have become uncaring about the effects of this race upon the land, water, forests and those tens of thousands of species, large and small, that also depend entirely on natural materials

Rahul Goswami
UNESCO expert on traditional knowledge systems Email:


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