As Mr Narendra Modi has managed to sell the development mantra to two of the most economically important States of India – Haryana and Maharashtra – we need to take pause and reflect on what exactly this development implies.
At its most basic, development is ‘directed growth’, so while economic growth qua growth seems a laudable objective, the direction of this growth is most important, if development is to provide sustainable livelihoods to all Indians.
Isn’t that what the aspiring classes aspire to?
Immediately after Independence, India’s growth was headed in the right direction where food security in the famine riddled countryside became the top national priority resulting in the Green Revolution. Simultaneously, new industries took shape in the public sector and the new steel plants became the new temples of Modern India.
It was Nehruvian vision that also saw the creation of IITs, IIMs, TIFR, BARC and several institutions of higher learning, which were to provide India with the necessary manpower in time for the information revolution and the nuclear age. (Ironic indeed that the beneficiaries of Nehru’s vision are today so eager to write him off the pages of India’s history!)
However, this vision became somewhat blurred in the post-Nehru era and things spiraled out of control in both the rural and urban areas throughout the 1970s and 80s, culminating in the near bankruptcy of the country in 1989. The economic reforms that followed in 1991 – and have become the common guiding light of both the Congress and BJP – did succeed in creating a high consumption middle class, but also sharpened the socio-economic divide to the point that there is no serious discussion today on poverty alleviation and subsequent human development, at either end of the ideological spectrum.
While the post-Independence development strategy averted a major crisis in the tenability of the idea of India, it had TWO long-term effects on the sustainability of development:
- Firstly, the stress on agricultural production during the Green Revolution relegated the rural economy to the primary or extractive sectors, effectively preventing its tertiarisation, thus making RURAL growth unsustainable in the long run;
- Secondly, the neglect of urban areas and the emphasis on elitist rather than universal education led to the spiraling informalisation of the urban economy, making URBAN growth unsustainable in the long run.
The Garibi Hatao philosophy of the 1970s spawned programs like IRDP, which were essentially a transfer of subsidies to those below the poverty line, and this practice has continued in one form or another through the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, the SGSY, and MNREGA. That the main beneficiaries of these subsidies were the big land-owners, is another story…
While, there are many reasons for the indifferent impact of these schemes, they have collectively created such a culture of dependency among the rural poor, that individual enterprise and self-help has become rare enough to be eulogised in management textbooks as a ‘best practice’… Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi being a case in point.
The continuation of similar subsidies by the present government, directly or indirectly, will only perpetuate this dependency and fuel further distress emigration to urban areas.
The failure to move rural economies to the secondary and tertiary sectors also means that rural households do not have an alternative source of income, and a single crop failure can tilt the balance towards utter desperation, leading at worst to farmers’ suicides; or at best to emigration to the nearest metro.
This exclusive dependence on agricultural livelihoods also skews the societal landscape of the village, where the amount of land one holds decides everything from one’s status to access to basic services and one’s political clout.
The eminent social anthropologist M N Srinivas rightly asserted that the politics of rural India is the politics of Dominant Caste. He defined Dominant Caste by 3 criteria:
– Firstly, numerical strength
– Secondly, a place not too low in the ritual hierarchy
– Finally and most importantly, LAND OWNERSHIP
And because land ownership is almost entirely hereditary, it forecloses all opportunities for social mobility for those born into landless households. Is it any wonder then, that the majority of India’s poor (67%) live in the rural areas, and the poorest of the poor are landless labourers, who tend to belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who are the worst off, because tribal societies have historically had communal, rather than individual, ownership of land and its resources.
Dominant Caste politics also enables the powerful to deliver an entire village, district or region to a single party come election time, and we saw this phenomenon (of the ultimate vote banks) at its greatest potency in Uttar Pradesh in 2014.
How can a country where the future of a majority of its citizens is decided by an accident of birth ever become a world leader? Isn’t Development meant to break these social barriers – like gender and caste?
It should be understood that poverty implies not only denial of basic necessities like food and shelter but also denies or limits access to basic social services like education and health, which are in any case extremely inadequate to start with, because we never made the investments needed in social infrastructure for the world’s second most populous nation.
Added to this is a virtually non-existent social security net – and chronic deprivation, low life expectancy and the world’s highest malnutrition is the sad reality of India today.
The urban landscape has hardly fared better. It is estimated that almost 68% of Mumbai’s economy now falls in the informal sector while the figure for Chennai and Delhi hovers around 60%.
With the proposed dilution of labour laws and added incentives to small and medium enterprises, this figure is sure to grow, bringing in its wake exploitation, tax evasion, deregulation, higher levels of industrial pollution, overwhelmed civic services and infrastructure and greater urban poverty through unsustainable livelihoods.
The continuing and growing informalisation of cities is directly linked to higher unemployment, more crime, and bigger slums through informal housing; as also more black money transactions in daily business… and even a 100 new smart cities will not shine in the increasingly desolate, polluted, drought-ridden, power-hungry and informal landscape that is fated to be the future of Urban India.
Perhaps some direction for tackling both rural and urban poverty may be sought by revisiting India’s recent urbanization, as I hope to do in my next post…