Development? Governance?

After 75 posts on this blog, one may be forgiven for sitting back and letting readers explore whatever was said over the last three years. I am gratified that various search engines have serendipitously landed people from over 132 countries on this site, and many have bookmarked it and returned to browse from time to time. Thank you.

However, a WordPress notification wished me a happy anniversary, and I revisited the ABOUT page to check out my original motives for starting this blog: to explain the much misused terms of governance, corruption and development being arbitrarily thrown about in India’s political discourse at the time of the 2014 election, which brought to power a conservative, right-wing, market friendly party (the BJP) and routed the old establishment party – the INC, or Congress (please note this is not the legislative body it is in the US, but a political party in India.)

So let us indeed look at how these concepts have evolved and are understood, 42 months down the line:

Governance: I had covered the theory of Good Governance in one of my earliest posts, where I explain the relation between governance and government, and explain the globally accepted criteria for good governance: Good Governance

However, it has totally escaped this regime that government is subsumed within governance which has the empowered citizen at its heart. There is a similar ignorance of concepts like rule of law, consensus orientation, probity, code of ethics, freedom of information, conflict of interest, protocol, chain of command etc. As a result, the present government doesn’t score too well on providing either efficient and effective government, or participatory, accountable, responsive, transparent, inclusive or equitable governance.

The shortcomings of the ruling cabinet in terms of education, experience and exposure are very evident in the fact that almost ALL of the schemes and programmes of the previous government have been continued with NO substantive change except in their names. Never mind that most of these programmes had huge flaws which this cabinet of innocents continues to propagate. But if you throw out the baby (research, monitoring and evaluation wing) with the bath water (Planning Commission) who will point out these flaws and suggest ways to correct them? Instead, by farming out evaluation of important and costly schemes to private consultants, Indian data has lost a lot of its credibility among multilateral research organizations, and gained no real insights for future policy formulation.

Other institutions are also being undermined – whether the Reserve Bank of India, the Election Commission, or various federal and state investigative agencies. Further, the federal structure is itself under threat as decision making has become non-consultative and centralized (e.g. demonetization), and financial allocations to State Governments are becoming increasingly politicized – being used in election campaigns as threats or promises.

Corruption: The entire corruption narrative in India is limited to favours granted in return for bribes/cash. This is rather simplistic, and if it affects the common man then this type of corruption continues unabated among the petty bureaucracy no matter which party is in power. That is a fact of life in India. I had tried to broaden this debate by showing how capture and clientelism are equally detrimental to national interest (The 3 Cs- Corruption, Clientelism, Capture). Three years on, the great Indian people are at last getting to understand what is meant by ‘capture’ or crony capitalism as our social media prefer.

But clientelism remains more elusive – the best example of that is seen during elections in largely rural States like UP, where a village chief or mukhia can deliver an entire village’s vote for a promise of future personal benefit – like a share in a Central Government infrastructure project, or a ticket in the next State election. As this pattern of bottom up electoral victories is repeated, we will all get a better understanding of clientelism. It is noteworthy that virtually nobody has been brought to book, or even formally charged, in the various ‘scams’ the previous government and its coalition partners were allegedly guilty of – again clientelism in action: support us today and go scot free tomorrow. Simple.

Development: I had sarcastically hinted that development would be reduced to acquiring bullet trains, never dreaming how true this would be – literally! Never mind that the rest of the country’s infrastructure is among the poorest globally. Of course, this reduction of all ‘development’ to physical infrastructure, ignoring concepts of ‘human development’, will remain the most damaging legacy of the present government, as it will become the key deciding factor in 2019, as it was in 2014.

This tunnel vision is coupled with attitudes of climate change denial and loosening of ecological regulations in the sanctioning of megaprojects and it augurs ill for India’s achievement of the UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals – which would be a tragedy, because India had done better than expected in the previous Millennium Development Goals. Interestingly, attempts to achieve the MDGs and thus governance in favour of the poor and disadvantaged, necessarily pushed the UPA Government and the Congress Party to the ideological Left and away from their 1991 image of pro-free market globalists. And in my humble opinion, this was the real cause for the Congress Government’s defeat in 2014.

The Indian electorate was not tuned to fashionable ideas like the Rights Approach to development…

You see, the disgruntled middle level ‘dominant castes’ in India have such a sense of entitlement that they see any action in favour of the poor, the disadvantaged and minorities as appeasement and will not allow rights-based programmes to succeed. Sadly, even in 21st Century India, your politics and opportunities continue to be decided by an accident of birth.

I had clarified in an earlier post (India an Aspirational Society? Not yet… ) that India would never be a truly ‘aspirational society’ without greater equality, better distribution of wealth, unity of purpose and civility. Sadly, all these ideals are in tatters just three and a half years down the line, and Indian society and polity have never been as divided, discriminatory and raucous as they are today.

One consequence of these attitudes has been the conscious marginalization of India’s poor, which now manifests itself in greater hunger, deprivation, malnutrition, higher school dropout rates, poorly educated human resources, increase in child and forced labour, distress migration, farmer suicides and ever greater informalisation of the economy, livelihoods, and urban housing. And frankly, nobody in power gives a damn. The Opposition too is patently moving from the Left to the Right of Centre, with the entire electoral focus shifting to businesses and the ‘entitled’ middle castes (as in Gujarat), with no mention at all of the poor…

Sadly, it is this disempowered but enfranchised section of the population who can even now deliver the votes needed (a mere 31%) to elect the next government. All that the incumbents have to do is use the standard right wing tools of diversion, emotion, commotion, coercion and subversion to ensure another term. These are the means which bring and retain the neocons in power from North to South America, to Israel to South East Asia…

But is this democracy, you may wonder… Of course it is. Because what else will give us the ‘moral’ high ground vis-à-vis autocratic China and Russia ? (I am sure this resonates a bit with my American readers too…)



Formalizing the Informal – the only economic reform that matters

Two incidents last week: a friend’s enthusiastically launched ‘start-up’ is downsizing in less than a  year and will probably become ‘stop-down’ soon; and another friend’s 16 year old but spacious flat has been attracting great interest from the local small businessmen, even before she has put it on the market. In other words, the money in India is inexorably moving from the formal to the informal sector. With the advent of a hefty Goods and Services Tax, the situation will only get worse. And there is little the Government can do, or is willing to do, to stop this leaching away of its legitimate tax revenue.

Given that its traditional support base has always been the urban business class, the ruling party is unlikely to take stringent action against this class which is the biggest beneficiary of that twilight zone of the informal sector that now covers over 68% of the economy of India’s commercial capital – Mumbai.

By promising greater ease of business to attract domestic and foreign investors, the business-friendly and business-financed central government has weakened the regulatory framework to such an extent that it has opened the floodgates for environmentally irresponsible infrastructure projects, and the exploitation of child labour – now legitimized by allowing children to work in family businesses or ‘learn’ traditional crafts. (Though there is hardly any skill or craft to be learnt, at the cost of regular schooling, to serve tea in your uncle’s roadside cafe, is there?)

Not quite familiar with consumer preferences in the West and the growing importance of ethical supply chains (especially among EU importers), both the Indian Government and the Indian business community are at a loss to understand why foreign direct investment in the country continues to remain sluggish.

But domestic consumption continues to grow and this demand is increasingly being met by informal and semi-informal enterprise, both in services and light manufacturing. As a result, quality and safety standards are readily sacrificed to cut costs. Ever wondered why a plumber or carpenter brings along a drill with bare leads which he pushes into the nearest electric socket? Because there is no standardization in the electric fittings produced cheaply in some back alley, and no two plugs/sockets in India will ever be compatible… This haphazard style of ‘making do’ with whatever is available then gets eulogized in management books as the inherent Indian genius of ‘jugaad’ while its corollary of ‘Chalta hai’ or ‘anything goes’ is blamed for every social evil from corruption to traffic snarls… God save us from management gurus.

But what of the workers in the informal sector? Most of them are likely to be poor male migrants from the North, with little education and only the skill of their specialization – which means they are exclusively employed in the construction, interior design or garment sectors. They also tend to belong to the lower castes and religious and ethnic minorities who have few opportunities for education and development on their home soil. They are ready to live and work in abysmal conditions so long as they make good money, to look after their families back home. In essence, as the informal sectors of the economy expand, so do the slums and informal settlements in a city – with all the concomitant consequences of anomie, alienation, violence and crime.

And as the formal sector keeps shrinking under the onslaught of the informal, the job market shrinks, and those lucky enough to be born into a higher caste/class and able to afford the qualifications to work in the formal sector, are so grateful to find a job – any job – that Indian workers report the greatest sense of well-being in their jobs, while paradoxically also being the hardest working, as these two Statista infographics indicate:

Percentage expressing well-being at work:


Working hours of Millennials (20-34 age group):



The point is that no amount of policy tweaking can swing a country’s economy this way or that because the way the economy works is inexorably tied to the way that society is organised. And all economic reform must necessarily be underpinned by social reform – greater equality of opportunity, inclusion, universal education, equitable regulation … and so on…



The Digital Divide

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2016 looks at Digital Dividends. It explores the impact of the internet, mobile phones, and related technologies on economic development. The Report lists digital dividends as growth, jobs, and services. It explains how digital technologies help businesses become more productive; people find jobs and greater opportunities; and governments deliver better public services to all.

By reducing information costs, digital technologies greatly lower the cost of economic and social transactions for firms, individuals, and the public sector. They promote innovation when transaction costs fall to essentially zero. They boost efficiency as existing activities and services become cheaper, quicker, or more convenient. And they increase inclusion as people get access to services that previously were out of reach.

The Report lists the dividends of digital technology as follows:

Dividends of Digital Technology WDR2016

It goes on to point out that these dividends are not as widespread as expected because:

  1. Nearly 60% of the world’s people are still offline and cannot fully participate in the digital economy. There also are persistent digital divides across gender, geography, age, and income dimensions within each country.
  2. Some of the perceived benefits of the internet are being neutralized by new risks, such as vested business interests, regulatory uncertainty, and limited contestation across digital platforms, leading to harmful concentration in many sectors.

Risks of Digital Technology WDR2016


Moreover, quickly expanding automation, even of mid-level office jobs, could contribute to a hollowing out of labour markets and to rising inequality. And the poor record of many e-government initiatives points to high failure of ICT projects and the risk that states and corporations could use digital technologies to control citizens, not to empower them.

There is an interesting graphic of a typical day in the life of the Internet, which clearly tells you that even with extended connectivity, only a miniscule minority of the 40% of the world’s people who are on-line, are using the internet to its full potential:

A typical day in the life of the Internet WDR 2016


The Report concludes that enhanced connectivity is vital, but not enough to realize the full development benefits. “Digital investments need the support of analogue complements: regulations, so that firms can leverage the internet to compete and innovate; improved skills, so that people can take full advantage of digital opportunities; and accountable institutions, so that governments respond to citizens’ needs and demands. Digital technologies can, in turn, augment and strengthen these complements—accelerating the pace of development.”

As is its wont, the World Bank seeks solutions from governments and its institutions, never asking essential (if embarrassing) questions about the social milieu where development is a desired objective.

Take the case of India, where for millennia, society has been divided along caste, class, ethnic and religious lines, and where access to the basic elements of development – such as education and health – is often decided by one’s social status, often ascribed by birth and therefore immutable. The digital divide so clearly visible in India cannot be bridged without tackling the underlying social and economic divide throughout the country.

So perhaps a government given to pithy sloganeering should first promote a casteless India, an equitable India, an educated India, a healthy India and only then look for a digital India. Or  failing that, leave behind a legacy of greater inequality, greater marginalisation, concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and greater social malaise, intolerance and deprivation than it inherited from its predecessors…

Convention 189 on Domestic Workers

The outrage caused in India when a Saudi employer chopped off the hand of his 58 year old female domestic worker made the headlines for exactly a day and a half in the victim’s home country. The twitterati, who set the news agenda, quickly moved on. After all, which Indian (or Pakistani, or Afghan) will cast the first stone?

This is the region where the underclass has been ill-treated, raped and abused incessantly for centuries, if not millennia. An abuse justified by the pernicious caste system and the feudal mindsets of the region. In recent years, even the diplomats of these countries have got into all sorts of trouble wherever their ‘servants’ have been brave enough to seek justice in the host country, but these cases are few and far between. The overwhelming majority put up with this abuse generation after generation, because they are conditioned from birth to expect nothing better – deprivation piled upon deprivation are their ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’, after all…

I was just wondering about international mechanisms to deal with this sustained exploitation and abuse of domestic workers across borders, when I received a mail from about exactly such an ILO mechanism, known as Convention 189 and its lamentably low ratification by the countries of the world.

The rationale for a Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers is:

  • Recognition of the significant contribution of domestic workers to the global economy through substantial income transfers within and between countries
  • The undervaluation and invisibility of domestic workers at large, and especially of women and children so employed
  • The fact that in developing countries with historically scarce opportunities for formal employment, domestic workers constitute a significant proportion of the national workforce and remain among the most marginalized
  • The special conditions under which domestic work is carried out that make it desirable to supplement the general standards for all workers with standards specific to domestic workers so as to enable them to enjoy their rights fully

Convention 189 draws upon all other relevant international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, the Rights of the Child, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers… and many more.

It entered into force on 5 September 2013.

The Convention was initiated by the Philippines, probably for the very good reason that a large number of Filipinas are employed as domestic workers in the Gulf region, and there are constant stories of abuse in the local press ­­- yet the desperate keep seeking employment there. And Philippines remains the only Asian country among the Convention’s paltry 22 ratifiers – shame Asia, and North America. Understandably, the rise of left-wing Governments in South America gives that continent the best record in this case, with Uruguay being the first to ratify Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

ILO Convention 189 Ratifiers


And what about India? At the time of Independence, visionaries like Nehru and Kidwai succeeded in giving India one of the most compassionate and pro-worker set of Labour Laws, and India was at the forefront of enlightened labour legislation and at the ILO. But its record has been steadily blemished since 1991 when it jumped on to the unquestioned globalization bandwagon: Out of the 43 ILO Conventions and 1 Protocol ratified by India, 42 are in force, 2 Conventions have been denounced; BUT none have been ratified in the past 12 months.

What a sorry landmark for the current Government to achieve…

Why am I not surprised?

Independence and Globalization

As someone born long after India gained Independence, one heard of Jawaharlal Nehru’s first Independence Day speech only from one’s elders and betters and got to actually hear it years later, only after the advent of the Internet. That scratchy recording from the radio archives; that emotion-laden voice, on the verge of breaking; those extempore words in an alien language…

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment, we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.”

And what a pledge it proved to be! Nehru had inherited a partitioned land, a ravaged countryside, little or no manufacturing industry and famine stalking the masses at every turn. His first task was to interpret independence as self-reliance and address the abysmal poverty of the common Indian. Hence the Green Revolution to provide basic food security, and setting up of mega industries in the public sector, to provide employment in urban areas.

In tandem was the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, the National Defence Academy, and scientific research institutions like the National Laboratories, TIFR, BARC, ISRO and many more.

Internationally, Nehru’s vision of Non-alignment protected India from the worst excesses of the Cold War, wreaking havoc all around us – South-East Asia, Africa and Latin America. Of course, the devil is always in the detail, and man is mortal, so Nehru could not redeem his pledge in its entirety, but he did leave behind a legacy of vision and daring.

So what happened to derail Project Independent India? In a word – globalization. Ever since India chose this path, one has not heard any Prime Minister either make a pledge to the people of India, or show the courage to go it alone in the interests of the country. We are all too busy chasing Foreign Direct Investment and let the devil take the hindmost…

In reality, the globalized world economy has deeply fragmented production processes, labour markets, political entities and societies, creating a plethora of interest groups and lobbies which have undermined the integrity of civil society and its rights and entitlements across the world. This is becoming increasingly visible in rich and poor countries in the form of growing disparity between places, people and groups. In India, globalization is manifested in much greater income inequalities and growing agrarian distress.

In the international realm, the once proud Indian foreign office bows quietly to Washington in voting or abstaining on UN resolutions, and surrenders quietly to tough terms of international trade. Globalization, spearheaded largely by MNCs, now decides which domestic land laws need to be amended and which social issues can be ignored – like child labour, informalisation of urban economies, land rights of indigenous people, deteriorating health and education, pollution, environmental degradation and so on…

Advocates of globalization claim that greater international connectivity has enhanced accountability of governments. True. But the global elite still get away with murder – they call it collateral damage, of course. The UN bodies, International Courts of Justice and other fora are as biased in favour of the West as before, so what has really changed for the better?

The recent referendum in Scotland was precisely about this – globalization or independence? As is the ongoing ideological conflict in Greece. And look what happened there – economically weaker countries have quietly given up the battle and taken their humble places in the new global pecking order, and all’s well with God’s Earth! Even that bastion of hope – Cuba – is in a hurry to jump on to the globalization bandwagon… apparently globalization is as inevitable as death and taxes.

So as India celebrated its 68th Independence Day this August, isn’t it time to take stock of where we are headed and why? To whose benefit? And at whose cost?

It is time for India to break out of this global thraldom, and awaken once again to life and freedom…

Social Security Nets as guarantors of Human Development

Whenever one talks of sustainable livelihoods, we look not only at the 5 types of assets of a community or individual, but also at their coping strategies. Thus vocational diversity in a farming family will cushion it against a bad crop or a natural disaster, or the sudden death of the principal breadwinner. At the national level, the coping mechanism is provided by the state in the form of social security nets like unemployment benefits, health care, free education, pensions or child benefits.

The second edition of The State of Social Nets which attempts to compile, analyze, and disseminate data and developments as part of the World Bank’s 2012–22 Social Protection and Labor Strategy, makes for interesting reading, and its key findings are summarized below:

  • The portfolio of social safety net programmes is large and diverse. A developing country runs about 20 different safety net programmes, on average.
  • Cash transfers and school feeding programmes are present in almost all countries. Cash transfers are becoming more popular and increasingly complex. Conditional cash transfer programmes are now present in 64 countries, a dramatic increase from 2 countries in 1997 and 27 countries in 2008.
  • Worldwide, 1.9 billion people are enrolled in social safety net programmes.
  • The world’s five largest social safety net programmes are all in middle-income countries and reach over 526 million people.

It was also noted that the social security programmes and composition of social spending varied greatly across regions, as seen below:

Social Security Nets

However, the Report  found that despite remarkable progress over the past 5 years, most of the poor remain outside the social safety net system, especially in low- and lower-middle-income countries, which have the lowest coverage levels of poor people in their societies, and the least ability to direct resources to those most in need. The coverage gap is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where most of the global poor live. In these regions, only one-tenth and one-fifth of the poorest 20 percent have access to social safety nets, respectively. Urban areas have serious gaps in coverage, at all income levels. While 285 million poor people live in cities in developing countries, reaching them presents special challenges, including identifying, targeting, communicating with, and enrolling perspective beneficiaries.

In this writer’s own experience, the National Social Assistance Programme (which consisted of a nominal pension to the poor above the age of 65) showed very good results in rural areas, but was absent from the big metros, chiefly because the pension was disbursed through money orders, and the urban poor being homeless, simply did not have a postal address! Such procedural lapses are the chief cause that the social security coverage of the poorest in developing countries remains inadequate. Take the latest case of cheap loans for farmers, which have been cleverly diverted to non-farming uses. Firstly, as these loans use land as collateral, the poorest landless tenant farmers are not covered; and as the scrutiny before granting loans is cursory at best, a lot of these loans end up in Fixed Deposits earning the borrower anything from 8-9% interest, while he pays no more that 4% on his loan.

To plug such loopholes, many countries are increasingly looking to Unconditional Cash Transfers (UCT) and Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT). This strategy has several additional benefits, as the Report points out: “Newer studies confirm the positive and significant impacts of cash transfers on school enrollment and attendance; increased live births in safer facilities; improved prenatal and postnatal care; regular growth monitoring of children during critically important early ages; and enhanced food security.”

The studies also delve deeper into the productive impacts of cash transfers, demonstrating how predictable cash transfers enhance households’ investment in activities to generate agricultural and nonagricultural income. In the urban context, a secure and predictable monthly income can mean the difference between shelter and homelessness, between education and illiteracy, between health and illness. Cash transfers also have major positive spillover effects on the local economy of target communities, especially in urban areas.

Sadly, India is now ignoring all these benefits and the new government has ruthlessly slashed social expenditure in its last budget. What is frightening is that the eternal chase for higher growth rates (with a matching aversion to any form of subsidies and direct cash transfers, which are now being replaced by contributory insurance schemes), may rapidly undo all the gains in the areas of social security, social welfare and food security made by India as part of its commitment to the global social agenda, and the Millennium Development Goals.

Land and growing social malaise

The ongoing brouhaha in India about the amendments proposed to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 has concentrated on its potential for depriving small and marginal farmers of their meagre land-holdings, pushing several of them to desperation and even suicide. But addressing just one of the several major issues in Indian agriculture and the resultant endemic rural poverty is at best a short-sighted attempt to gain political brownie points. Nothing more.

Farmers’ suicides mainly occur in the more remote areas of States like Maharashtra, which are part of the great underdeveloped hinterland of India, and unlikely to attract large infrastructure projects in any case, so issues of land acquisition by government (whether under the unamended or amended Act) are moot. The major cause of farmers’ suicides continues to be great rural indebtedness. How many otherwise well informed urban Indians know that if a farmer wants to take a personal loan because of an illness or marriage in the family, the formal sector banks insist he put up his land as collateral? Otherwise he has no alternative but to approach the rapacious village money-lender, and either way, he is a hostage to the vagaries of weather and market forces, and a couple of failed crops seals his doom. (What ails Indian agriculture as a whole is a separate issue covered partly in my post ‘It’s all about the land…’, so I shall not dwell upon it here.)

The failure of successive governments to tertiarize the rural economy, through the development of agro-industries in the myriad small market towns which dot the countryside, is the primary reason for widespread poverty in rural India. This situation has been made worse by engendering a deep sense of dependency among the rural poor, so that they have lost all appetite for enterprise, risk-taking and innovation. And again, it suits successive governments to have a pliant and dependent peasantry, ready to accept its state of perpetual misery as karma, never revolting, never protesting; but ever grateful for any largesse that comes its way (like loan waivers) in the  year immediately before a General Election. That way, they will not demand their basic rights – like universal education and health care and access to higher education.

Suffice it to say that right now, the greater opposition to the Land Bill Amendments will come not from these crushed millions, but from relatively prosperous farmers, carrying out commercial rather than subsistence farming, closer to the big towns and definitely not prone to desperate measures like suicide! Theirs are the lands most likely to be acquired for industrial corridors, intercity expressways, new airports, ports and high speed transit systems. And this is also the group which has benefited the most from farm subsidies, and even cheap electricity, since the Green Revolution of the 1960s.

Of course small and marginal farmers in these catchment areas are also at risk of losing their sole means of livelihood, and forfeiting not just their own future but also that of their children and grandchildren, because all such laws basically speak only of monetary compensation and there is no provision for alternative and sustainable livelihoods included in the compensation package.

The real concern about the Amendments among grassroots NGOs and Community-based Organizations (CBOs) however, is the dilution of 2 provisions of the 2013 Act: The government has amended Section 10(A) of the Act to expand sectors where assessment and consent will NOT be required. These are: national security, defence, rural infrastructure (including electrification), industrial corridors and housing for the poor including PPP where ownership of land continues to be vested with the government. For these five sectors, the government or private individuals/companies will no longer need the mandatory 80% consent for land acquisition.

The more disturbing aspect of this amendment is that by omitting the mandatory social impact assessment, the government will be required to compensate only the land owner, not all those who are dependent on the land and likely to permanently lose their livelihoods; and who also needed to be compensated. To add insult to injury, the fertility or infertility of the land will NOT be taken into consideration while acquiring it for these five specific sectors. Thus, even if the land is extremely fertile, it can be acquired if it fits the criterion of these five sectors, no questions asked.

These Amendments have been opposed by several stakeholders, and their very legitimate concerns need to be addressed in totality, not piecemeal. Allowing these grievances to fester will not only stymie development through Public Interest Litigation (PIL), but will add further to the unrest and malaise seething just below the surface in Indian society, which manifests itself in increasing violence in day to day social transactions as much as in the sporadic skirmishes between extremists and law enforcement agencies in the ‘hot spots’.

The political class needs to stop playing its power games, and listen…

Social Progress and Directed Growth

Blog Entree The recently published Social Progress Index Report made big news in India, because it put India lower than both Nepal and Bangladesh in its rankings. The ruling rightist Government (which worships at the altar of S&P, McKinsey and Moody’s) dismissed it as yet another leftist conspiracy – just as they dismiss all critics from Amartya Sen to Greenpeace – not realising that the report comes from the pens of globalization experts and management gurus like Michael E Porter.

The Report defines Social Progress as “… the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.”

Under these 3 broad categories, the Social Progress Index measured the following indicators for 132 countries:

SPI COMPONENETS The Social Progress Report makes it a point to disassociate itself from prevalent economic indicators like GDP, pointing out that the top ranker on this Index (New Zealand) has a GDP practically half that of the world’s largest economy, the USA, yet outranks it by 15 places.

The following graph is very interesting (especially to the BRICS Countries, where India again, sadly, brings up the rear…):

SPI & GDP The overall findings of the Social Progress Report 2015 are best encapsulated in this map:

SPI MAP The beauty of the Social Progress Index is that it is interactive, and you can immediately see the impact of any indicator by adding a component and watching the colours change. I tried it for each of the components, one by one, and read at a glance the signals for India, especially those where it faded from pale to paler jade, to almost white… and the real areas of concern were:

  • Availability of Water
  • Availability of affordable housing
  • Deterioration of the environment
  • Inequality in the attainment of education
  • Average years spent in school by the female half of the population
  • Years of tertiary education
  • Access to advanced education
  • Religious intolerance
  • Discrimination and violence against minorities – religious, ethnic, sexual preferences

Of course it would not be fair to put the blame on (or give the credit to, for that matter) a government which has been in office for less than a year. However, if development is directed growth, and progress the distance covered in that direction, then it is the direction which may need to change – especially for a government which came to power on the promise of ‘development for all’…

Or else, the next 4 years will see increasing discontent in civil society, more violence from the disgruntled, more Public Interest Litigation in the courts, more protests, and more raucousness in Parliament.

Then how will the dream of smart cities and industrial corridors be achieved?

Are megacities really the key to India’s future?

The ‘valeriepieris circle’ has become the stuff of legend on the internet, because it gets across its message simply, visually and effectively:

pop density valeriepieris on reddit

Which set one thinking of another statistic: 21 of the world’s 35 megacities in 2015, also fall within this circle, where a megacity is defined as a city with a population > 10 million.

Rapid urbanization has become the hallmark of the twenty-first century, and it is expected that existing megacities will continue to grow, as there are few takers for new cities to take excess or overflow populations – just look at the number of new ‘ghost’ cities dotting China, built at great cost and still unoccupied. Therefore, governments must learn to live with megacities and do their best to enhance quality of life.

There is one school of thought in the emerging economies that urbanization must be seen as a positive force and harnessed for national development, rather than curtailed. The present Indian Government subscribes to this view and is enthusiastic about building infrastructure to support industry, develop industrial corridors, and foster old and new ‘smart’ cities across the land – with the major beneficiaries of all this ‘development’ being the domestic and foreign private sector.

But other urban experts like Robert Buckley, speaking in a UN Habitat lecture series, are of the view that little attention is being paid to the inexorable increase in urban populations, particularly in very low income countries. Instead of focusing on the issues involved with coordinating a coherent policy response to this demographic trend, the development agenda has focused on how coordination problems in supporting industry can be overcome. This has resulted in increasingly dysfunctional cities, especially within the valeriepieris circle, where paucity of land makes pressure of population that much more intractable.

Furthermore, analysis of the evidence indicates that urban growth in these megacities is no longer a result of ‘pull’ migration, where the newcomer can make his fortune in the city of opportunity, but rather a sad consequence of distress or ‘push’ migration from an unbearable life in the countryside.

The situation is exacerbated by planning practices, often learnt from colonial masters, which are totally out of sync with the predominant village or tribal culture from which these migrants increasingly originate. With cities now being planned after their occupants have arrived rather than in anticipation of growth, this ‘pathological urbanization’ results in chaotic cities without sufficient public space to realize agglomeration economies with dense, fetid slums, and huge informal economies – untaxed and unregulated.

While there is no gainsaying that Indian cities need development planning on a massive scale, especially in the housing and services sector, we need to stem this distress migration at its source – through the tertiarisation of the rural economy in emergency mode. After all, despite the proliferation of towns and cities, India is still only 31% urbanized and we cannot afford to go on neglecting the remaining 69%, who still have a decisive role to play in every election.

As I have argued elsewhere, the solution may lie in the thousands of small towns dotted across the country. (See my post ‘Development and the Rural-Urban Continuum’.) Already, these smaller towns are intimately tied to the agrarian foundations of the country, informally networking tens of thousands of villages with regional and national markets.

Even the most cursory survey will show that no more than 40% of the adult population of these ‘C’ Class municipalities is employed in non-agricultural activities. Therefore, with 60% of their population already engaged in agriculture, these small towns provide the ideal hubs for the tertiarisation of the rural economy through the development of agro-industries and food processing and storage. Once the agro-industries sector is well developed, we can consider FDI in retail without jeopardizing rural livelihoods.

That is the way to prosperity and elimination of local poverty and eventual prevention of emigration to bigger metros, as Brazil has so successfully demonstrated.

And it is also the only option for a country like India to have sustainable development without wrecking its environment and resources, leaving only a legacy of disaster after disaster for future generations. But is anybody listening?

Vulnerability and Risk

I always enjoy comparing the views of World Bank and UNDP on what ails this world of ours, and their 2014 flagship publications (World Bank’s World Development Report, WDR 2014, and UNDP’s Human Development Report HDR 2014) approach the question of growing vulnerability in today’s world from exactly opposite directions. The World Bank sticks to the classic progression of VULNERABILITY > RISK > OPPORTUNITY; while the UNDP warns that heightened vulnerabilities in an interconnected world could undo the progress achieved in HUMAN DEVELOPMENT in the last two decades.

The WDR looks at the risk preparedness of the world and presents a rather dismal picture for countries like India: Risk preparedness Its suggestions for better risk management and reduction of vulnerabilities too, are rather predictable: WDR Risk Management

Not only does the role of the state remain paternalistic and minimal in this paradigm, it puts the onus on Civil Society and the Private Sector, yet again. Never mind that civil society in developing countries like India remains fragmented and powerless; and the private sector is not in the business of greater social responsibility. (See my earlier post on India an Aspirational Society? Not yet…)

So we must look perforce at the UNDP’s suggestions… The entire approach of the Human Development Index differs from income-based indicators because it does not look at what people have or do not have; but what they can or cannot do. It looks at capabilities. The Human Development Index 2014 is mapped below: HDI Map

The HDR 2014 introduces the concept of human vulnerability and how it erodes people’s capabilities and choices. Despite recent progress in poverty reduction, more than 2.2 billion people are either near or living in multidimensional poverty. The challenge is not just to keep vulnerable populations from falling back into extreme difficulty and deprivation; it is to create an enabling environment for their continuing human development advancement in the decades to come.

The report feels that as globalization deepens, the policy space available to individual governments to enhance coping capabilities is becoming increasingly constrained. And “… unless more-vulnerable groups and individuals receive specific policy attention and dedicated resources across all dimensions of human development, they are in danger of being left behind, despite continuing human progress in most countries and communities.”

The HDR 2014 reiterates that to tackle vulnerability, particularly among marginalized groups, and sustain recent achievements, reducing inequality in all dimensions of human development is crucial.

The key messages of the HDR 2014 are:

  • Vulnerability threatens human development— and unless it is systematically addressed, by changing policies and social norms, progress will be neither equitable nor sustainable.
  • Life cycle vulnerability, structural vulnerability and insecure lives are fundamental sources of persistent deprivation—and must be addressed for human development to be secured and for progress to be sustained.
  • Policy responses to vulnerability should prevent threats, promote capabilities and protect people, especially the most vulnerable.
  • Everyone should have the right to education, health care and other basic services. Putting this principle of universalism into practice will require dedicated attention and resources, particularly for the poor and other vulnerable groups.

Although the world has pulled up its socks and made remarkable strides in human development through the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the agenda for future human development must necessarily focus on building up the resilience and coping mechanisms of the deprived.

And this will require a common commitment—national and global—towards universal provision of social services, strengthening social protection and assuring full employment. Besides the universal provision of health and education, and strengthening social protection through unemployment benefits, protective labour laws, pensions, provident funds etc in both the formal and informal sector, national governments are also responsible for enhancing cohesion in society by building institutions of governance that are responsive and accountable, and can address and overcome the “… sense of injustice, vulnerability and exclusion that can fuel social discontent…”

Is the Indian Government ready to take up this responsibility, or will it continue to march on its present path of greater privatisation, blatantly pro-rich policies, and confrontational and divisive politics? Only time will tell, but it is time India can ill afford and may put the country seriously behind in achieving the human development goals it set itself long, long ago when it set up its ‘tryst with destiny’ on 15 August 1947…