The Other Side of Development

In 1991, a new government came to power in India under P. V. Narasimha Rao. Rao was not really a career politician: he was catapulted into the chair following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the PM-elect of the Congress party during campaigning. It was the first time that a non-member of the Nehru dynasty was heading the Congress and India; and Rao made the even more revolutionary step of appointing the internationally acclaimed economist, Dr. Manmohan Singh, as his finance minister.

Dr. Singh set about dismantling the economic framework of India in a revolutionary manner. The Nehruvian socialist framework, modelled loosely on Soviet Russia’s system (Nehru was a leftist and a fan of Stalin) was demolished and capitalism was ushered in on a red carpet. India’s ponderous bureaucracy withered away, the country took to privatisation in a big way, the foreign exchange started pouring in… and India was off, like a rocket. The country has not looked back, since then.

But there was a small minority who bemoaned the destruction of socialism and the rise of corpocracy. They provided dire predictions of economic collapse and subsequent World Bank intervention which would turn India into a vassal state. Manmohan Singh pooh-poohed such fears, saying famously that “there is no way to stop an idea whose time has come”. He also said that capitalism would now be different: this would be capitalism with a “human face”.

Well, it seemed that Dr. Singh had been proven right, the way India has surged ahead economically and politically. Not a single government since then had gone back on the reforms; the left has slowly eroded in India so that now, we are left with only two alternatives – the centre-right Congress or the far right BJP. It seems that India is indeed shining, and capitalism has finally overcome its traditional enemy socialism.

At least, that is what I thought until I read Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from the Poorest Districts of India by P. Sainath.

***

SainathSainath, as a reporter for The Times of India, toured ten of India’s poorest districts from May 1993 to June 1995. His aim was to cover poverty in terms of processes, i. e. how it comes into being; as opposed to the coverage of poverty as events, which is the usual style of the press, as disasters make good copy. He makes the point forcefully while covering drought in Nuapada, Orissa:

But at the best of times, the press has viewed drought and scarcity as events. And the belief that only events make news, not processes, distorts understanding. Some of the best reports on poverty suffer from trying to dramatise it as an event. The real drama is in the process. In the causes.

Deforestation has much to do with drought. But being a process, it becomes a ‘feature’. And then disappears into the newspaper ghetto called ‘ecology’—presumed to be of interest only to rabid ‘Greens’.

The reality? The combined investment in all development projects in Orissa since independence is eclipsed by the commercial value of renewable timber and forests lost in making way for them.

Sainath’s study of the processes has left me seriously shaken. India’s tremendous surge of the recent years has been at the cost of the continued (sometimes increased) misery of the masses at the bottom of the social pyramid – the multitude who have been deprived of even their base humanity since Vedic times.

***

Poor woman…every third human being in the world without safe and adequate water supply is an Indian. Every fourth child on the globe who dies of diarrhoea is an Indian. Every third person in the world with leprosy is an Indian. Every fourth being on the planet dying of water-borne or water-related diseases is an Indian. Of the over sixteen million tuberculosis cases that exist at any time world-wide, 12.7 million are in India. Tens of millions of Indians suffer from malnutrition. It lays their systems open to an array of fatal ailments. Yet, official expenditure on nutrition is less than one per cent of GNP.

Empty public health centres and tribals who still apply to the local witch doctor for curing their ills.

Empty schools and colleges (in one case inhabited by goats!).

People bonded for life to work for free for usurers.

Girls sold off to pay debts.

“Development” which displaces people on massive scales and permanently damages the environment.

I could go on and on. Sainath reports on such instances by the dozen, with passion and sincerity, and also with a certain sarcastic dry wit which would have made reading him a pleasure had not the subject been so disturbing.

Always, the affected people are one at the lowest rung of the social ladder: the Dalits and the Adivasis. These people are officially taken care of by the government: they have reservation quotas in educational institutions and government jobs: a multitude of rural welfare schemes are there for their benefit… but unless old power structures change, these benefits shall stay on paper. The upper classes in India still use the ignorance and lack of education of those at the bottom to hold on to their privileged position in society.

Denying the poor access to knowledge goes back a long way. The ancient Smriti political and legal system drew up vicious punishments for sudras seeking learning. (In those days, that meant learning the Vedas.) If a sudra listens to the Vedas, said one of these laws, ‘his ears are to be filled with molten tin or lac. If he dares to recite the Vedic texts, his body is to be split’. That was the fate of the ‘base-born’. The ancients restricted learning on the basis of birth.

In a modern polity, where the base-born have votes, the elite act differently. Say all the right things. But deny access. Sometimes, mass pressures force concessions. Bend a little. After a while, it’s back to business as usual. As one writer has put it: When the poor get literate and educated, the rich lose their palanquin bearers.

Yes, indeed.

childrenThe share of education in our five year plan outlays has been falling. Those who led the country to freedom had a different vision. They wanted that a free India spend no less than 10 per cent of plan outlay on education. Free India honoured that vision only in its breach.

The first five year plan gave education 7.86 per cent of its total outlay. The second plan lowered it to 5.83 per cent. By the fifth plan, education was making do with 3.27 per cent of the outlay. In the seventh plan, the figure was 3.5 per cent. As the problems of her children’s education grew more, India spent less and less on them.

As India pushes more and more towards consumer-oriented development, corporates start to rule the roost. The old feudal system where the landed gentry lorded it over the peasants is replaced by the corporate lackeys exploiting the workers. Only the hats have changed – the people underneath, and their roles, are the same.

Development is the strategy of evasion. When you can’t give people land reform, give them hybrid cows. When you can’t send the children to school, try non-formal education. When you can’t provide basic health to people, talk of health insurance. Can’t give them jobs? Not to worry. Just redefine the words ‘employment opportunities’. Don’t want to do away with using children as a form of slave labour? Never mind. Talk of ‘improving the conditions of child labour’. It sounds good. You can even make money out of it.

This has been true of development, Indian style, for over four decades now.

Central to its philosophy is the idea that we can somehow avoid the big moves, the painful ones, the reforms that Indian society really needs. Is there some way we can improve people’s lives without getting into annoying things like land reform? There isn’t, but there are powerful people who’d like to believe there is.

The same illusion runs through what we call our ‘globalisation’. It has the Indian elite excited. ‘We must globalise. There is no choice. Everybody else is doing it. Look at Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea.’

Of course, ‘everyone’ who is doing it, did a lot of other things. All those countries—if you must take authoritarian states as a model—went through land reform. They gave their people literacy and education, as also some standards of health, shelter, nutrition. Point this out—and the Indian elite discover our ‘cultural uniqueness’. The same is true of child labour. Dozens of other societies got rid of it. But ‘India is different’. So India’s uniqueness does not stand in the way of globalisation. It stands in the way of land reform, education, health. It does not prevent external agencies making policies for India on a wide range of subjects. It does stand in the way of doing away with child labour.

The Indian development experience reeks of this sort of hypocrisy across its four and a half decades. Ignore the big issues long enough, and you can finally dismiss them as ‘outdated’. Nobody will really bother.

***
Drought

Why does everyone love a good drought?

Well, it brings in money from the government, so the local authorities benefit. The district gets its moment in the limelight; the locals get some goodies, which is like manna from heaven for these piss-poor people. The corrupt officials get money to siphon away, so they are happy. With money in the hands of people, the moneylenders get new victims. And the press positively drools with the possibility of all those photographs of emaciated children which they can splash across their front pages.

In the event, the reasons for the disaster often gets ignored.

I will let Sainath speak.

Drought is, beyond question, among the more serious problems this country faces. Drought relief, almost equally beyond question, is rural India’s biggest growth industry. Often, there is little relation between the two. Relief can go to regions that get lots of rainfall. Even where it goes to scarcity areas, those most in need seldom benefit from it. The poor in such regions understand this. That’s why some of them call drought relief teesra fasl (the third crop). Only, they are not the ones who harvest it…

…Simply put, we have several districts in India that have an abundance of rainfall—but where one section, the poor, can suffer acute drought. That happens when available water resources are colonised by the powerful. Further, the poor are never consulted or asked to participate in designing the ‘programmes’ the anti-drought funds bring…

…Conflicts arising from man-made drought are on the rise. Deforestation does enormous damage. Villagers are increasingly losing control over common water resources. The destruction of traditional irrigation systems is gaining speed. A process of privatisation of water resources is apparent in most of the real drought areas (take the water lords of Ramnad, for instance). There are now two kinds of drought: the real and the rigged. Both can be underway at the same time, in the same place…

…Things haven’t changed too much in some ways. Quite a few journals still freely interchange the words ‘drought’ and ‘famine’. Obviously, these two mean very different things. But the word ‘famine’ is more alarmist and makes better copy. In 1986, one editor argued that the difference between the two was merely ‘semantic’. Present-day efforts at covering poverty still insist on the events approach. Poverty gets covered in breathless tones of horror and shock that suggest something new has happened, even when it hasn’t.

Apparently, crisis merits attention only when it results in catastrophe, not earlier. It takes years for a food surplus district like Kalahandi to arrive at where it has. But that is a process. It does not make news. Maybe it is still worth writing about, though?…

In fact, in many places, drought is called teesra fasl – the “third crop”!

***

We have been brought up on the concept of the “Poverty Line” in India – below this line are the dismally poor who needs government support to survive; above it, they are still poor, but the conditions get better as people move away from it in the upward direction. The aim of our democracy is to bring all of its citizens above this line, then slowly refine its definition as the populace get more and more well-off.

A fine concept – but without a clear idea of how to draw this line, it moves into the realm of conjecture.

The poverty line provides the conceptual rationalisation for looking at the poor as a ‘category’ to be taken care of through targeted ameliorative programmes, ignoring structural inequalities and other factors which generate, sustain, and reproduce poverty.

It does not ‘take into account items of social consumption such as basic education and health, drinking water supply, sanitation, environmental standards, etc., in terms of normative requirements or effective access’.

The poverty line, quantified as a number, is reductionist. It does not capture important aspects of poverty—ill health, low educational attainments, geographical isolation, ineffective access to law, powerlessness in civil society, caste and/or gender based disadvantages.

The head-count ratio based on the poverty line ‘does not capture the severity of poverty in terms of the poverty deficit (total shortfall from the poverty line) or additionally the distribution of consumption expenditure among the poor’. In a country of India’s size and diversity, a poverty line based on aggregation at an all-India level ignores state-specific variations in consumption patterns and/or prices.

The notion of ‘absolute poverty’ is inadequate because ‘relative poverty’ is also an equally important aspect of poverty and is, in fact, a determinant of absolute poverty at a given level of national income. More generally, the concepts of inequality and poverty, although distinct, need to be constantly viewed together as closely associated concepts.

Plagued by so many inconsistencies, the Poverty Line becomes something for the politicians to play around with – to quote to their own advantage and to the detriment of opponents. Since the general public does not understand it, it has lost its meaning even as a metaphor.

***

This fantastic piece of journalism gives us a taste of the real India, the India of the villages extolled by the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. This India has been forgotten in the loud celebrations of a capitalist India, an India which is military power and a space research pioneer in South Asia. But it is good for us to remember our brothers out in the wilds, at least once in a while.

Who constitutes the nation? Only the elite? Or do the hundreds of millions of poor in India also make up the nation? Are their interests never identified with national interest?
Or is there more than one nation?

That is a question you often run up against in some of India’s poorest areas. Areas where extremely poor people go into destitution making way for firing ranges, jet fighter plants, coal mines, power projects, dams, sanctuaries, prawn and shrimp farms, even poultry farms. If the costs they bear are the ‘price’ of development, then the rest of the ‘nation’ is having one endless free lunch.

However, the destitute are fighting back. In the last part of the book, Sainath recounts some stories where people have banded together to resist the might of the authorities and the machinations of the moneyed. And they have scored small but significant victories.

Of the battles these stories record, some might end in failure. Mainly because of the lack of sustained and organised democratic politics in those areas. Yet, they also argue hope. People are not quite so passive. They revolt in many ways. And as long as that is the case, there is hope.

Yes, there is always hope in a democracy. Sainath has made a not insignificant contribution to this fight, through this book. And if I can persuade someone to read it – and think more about those at the bottom of the heap – through this blog post, I believe I too would have contributed my mite.

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5 comments on “The Other Side of Development

  1. It’s especially interesting for me to read this because I did my (unsubmitted) Masters on the subject of the agrarian labour force in India and the extent to which capitalism combined with technology had permitted a degree of freedom and a possibility of unity across wide areas Clearly this has not improved the lot of the people under discussion one bit since the 1970s data I was looking at.

    • I think the material wealth of India has improved drastically after liberalisation, but it is not reaching the bottom due to (1) misguided planning; (2) corrupt officials and politicians and (3)the sheer size of the country.

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