What Exactly is "Development"?

India’s development debate has actually regressed this past decade. For one thing, a single, homogenised view of development is being shoved down from above. Whether it works or does not work is not the issue. Any departure from it is heresy. If you oppose the draining of people’s water by Coca Cola and the poisoning of their wells, that’s anti-development.

Until ousted in the recent elections Kerala’s Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy used to correctly assert that his State has very serious problems like joblessness. But then he suggested the United Democratic Front wants to make Kerala like Bangalore, [prime city of the neighboring state of Karnataka, endlessly feted by such touts of neoliberalism as Flat Earther, Thomas Friedman. Editors] That was his vision. That’s development. Fact: there is no major indicator of human well being on which Kerala does not outrank Karnataka by miles. Life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality ratio, sex ratio or schooling. Or even nutrition, health, equity, and the ending of child labor. But Mr. Chandy’s view revolved around express highways, flyovers, enclave smart cities, and the rest of it. Kerala has few of those.

Kerala has a good network of village roads, though. When you drive from Mysore to Wayanad and back, it’s easy to tell when you’ve crossed the border. If the roads are awful, that’s Karnataka. But good village roads are not a sign of development. Massive traffic jams are. Bangalore’s techno triumphs are undermined by the chaos of its traffic, poor public transport, and gross private “cities” High tech cohabits with low efficiency in a deepening urban nightmare.

Kerala’s people have had the best access to education and health. This is one State in the country that turns out more nurses than doctors. Kerala nurses are everywhere. Highly educated, efficient, and indispensable. The products of a once-fine schooling system. This might well break down as the poor lose access to such training. For some time, Kerala has mimicked Karnataka by trying to commercialize education. The case that Mr. Chandy makes was clear. Our students are going to Karnataka for such costly courses. Why should Kerala lose this money? Let’s mop it up right here.

There are saner options. Expand and improve the public systems that made Kerala a success in the first place. But that would be anti-development. Meanwhile, the farm crisis has seen hundreds of suicides in Kerala. The children of these and other bankrupt households now find themselves forced out of Karnataka’s educational sweatshops. They can no longer pay the fees and must leave, their deposits forfeit, studies unfinished. Many cannot even retrieve their school certificates. The colleges hold on to those to extort more money from already shattered families.

There’s nowhere to go. They cannot afford the new private colleges at home either. The nation’s finest pool of nursing graduates shrinks this way.

Bangalore, once the `Garden City,’ `developed’ rapidly. It drained many of its vital lakes and ponds to exploit the real estate beneath. And did that with breathtaking speed. Call it accelerated development. Now you have areas that suffer water shortages much of the year because you’ve drained the lakes. And flooding during the rains because you’ve built houses on those lakes. It is as simple as it is stupid. But we crave for more of the same development.

In the media, development is about engineering and technology. Not about improvement of the human condition. Nor about trying to be non-destructive. It is not important that the engineering and technology work. We don’t even scrutinize that. But without them, it’s not development. So if you have localized water systems that meet people’s needs, that’s not development. But if you plan to spend a quarter of your GDP on a brainless interlinking of rivers, that’s development. Never mind that no one knows what its fallout will be.

The giant corporate hospitals are development. Networks of small dispensaries that are far more vital to public health are not. Why treat a scratch with a band-aid when you can do an organ transplant? We have the know-how, after all. We’re at the point where medical tourism is going to earn someone a lot of money. And why fight malaria through preventive measures, good sanitation, better public health or anything as dumb as that? Better to distribute – as the touts advize – bed nets “impregnated with anti-mosquito repellent.” That way, there’s technology, contracts, and rewards for corporates, consultants, and corrupt bureaucrats.

Never mind that you will distribute millions of nets to people who have no beds. Nor does it matter that malaria parasites are remarkably uncooperative. They refuse to sign the roster when you’re asleep and insist on being more active when you’re not. That is, at dawn and dusk. When millions of people make their way to or from the fields in this country. Of course, you could make a bold new fashion statement by wearing your mosquito net to work, but it might cramp your style if you’re a cane cutter.

Central to the regressive debate is the faith that there is only one way of doing anything. The big-budget, super-scaled, privatized way. Also, with major names. Dabhol in the Enron era was a fine example of this. So now we go back to it. Had Maharashtra spent a small amount each year strengthening its once profit-making State Electricity Board, we would not have such enormous sums of money. Losses that showed up in welfare budget cuts. But why be deterred by some of the highest power rates on the planet? Look Mama, we’re world class.

The `debate’ sparked off by the Narmada-linked fasts in Delhi took the same route. The dams are the only way. All that matters is we show some concern over `rehabilitation.’ (Even if we do little about it in practice.) That this scheme will never work is irrelevant. People are incidental, the project is the thing. That even the pathetic share of water for Kutch and Saurashtra is being diverted to better-off destinations barely merits mention. That the power produced will be precious little – well, what does that have to do with development, anyway?

As for consent and humane conduct, how can these stand in the path of progress? The Orissa police shot dead 13 Adivasis in Kalinga Nagar. A crime dismissed with token tongue-clicking. A big daily put it simply in an editorial the next day. Let’s face it. People will be displaced by projects. The question is how to re-settle them.

Yet, Orissa is a State where thousands of acres of land were taken by force from people for projects that never came up. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is just one instance from the 1960s. Some of its giant units for which the land was then grabbed finally sprang up in Bangalore and elsewhere. But the surplus acres never went back to the shattered owners. This is also the State where the same village has been displaced three times for different projects. And where the dams of the 1960s still bear plaques boasting of how many villages they submerged. That, after all, proved how massive they were. Events of a kind that will never affect the rich residents of Malabar Hill in Mumbai. Though this city razed 84,000 homes of poor people in the same week the tsunami wiped out 30,300 in Nagapattinam. Mumbai, though, did it in the cause of development.

The regression shows in other ways, too. For instance, in the way some of the most vapid concepts are now romanced. It’s at the point where malls are seen as the finest `public spaces.’ An English daily ran a piece this week titled: “Hanging out at the friendly, neighborhood mall.” Ultimately, says the piece, “a mall is seen as a place that is non-corrupt, safe and accessible. A public utility that functions and does not favour any class of user.” What’s more “all the amenities are free.” No charge for the bathrooms, folks. Never mind the claim that shops, some of which sell exotic jewelled pens, do not `favor any class of user.’ And never mind too, what the lesser shops and chains do to small retailers and the jobs of countless thousands. This notion of progress sits well with the one-way-only view of development.

Of course engineering and technology can play a vital role in development. They should. They must. The questions that have in every case to be answered are: For whose benefit? At whose cost? Do you do something because it is a good thing to do? Or simply because you can? Are there different ways of doing it? Which is the best of them? Do people have a right to say no even if they’re poor? Have they a right to resist?

It’s odd the more primitive debate on this now comes out of Kerala. Accept that framework, and Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are way ahead of it. Countless big-budget `development’ projects have been on forever. With little improvement in the living standards of the people in those States. Meanwhile, it might make sense to test one more indicator. Check how the bottom 30 per cent in each of our States is doing or has done over a period of time. It might give you a very different view of development.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This piece initially ran in the Indian weekly Frontline. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.




P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org