Development as Arrogance or Arrogance as Development?

Bhaskar Majumder

The phrase that is used and misused more than any other parallel is ‘’development’’ that means many things to many people – it seems to be a hydra. All are concerned for development – ‘’Sabka Saath, Saabka Vikas’’ – so it is pledged to be participatory also. Nothing new on the trajectory of pledge to develop, for India’s 11th and 12th Five-Year plans also announced the same after a half century of development that was manufactured to appear acceptable. What if it was not accepted to the people at the bottom by the material standard of living?

Some of the issues need no further discussion like the separation of growth from development or the broad consensus among those who matter that ‘’trickle down’’ failed or that poverty of the mass persists as measured by the expert committees or that inequality by economic indicators (Gini/Lorenz measures) persists. The innocent people at the bottom like the Adivasis that constitute around 10.0 per cent of India’s population and the households from mostly SCs working as manual/menial workers hardly get time to ponder over their poverty or invisible inequality.

What is the problem then? And if it is not a problem, then social scientists will abstain from discussing it. The problem is not merely the innocuous participation of the people in the development processes for many of them can be dragged into the domain independent of their choice. Choice-neutrality in job is not a major problem though many may die underground or in hazardous works. The problem is, did the people ask for the kind of development that was/is followed? Let me explain.

Suppose, people think in a cluster of villages in Bihar that five primary schools should be set up with appointment of regular teachers by next two years from the date of their consensus. The budget for this as they calculate is, say, Rs. 25 lakhs, that is, Rs. 5 lakhs per school. The Panchaysts are requested to provide the land cost-free. It is also decided that the teachers will be resident teachers or from the locality (within a distance of five km.). The salary of the teachers obviously will be from non-plan expenditure of the Government of India. Suppose, this is not done for next ten years. If this is the end of the story, not much harm is inflicted for this will be an error of omission. The problem comes when that Rs. 25 lakhs goes to build a Hotel in any of the cities in Bihar. The trade off is not between rural and urban or it is not to be read as urban bias in Bihar’s planning. The problem is more serious – it is creating a vacuum in the society itself by distancing one generation from education.

Suppose, long stretch of railway tracks need immediate repair or replacement in Uttar Pradesh or a double line track is to be constructed immediately. Instead to doing this, if the budget is sanctioned in favour of running bullet train somewhere, then that questions the very model of development. I do not oppose bullet train as I do not oppose manufacturing Rockets. But the sense of priority or proportionality has to be there. Surely, the people at the bottom are not going to talk either on bullet train or on Rocket. Silence of people, say, bottom 90.0 per cent in India, is not to be taken as consent for development on the trajectory that political determinants make acceptable.

Now let me come to one observation that may seem surprising for many of the experts (I may be excused if they know what I am going to narrate now). While visiting Arunachal Pradesh recently I was told by people there who were in pastoral mode that fishing as an option for their livelihood was in danger for road construction! I was at a loss – how come. They explained that beheading of the peak of the Himalayan mountain range for constriction or broadening of roads led to lesser snow-fed water or lesser cubic meter of water in the mountainous rivers. This led to less carrying capacity of the rivers as the abode of fish and their movements. The quantum of fish and its breeding getting lessened, the scope for river-based fishery was also on the wane. So, what is the trade off – between fishery and roads?

India as a civilization needs to listen to people of different era and their varying needs. What is a rational choice for corporate may not be an acceptable solution for the forest-living Adivasis. If the state decides that the Adivasis are backward and corporate is to be promoted to produce more of guns and none of indigenous food then there is still time to re-think. The nation belongs to all – particularly, those who work silently. They are Adivasis, they are SCs, they are manual workers, and they are people without formal degrees of educational institutions.

Having informed the above, unless already known to all, my point is who decided the trajectory of development and how? The debate of growth of GDP at x% is well known to all involved in decision-making. So, the irritating question is left out for the time being. Suppose, there is growth rate at zero per cent - does that mean people die? There was overproduction of rice early 1940s in undivided Bengal and most people who died for hunger were from undivided Bengal. The history of hunger is well known. Thus, the point is not one of overproduction or underproduction in the real sector of the economy or the issue is not projecting somehow a higher rate of growth through money-price factor. The question is, was there any need assessment of what the people living at the bottom in India prior to chalking out the development trajectory? In case the answer from the experts is, these people are incapacitated to assess their need or reveal it for fear or voicelessness, then the question becomes bigger – what did the state do for past 70 years to give voice to the voiceless?

Thus, the question in development is not confined to market versus state. After all, it is the state that forms the market taking cue from the social behaviour of the individuals. The question needs to encompass the mass society that is seen often as the consequence of development. The history of development shows labour as the only original factor that brought us to the level we are now. Now labour has become an inanimate object – faceless – one factor of production like one machine. In case labour becomes an animate object, he will be replaced by the robot that he produced the previous day. This is what Leontiev reminded in his book ‘’Political Economy’’ that the father of the son was sitting idle at home for he produced more the previous day!

It may be impossible to stop development at some point – for once it started post-cave life, it knew no bounds. The history of technology shows it. If technology comes, can development be far behind? Because of my tiny training in mainstream Economics, I have reasons to believe that the Economists with conventional wisdom suffer from the disease of arrogance for I hear from many of them, ‘So, you are for the existence value of the mountains!’ (I apologize for my comment). If Economics gets delinked from physical time where activities are contextualized, and if it remains economic time in abstraction, the disease prolongs. Those who suffer are not the doctor-economists but the people-patients (for the time being Economists are separated from people). The task is to guide technology in the direction of humanity – that is to come out from the arrogance of development.  

 Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Aug 26, 2019

Bhaskar Majumder [email protected]

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