Published in Times of India, Pune on 4 July 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.
Development at its most basic may be defined as ‘directed growth‘. And that direction is decided by the type of government in power and its ideology: some may look upon development as building infrastructure, others as building human capital.
Conservative governments throughout history have looked upon ‘development’ as an opportunity to leave their mark on history and the landscape quit literally. Great kings have built pyramids, palaces, highways, aqueducts, temples, churches and mosques for their sprawling capitals – and in modern terms, when a government has a 5-year timeframe to work in, it makes more sense to build flyovers, than plant trees.
This idea of development as physical infrastructure took root soon after Independence, when heavy industries like steel were in a boom period across the world, and oil was cheap. So, with an abundance of steel one naturally built skyscrapers, bridges, towers and railways.
Heavy infrastructure of this kind naturally congregates around big metros, which soon become overcrowded and environmentally noxious. There also comes a tipping point when the old residents begin to curse the newcomers to their city and local governments cannot spare the resources to service fringe areas adequately. As urban sprawl takes over, a planned city becomes slowly unplanned…
Meanwhile the small towns in the surrounding region resent this skewed development and keep sending their young to these overcrowded metros to seek their fortunes, because urban planners concentrate their efforts only in the big cities – and soon we all end up living in urban hell!
This tendency to equate development with roads, bridges and flyovers has several negative consequences:
- Firstly, although investment in infrastructure may raise economic activity and thus the GDP, it doesn’t really create secure, long-term employment in the country. Most infrastructure projects are designed and executed by people already in permanent government jobs in the railways or PWD, and the future maintenance of the infrastructure will be in the hands of the permanent employees of the municipal corporation, so no new long-term jobs are created. Only a very few temporary, low-skill jobs may be created during the construction phase, with little or no impact on the labour market.
- Secondly, if a government is obsessed with creating just infrastructure, there is always a tendency to bend the environmental guidelines to expedite land acquisition for projects, with disastrous consequences for the biodiversity and natural safeguards of the project area. The draining of the mangrove swamps of Kurla for the Bandra-Kurla Complex is now accepted as the primary cause for the repeated monsoon flooding of Mumbai, and something similar has happened to Nagpur with the unnecessary concreting of all its roads. It is axiomatic that the number of vehicles in a city will rise as the road network of a city expands, and it is the unprecedented growth of roads and fly-overs which has added to Delhi’s breathing problems.
- Thirdly, single-minded concentration on infrastructure draws public funds away from basic services like education and health care, which are the true cornerstones of achieving ‘human’ development in a society. Without adequate attention to education, health and nutrition, countries like India risk losing their demographic dividend of a young society. And this only aggravates the schisms and tiers in society as future generations have to compete for every crumb of a rapidly shrinking pie.
It is noteworthy that ALL three of Asia’s tech giants first invested in the universalisation and then the vocationalisation of education, to literally lift themselves up by the bootstraps and resurrect their devastated economies: Japan after WW2, South Korea after the Korean War, China after the Cultural Revolution. Only after attaining a fair and equitable human development did these countries move into mega infrastructure development.
India meanwhile, did build up a welfare state after the ravages of colonial rule, but somewhere in the heady days of the IT revolution of the 90s, we seem to have lost track and opted for more visible and tangible signs of connectivity as development, which has unfortunately only made the rich richer, and left vast swathes of India’s population far, far behind.
Post-Independence, India also had the vision to set up a world class infrastructure for higher education, science and technology, but somehow these elite institutions came at the cost of universal education, and hinterland India had to be satisfied with a Green Revolution.
Consequently, India entered the twenty-first century with a billion-plus cell phones but not enough drinking water in every village. In fact, we have all recently seen villagers pointing to toilet blocks and pavements as proof of the ‘development’ brought in by a, b, or c although their eyes cloud over with doubt if asked about jobs, their children’s future and better livelihoods.
The fall-out of this singularly material approach has been the great Indian tradition of offering last minute freebies just before an election (an approach that ALL political parties are guilty of.)
It’s like keeping an excellent racehorse thirsty the night before a big race, and just before starter’s orders, giving it a large bucket of water which it laps up. The wretched horse will run its heart out in gratitude, but with a belly full of water, it can never win a race.
And the punters who bet against the poor horse will carry their winnings away, laughing all the way to the bank. Such is life!