Posted in India

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…)


Development as directed growth

As Mr Narendra Modi has managed to sell the development mantra to two of the most economically important States of India – Haryana and Maharashtra – we need to take pause and reflect on what exactly this development implies.

At its most basic, development is ‘directed growth’, so while economic growth qua growth seems a laudable objective, the direction of this growth is most important, if development is to provide sustainable livelihoods to all Indians.

Isn’t that what the aspiring classes aspire to?

Immediately after Independence, India’s growth was headed in the right direction where food security in the famine riddled countryside became the top national priority resulting in the Green Revolution. Simultaneously, new industries took shape in the public sector and the new steel plants became the new temples of Modern India.

It was Nehruvian vision that also saw the creation of IITs, IIMs, TIFR, BARC and several institutions of higher learning, which were to provide India with the necessary manpower in time for the information revolution and the nuclear age. (Ironic indeed that the beneficiaries of Nehru’s vision are today so eager to write him off the pages of India’s history!)

However, this vision became somewhat blurred in the post-Nehru era and things spiraled out of control in both the rural and urban areas throughout the 1970s and 80s, culminating in the near bankruptcy of the country in 1989. The economic reforms that followed in 1991  – and have become the common guiding light of both the Congress and BJP – did succeed in creating a high consumption middle class, but also sharpened the socio-economic divide to the point that there is no serious discussion today on poverty alleviation and subsequent human development, at either end of the ideological spectrum.

While the post-Independence development strategy averted a major crisis in the tenability of the idea of India, it had TWO long-term effects on the sustainability of development:

  • Firstly, the stress on agricultural production during the  Green  Revolution relegated the rural economy to the primary or extractive sectors, effectively preventing its tertiarisation, thus making RURAL growth unsustainable in the  long run;
  • Secondly, the neglect of urban areas and the emphasis on elitist rather than universal education led to the spiraling informalisation of the urban economy, making URBAN growth unsustainable in the  long run.

The Garibi Hatao philosophy of the 1970s spawned programs like IRDP, which were essentially a transfer of subsidies to those below the poverty line, and this practice has continued in one form or another through the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, the SGSY, and MNREGA. That the main beneficiaries of these subsidies were the big land-owners, is another story…

While, there are many reasons for the indifferent impact of these schemes, they have collectively created such a culture of dependency among the rural poor, that individual enterprise and self-help has become rare enough to be eulogised in management textbooks as a ‘best practice’… Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi being a case in point.

The continuation of similar subsidies by the present government, directly or indirectly, will only perpetuate this dependency and fuel further distress emigration to urban areas.

The failure to move rural economies to the secondary and tertiary sectors also means that rural households do not have an alternative source of income, and a single crop  failure can tilt the balance towards utter desperation, leading at worst to farmers’ suicides; or at best to emigration to the nearest metro.

This exclusive dependence on agricultural livelihoods also skews the societal landscape of the village, where the amount of land one holds decides everything from one’s status to access to basic services and one’s political clout.

The eminent social anthropologist  M N Srinivas rightly asserted that the politics of rural India is the politics of Dominant Caste. He defined Dominant Caste by 3 criteria:

– Firstly, numerical strength
– Secondly, a place not too low in the ritual hierarchy
– Finally and most importantly, LAND OWNERSHIP

And because land ownership is almost entirely hereditary, it forecloses all opportunities for social mobility for those born into landless households. Is it any wonder then, that the majority of India’s poor (67%) live in the rural areas, and the poorest of the poor are landless labourers,  who tend to belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who are the worst off, because tribal societies have historically had communal, rather than individual, ownership of land and its resources.

Dominant Caste politics also enables the powerful to deliver an entire village, district or region to a single party come election time, and we saw this phenomenon (of the ultimate vote banks) at its greatest potency in Uttar Pradesh in 2014.

How can a country where the future of a majority of its citizens is decided by an accident of birth ever become a world leader? Isn’t Development meant to break these social barriers – like gender and caste?

It should be understood that poverty implies not only denial of basic necessities like food and shelter but also denies or limits access to basic social services like education and health, which are in any case extremely inadequate to start with, because we never made the investments needed in social infrastructure for the world’s second most populous nation.

Added to this is a virtually non-existent social security net – and chronic deprivation, low life expectancy and the world’s highest malnutrition is the sad reality of India today.

The urban landscape has hardly fared better. It is estimated that almost 68% of Mumbai’s economy  now falls in the informal sector while the figure for Chennai and Delhi hovers around 60%.

With the proposed dilution of labour laws and added incentives to small and medium enterprises, this figure is sure to grow, bringing in its wake exploitation, tax evasion, deregulation, higher levels of industrial pollution, overwhelmed civic services and infrastructure and greater urban poverty through unsustainable livelihoods.

The continuing and growing informalisation of cities is directly linked to higher unemployment, more crime, and bigger slums through informal housing; as also more black money transactions in daily business… and even a 100 new smart cities will not shine in the increasingly desolate, polluted, drought-ridden, power-hungry and informal landscape that is fated to be the future of Urban India.

Perhaps some direction for tackling both rural and urban poverty may be sought by revisiting India’s recent urbanization, as I hope to do in my next post…