Developing culture

Western models of development have blackballed the role of

By Anto Akkara
Published: Friday 15 September 1995

-- (Credit: Pradip Saha /CSE)A RECENT international workshop in New Delhi ended with a call for culture-based developmental models, "to set right the negative impact of the Western models." The deliberations provided much food for thought, as its conclusions were based on the pivotal argument that the enormous global problems facing humankind today cannot be seen apart from culture.

The final declaration of the seminar, on "Information Model for 'Integration of Endogenous Cultural Dimensions into Development", categorically stated that "the classical method of development based on the industrialised world has not alleviated poverty, nor has it ensured socio-economic equality, or fostered values conducive to peace and harmony'. The modern development process - democracy of the haves, or inner colonialism - has created 2 -nations -within -everywhere: a nation of minority haves and a nation of majority have-nots.

At a time when the tendency of limiting development to techno-economic fields has reduced humans to the status of disposable economic units, what is required is to redefine development and integrate endogenous cultural dimensions into it, to make humans and nature arrive at a harmony. The need of the hour is decentralisation of development planning and people's participation at the grassroots level. This alone can lead to the growth of a culture- friendly development model. And this has to be based on local knowledge of nature and the environment, social perceptions and traditions, and the significance of religion in the integration of community life.

More and more action groups are taking to the path of agitation in the wake of various anti-people, multi-million dollar irrigation projects, like the Sardar Sarovar Project, which threaten to displace thousands. However, the planners are closing their eyes to our ancient irrigation systems and pushing, instead, for the ecologically disastrous concrete dams, which Pandit Nehru christened "temples of modern India". Our development scientists seem to be oblivious of the fact cultural identity and local wisdom that India has the distinction of having developed some unique irrigation systems more than 3,000 years ago which conserved and replenished surface and groundwater and helped improve the living environment of the ancients.

Under the overwhelming influence of western civilisation, many people in the Southern countries have developed a feeling of inferiority. They underestimate and consider the values of their own traditional national cultures obsolete, and not refined enough, for modem times. While the Asian countries that followed the Western development model have progressed in terms of technology, they are beset with huge and prolonged social upheavals, because the model failed to preserve their long-standing soci identity, let alone helping it develop further.

Tradition- as-culture is now,'frequently used as a simple contrast to development and, as such, has acquired a pejorative meaning. Evolving a cultute-friendly development model necessarily implies the need f64 shedding the condescending outlook which holds that anything which comes from the unlettered win be of no use.

Development will not benefit the people at large unless we take into consideration the, collective wisdom of the social groups in social engineering. T41ere is much to learn from the way tribals care for and preser've their forests. Ironically, tribals are driven out, and even denied access to forest lands, while private contractors, in collusion with government officials, plunder forests in the name of development.

Instead of the utilitarian criterion of Western development, the new development model should preach happiness for -all, and not merely of the influential elite minority. Demographic diversity makes generalisations impossible, and renders the present development models untenable. Therefore, instead of uniform development programmes, governments have to adopt a differential approach to the needs of each social group.

But, unfortunately, little effort has been made at the national or international levels so far to evolve appropriate models for sustainable development, with culture as a driving force in socio-economic enhancement. The failure of many a development project, despite good intentions, can be better understood in the context of the cultural illiteracy of the planners.

Certainly, the enormous dichotomy between what we know as right and what is being done can be reduced only by promoting the message of people-friendly development.

Anto Akkara is a freelance writer

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