Development is not a road

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Reportedly, bjp senior leader Arun Jaitley has contemptuously labelled Digvijay Singh's Madhya Pradesh government as " ngo -style". Why? Because it spends more on social development -- education and health -- and not on roads or electricity.

I am not defending the potholes made famous by politicians and media in the build-up to elections in the state. But I do want to defend the idea that development is often much more than an easily visible road. Development is not about a five-year itch called elections. Development is about doing the obvious. It is about building a strong foundation for livelihood and water security, essentially investing in people (through literacy and health programmes). It is about building an effective and enabling framework for action and governance in every village -- constructing small footholds that become big steps into a better future. Mind you, it's about doing the extremely obvious.

The Madhya Pradesh government has actually done the obvious. Even its critics agree it has expended energy on social development. In 1999-2000, the state expenditure on social services was almost 40 per cent of the plan budget. It has worked on education -- started the innovative education guarantee scheme, which led to enrolment rates in schools of over 90 per cent by 2000. It has spent on health sector reforms. It has made structural changes in the way bureaucracies conduct business by giving constitutional powers to the gram sabha -- the village assembly -- so enabling it to become an instrument of local power.

This is an important departure from what we usually understand as decentralisation. In most states it is the representative form of democracy -- the elected panchayat -- that gets institutionalised. On the other hand, participatory democracy demands that elected representatives are subordinate to people, so that everything this elected group does remains accountable to all and must be defensible before all. It is in this context that the state's "right to recall" legislation -- which allows a village to recall its elected leaders if they lose confidence in them -- is possibly the most exciting development of modern India.

This has not made the state turn the corner. It cannot, in a jiffy. These changes are long-term and structural, the kind that take time to mature, sometimes harshly. It takes time, perseverance, and a constant effort in re-learning to realise innovation in governance. But we know this: for the past 55 years, such crucial indicators of change are precisely what India has tom-tommed.

So why is it that, today, these investments don't seem important enough? Even the Prime Minister on the campaign trail takes potshots at the poor roads in the state. As if roads or electricity are the be-all and end-all of development. Are the forthcoming elections about these same roads or the lack of electricity? Do literacy, water security and decentralisation not matter? Why? Are these too 'abstract' for us to understand?

I fear there is more. This is more than just the politics of an inane opposition. This speaks of societal changes in which we are beginning to lose sight of what is essential.

Let us understand the reasons for such oversight. Firstly, there is now a second-generation middle class which defines progress only in terms of the tangible benefits that individually accrue to each. It cannot understand the reality of rural India because that real India is not visible to them anymore. All it sees is images on tv , a simple-minded repertoire that suggests the country comprises of jewellery-clad women and mansion-like homes. The last time they saw a village was on (film) location in Switzerland. The only poor they see are on the roads and slums, who should not be begging, and do so because they are lazy and have too many children that over-populate the country.

Secondly, there is the growth of the pragmatic political class. They know they can earn quick brownie points close to elections by playing the caste, class, national security or religion card, or whatever comes trump, or is easier to deliver. They know they don't have the abilities to handle our rigid and won't-do bureaucracies. So, they don't have what it takes for substantial change. Their answer lies in designing arrangements with private capital, fast buck-type arrangements. Call it a deal with the devil, with a focus on what benefits both parties -- electricity, software parks, industries and, yes, roads.

Thirdly, there is the cynical academic and policy class. They are so impatient for change they have lost the ability to stand by even what they care about. For them the watershed programme of the Madhya Pradesh government was a giant hoax. Its supporters were collaborators, who had snatched away revolution and legitimised state actions. Instead of working the changes needed, these critics give up. And so, become more or less marginalised.

All this adds up to the pre-eminence of what can be called the "Gurgaon-mindset". Gurgaon, in the vicinity of Delhi, is about dramatic growth. About high-tech buildings, shopping malls and corporate offices and multinational executives roosting in its many golf courses. Most of all, Gurgaon is about private builders, who are building the new tomorrow of our dreams. But behind all that glitz, the town has no real water supply -- builders dig deep into the ground to guzzle fast-disappearing water reserves. It has no sewage system, no drains, no effective garbage management, no public roads and certainly no planning for public transport or social infrastructure.

But the glitz prevails. And if election rhetoric is to be believed, it is what our politicians believe we want. We have to prove them wrong. For all our sakes.

-- Sunita Narain

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