What is Development and For Whom?

Dr.K.Saradamoni February 24, 2011

Terminal Development? The newly inaugurated Terminal 3 at the Trivandrum Airport. Photo Credits: Wikipedia


These are not new questions, but it is time to raise them louder and clearer. The immediate provocation for this is the almost non-stop chant of the TV channels after the opening of the international container transshipment terminal (ICTT) by the Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh on February 11,2011 and its dedication to the nation at Vallarpadam , close to the Kochi port. The P.M. referred to this as a triumph of the public-private partnership (PPP). The channels publicized this as a giant step in the forward march of the state in industrial growth and generation of employment which would be in terms of lakhs, directly and indirectly. Hitherto, international containers from India were being transported to Colombo, Singapore or Dubai to be sent to the destination. This shall not change overnight, but, if all goes well, the experts and lay listeners who participated in the discussions agreed that the new terminal can become a nodal hub of economic activities. But many had doubts, while some were skeptics. That is about the sad state of affairs regarding the infrastructural facilities which are essential for the functioning and growth of the terminal.

The very next day, The Prime Minister inaugurated Rs.300 crore ‘world class’ terminal of Thiruvananthapuram International Airport. He said that the government fully understood the importance of the civil aviation sector, which no longer was confined to the affluent. It is getting more and more integrated with the global economy, which in turn would boost our trade, industry and tourism. As the P.M’s visit to the state is not frequent many organizations tried to make use of the opportunity and get him at various events. One of them was the inauguration of the Kerala Development Congress organized by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Development Studies, linked to the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee. There the P.M referred to the state not making full use of some of the centrally sponsored schemes. He suggested the state to have a look at labour relations which keep the investors away as well as the state decisions like retirement at 55 years with its repercussions. He also referred to the over dependence of the state on remittance from abroad. Almost the next day, the Union Home Minister told the same audience that Kerala lacks ‘visible climate for investments’ and advised a shift from agriculture to industry. The P.M. and his colleague said what was expected of them on such occasions.

PM inaugurating the Vallarpadom Container Terminal PM Manmohan Singh inaugurating the Vallarpadom Container Terminal

Let us go back for a while to Vallarpadam discussions and the reactions from the people, experts and ordinary. The vision before most people appeared to be the movement of cargo, almost non-stop from the terminal to various destinations. But there is a real hitch. Our present means of communications cannot make that dream come true, whether it be rail or road. But the experts have the answer. Water ways development has been agreed. All those containers moving along the canals and lakes to the north and south will be a sight. There can also shipments of the containers along the sea ports both on the west and east of the country. Still there will be cargo waiting to be moved away. For that we shall have world class roads !

Here is my first question. Is the priority for road development for the movement of cargo? Still the state has a sizeable section of people who were used to walking long distances. In fact many of them walked along footpaths, not created and maintained by government engineers and contractors. Cyclists might have used them occasionally. Then came broader paths along which bullock carts, hand carts, rickshaws etc carrying people and goods, for short or slightly long distance. But they kept a pace which did not disturb the pedestrian and the people who lived and worked along the way. Now, things have changed. Never ending flow of cars and other vehicles not only create ‘traffic jam’, but the constant movement and sound have dangerous impact on the walls, buildings and people living in them. There was a time when horns were banned around schools, hospitals etc. I do not find that restraint now. Even a simple airport needs more land than a railway station or bus stand. Needless to say that a ‘world class’ as the presently opened Trivandrum airport is qualified, has occupied much more land than the previous one. When such modernization and expansion were carried out in other parts of the world, they went far away from the city.

As far as Kerala is concerned, Is there land for such shifts? It is here that the question I raised, viz what is development becomes relevant. Strangely, development is the big talking point today in Kerala. Both the ruling Left and the opposing UDF parties want development. “The world is changing, rest of India is changing. Can Kerala close its doors to that change?” a senior Congressman was remarking on the TV. If we repeat what was said at the beginning, development as practiced in India and in many other parts of the world is the neo-liberal agenda where FDI, PPP etc which encourage the desi-videshi corporates not only to flourish, but allow them to influence crucial decisions. The full page advertisements of Reliance vegetables in newspapers is one example. If we examine land allocation in very recent years in Kerala, we can see that a major chunk has gone to institutions, colleges and universities, research centres, hospitals, mainly private, IT parks, amusement parks, restaurants, various other uses of the ‘builders’ like resorts, again by private agencies, residences of the ultra rich, shopping complexes and memorials etc. In a programme which was telecast on the Malayalam Doordarshan there were panchayats controlled by the Left political parties which showed building shopping complexes as their achievement. Even multiplex cinema halls have made their entry in Kerala though the old time cinema theatres still continue to the satisfaction of the thousands of cinemagoers who can watch cinema for Rs. thirty five or forty per ticket. These are not surprising when the government itself celebrates ‘shopping festivals’. The one thing for which no land appears to be kept aside is for the one thing it used to be primarily used for namely agriculture. This appears to be a forgotten chapter in Kerala. We shall come to that later. Yards to dump the junk that will be created by all the institutions listed earlier, I don’t think , has been considered.

Development is not an abstract idea. Economists and social scientists have evolved ways and means of measuring development, which is sometimes referred to as growth. But development has many non-quantifiable elements, which cannot be ignored because they reflect major aspects of a society. People’s desires/ aspirations, interpersonal relations within the family or other social groups, are just a couple of examples. We have become more self centred which in other words mean that we have become less concerned about others, whether they be colleagues, neighbours or relatives. Individual success and gains have pushed aside cooperation and collective action. A people used to simplicity in most aspects of life we, in a short span of time, converted ourselves into an aggressively pro-rich people, unashamed of vulgar display of wealth. In this game of accumulating wealth, naturally all cannot be successful, and the result, the disparity between the rich and the less rich, not to speak of the poor or have-nots is wider and more visible than ever before. It must also be emphasised that all the rich have not emerged as a result of higher salary jobs than what prevailed earlier. In fact this new high salaried jobs prompted the government to raise the salary in sectors they have responsibility including academics, other public institutions, legislature and judiciary.

Naturally, this thirst for money and wealth has led to the emergence of all kinds of mafias who have no qualms in making big money at any cost. Violence, crimes, crippling of tested social norms have become common and widely prevalent. I know that there are many people who are aware of these, and also privately talk about them, but we have not yet come to relate them to the type of society we are creating. This is clear from the fact that there appears to be no major difference from the ruling Left and the UDF who are waiting to come to power about ‘development’. In fact, it appears that the one thing that the Left does not want to be known as is that they are vikasana virudthar or enemies of development and this appears to be a motivation for them to reach an agreement with the investors in the Smart City project.

These go unchallenged because the political parties, a strong section of the civil society including the intelligentsia accept and welcome development as described earlier. In fact there is no way of escaping it, as except for the few hours one sleeps, one confronts the message of development beamed at us through the print and electronic media, hoardings all along any road, on the outside of buses and trains, and sadly in annual special numbers of weeklies and monthlies or memorial volumes, Directories of Associations, brochures regarding temple festivals, notices regarding routine meetings sent out by residents’ associations or senior citizens’ groups. We have come to believe that life is impossible without sponsorship and advertisements, and they come from dealers in gold, flats and villas, and consumer articles of all kinds. I am made to believe that Kerala in the last fifty years of its existence has been converted into a consumer society. Many who talk with authority almost boast about it. And it is not only the rich and the moneyed who are caught in this. An added dimension to this is that we have not only become shoppers, but also have imbibed a throwaway culture, and in the process are unaware of the waste including poisonous material we heap everywhere.

Most of the things listed above are discussed at seminars and workshops where experts and government functionaries participate. But they are today reduced to a sort of rituals. We don’t link expansion of roads, number of vehicles – public and private- housing, accumulation of waste, employment generation, work timings, and various other factors and see they how they connect/ or do not, and what are the repercussions. There are serious omissions in our discussion on development. Our P.M. frequently uses words like inclusive growth, and aam admi(ordinary person) . But we know of people excluded from our development agenda. To state a truth which has not received the scrutiny it deserves, is that even those who are at the helm of affairs in matters related to development talk of SCST as if it is single homogeneous group. They are also seen as APL and BPL categories. A people shorn of their identity are contained by some English alphabets. Newspapers and TV channels come up with the pathetic stories of many of the tribes and castes. There was a time when the ruling class in Britain believed that the poor were destined to be poor or that it was the will of God. But we have a constitution that says that everybody in this democratic country has the right to enjoy the fruits of development. Do the children who suffer from malnutrition, who live with common and ‘rare’ diseases, who never see a school, never have proper food and clothing and their parents who have no wherewithal not only to bring up the children, but for their own survival know about the constitutional guarantees. With all the literacy, education and political rights about which we Keralites boast of, we have to accept that we have people who lead a sub-human existence , totally unaware of their rights.

Let us come back to something which was kept pending, viz agriculture and land. I cannot think of any other society which succeeded in eliminating the small peasantry as happened here. One may list a large number of reasons, but the main reason is the evaporation of a sense of pride the farmers had in their occupation and contribution to the society. Among the reasons offered for the depletion of paddy lands one hears the rising cost of cultivation of which labour cost got the prime place. An equally important reason, which has not been discussed is the absence of a steady income from agriculture. To discuss these thoroughly, we have to revisit the ‘land reforms’ which even now receive much accolade. It is not to find fault with any person/s or political party. A critique of the land reforms is not attempted here either. If the landless labourers can be considered the tillers of the soil, they were not given land to cultivate. What they got was tiny plots to build a hut. Kerala did not have land lords who owned acres and acres of land like some other states in India. Still many of them rented out land to tenants, or kept managers, or mortgaged the land, keeping the ownership in hand. As a class the tenants were the beneficiaries. But what we find in the decades that followed is that production and productivity of paddy did not increase. This was the crop that gave maximum jobs to the workers, especially to women. Why did the tenants who fought and gained land give up cultivation? Is it that the educated, new generation disliked manual labour? Or is it that the people became more aware of the disparity in wages and earnings in the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors? Or did the left political parties consider the industrial labour as their supporting force? What ever the reason, Kerala lost a vibrant peasantry who loved and cared for the soil. But from the reports we get from various sources there are agriculturists who are engaged in the cultivation of various crops, rubber, horticulture, floriculture etc and make a success of it. There are individuals and groups engaged in organic cultivation. There is also attempt to revive paddy cultivation in fallow lands. It is hard to believe that all these together will bring back the peasantry. That can happen only when cultivation as an occupation regains it respect. That will not happen by writing off debts or insurance. The government and the society at large has to take the reponsibility to sustain that section of the population who comes forward to take up agriculture in the broadest sense. This includes, what we commonly consider as cultivation to forestry, pisciculture, bee keeping etc. This agriculture and allied agro industries together can create large numbers of employment, without hurting the earth, harming the environment, adjust to climate change, answer the frightening question of food insecurity and land grabbing by non cultivators.

The ills of the present world are being understood by more and more people. What started in Egypt and has spread to other parts of the region and beyond. These protests cannot be ignored. Let me end by quoting from a radical US publication, Dollars and Sense(March-April 2010) In the article titled The Undeserving Rich we read “If most of what we have today is attributable to advances we inherit in common, then why should this gift of our collective history not more generously benefit all members of society?” Without waiting we can certainly ask for a redefinition of development. Let a debate start on the ideas of development.

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Stark contrast between dev perspectives

First of all thanks for throwing light on this important issue. The development discourse - or rather the efforts by powerful sections of society including mainstream media to impose a consensus - deserves to be critiqued.

The moment we look into it in more depth - the stark differences become rather clear. For instance, let's compare the Kerala Padana Congress conducted by AKG Padana Kendram/CPI-M and the Kerala Development Congress conducted by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Dev Studies/Indian National Congress.

Quoting from PD/Jan 30, 2011

But according to the approach paper, the higher economic growth has raised several challenges that need to be addressed urgently. First of all the tempo of high growth needs to be made sustainable. Secondly, the state should address the challenge of fighting inequalities, which tended to grow fast when economic growth picked up momentum. Third, the state should be able to find solution to the problem of acute unemployment. Fourth, the development process of the state should be made more gender sensitive and balanced. Fifth, it should be made more environment-friendly and sustainable. Last, but perhaps the most important goal is the need to maintain and strengthen secular, democratic, peaceful and progressive environment of social life in the state, which is a critical precondition for all advancement.

On the other hand, what is the Congress and right wing talking about? From HIndu/Feb 13 and ToI/Feb 13

Referring to Kerala, Mr. Chidambaram identified two major issues that need to be addressed. The first was the lack of a visible climate for investments and incentive to promote industry and services. Most of the investments in major infrastructure had come from the Central government. The State should find ways to give impetus to develop industry because social indices were favourable and capital formation was easy. But entrenched trade unions and high wages made it difficult for industry and services sector to grow. Kerala should also find ways to address its fiscal situation, which was a matter of grave concern. Higher outgo on salary, pension, and interest payments forced it to depend on borrowings and Central assistance to fund its plan schemes. This would be the first task that the next government would have to address, he said.

Any perception of there being a "consensus" on development should be put to rest here. It's easy and perhaps even fashionable to say there's no difference between LDF and UDF. Not only is there no consensus, these are completely different development perspectives. That said, there is no doubt which viewpoint the mainstream media is promoting and parroting - by an intricate web of errors, half-truths and outright lies.

Development -- At whose expense?

A perspective on development and its ills (in the present form), a well-written piece.