Monday, March 26, 2018

A rough road to development


There's a conversation I often play back in my head. I keep wishing I could back in time and argue properly.

I had gone to an area where there was some conflict between business interests and the interests of local residents, who felt that the factory was not to their advantage. So I went to discuss their concerns with one of the managers and he sort of snapped at me. He asked, “What is development?”

Without waiting for an answer, he declared, “Development means, a man has food, and a hundred, five hundred rupees in his pocket, right?”

He patted the front pocket on his shirt as he said this, and I was so puzzled that I could not come up with an adequate response. It was only later that I started to be shocked at the poverty of this gentleman's imagination, the narrowness of his vision.

What he was actually saying was this: villagers would (perhaps) get jobs at the factory and therefore they ought not resist factories/ big businesses; they had no right to expect more from a changing nation than their continued survival.

I bet this same gent would have a totally different view of “development” for himself. He already takes for granted his food, clean and plentiful water, a few hundred rupees in his pocket, a home to shelter in, gas, education, healthcare and comfortable transport. For his own class, “development” would imply access to high quality higher education, preferably subsidised by the state, state-of-the-art medical facilities, organic chemical-free food, perhaps free museums of art and generously proportioned libraries.

He knew that the basics are not available to most villagers. If I'd prodded him, he'd have shrugged and said: “Well, that is the state's responsibility.” Or, he may have added: “But we are doing something about that; we set up a school and dispensary.”

He would have side-stepped the question of how the factory implies “development” if they suffer water, air, ground pollution, and the fact that they would be at the mercy of a private firm for health and education access.

If this is all “development” means – food on your plate, money for clothes and other essentials – then development can just as easily be attained through farming practices that have been in place for a thousand years. After all, ancient Indians did eat a wide variety of foods. They did have clothes and some coins in their pockets.

The question is: how have we “developed” over the last thousand years? In a nation where millions are hungry or have no resident doctor within a two kilometer radius, what is the meaning of cement and steel factories, of petroleum and cars? What is the meaning of electricity and anesthesia?

The answer to that is: we have developed erratically, unequally, unjustly. There is no doubt that electricity and anesthesia are vital developments. There's no denying that the poorest people also want roads and buses. The dispute is about what development costs us, individually and collectively, and who pays the price through natural resources and taxes, direct and indirect.

This word “development” is used arbitrarily because it gets a lot done. It wins elections. It describes aspiration. It helps suppress crimes against rural and forest-dwelling communities. It flattens out all arguments in favour of ecological preservation. It twists our public discourse away from other important words such as “rights” and “health” and “freedoms”.

If I could meet that gentleman again, I'd say that development has multiple meanings but none of those meanings involve throwing rural or forest dwelling people under a road-roller whilst pocketing a fat profit.

First published here: http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/a-rough-road-to-development/article23301709.ece

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