Share |

Development: The Amazing Emptiness Of Magic Words

 Article first published by the author in 29 November, 2015

"Magical language is adept at constructing metaphors that establish symbols and link magical rituals to the world "

Development is a magic word that seems to be really working in India for the last year or two!
We love to believe in magic. And even if we don’t, we want to!
All of us have fantasised about having the power to influence other people with a word, or an incantation, a spell, a charm, a catchphrase, or a mantra that is imbued with some psychological or spiritual power - like abracadabra, choo-mantar, gilly gilly goo, jadoo mantar, shazam, al kazam, hocus pocus.
Whether mantras are consequential tools of the intellect or inconsequential sound constructs is debated amongst the gullible, and though they have been used through the ages, in stage magic, politics and religion, scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of spells, mantras and charms.
Development, as a magic word, is working in India, because like all magic words, no one knows exactly what it means, or wants to. It is accepted at face value, without thought, as in any inconsequential sound construct. So that’s why this word is currently being used as an economic ‘magic word’ in speeches that are impressive for their drama and rhetoric and which magically merge science and history with myth and folklore, that are full of catchphrases, like, ‘good governance’, ‘make in India’, ‘development’ ‘smart cities’, and the alleged exploits in the development of Gujarat.
Over the last two years leading to the elections in 2014 and a little after, the state of Gujarat is used as an example of good development. In reality, Gujarat has always been highly urbanised, and home to India's largest business and trading community, and even between the years 1990 and 2000, under different chief ministers, Gujarat was a highly prosperous state.
During the last five years, however, Planning Commission figures show Maharashtra ahead of Gujarat by a percentage point, and Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu neck and neck with Gujarat. But the irony of it is, that there are States where development is exceedingly better than Gujarat. Bihar & Himachal Pradesh are exemplars of this. In the last 5 years their rate of developmental increase leapfrogged over that of Gujarat.
Yet, in the sphere of human development, Gujarat's rank in poverty reduction was 11th among 20 major states. And, according to the Planning Commission, the State's tribals (indigenous people) comprising 17 per cent of its population, became poorer in the last decade. The Planning Commission's ‘Human Development Index’ had placed Gujarat 18th in its rankings.
One of the first acts of the new government, after it took over, was to axe the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission is now defunct!
Development, according to - – “encompasses the need and the means by which to provide better lives for people in poor countries. It includes not only economic growth, although that is crucial, but also human development—providing for health, nutrition, education, and a clean environment.”
In in an article by Owen Barder - senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and Director for Europe - “The Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen has twice changed our thinking about what we mean by development. Traditional welfare economics had focused on incomes as the main measure of well-being until his ground-breaking work in the 1980's which showed that that poverty involved a wider range of deprivations in health, education and living standards which were not captured by income alone…. Then in 1999 Sen moved the goalposts… Sen's view is now widely accepted: development must be judged by its impact on people, not only by changes in their income but more generally in terms of their choices, capabilities and freedoms; and we should be concerned about the distribution of these improvements, not just the simple average for a society.”
What this means is that development economics must be a humane economics. And a bottom-up approach must be taken, rather than the top-down approach that has been followed by all governments, past and present, regardless of their political affiliation. It means that:
Development is a ‘people first’ economic model that first considers the welfare of the rural poor, giving them security of food, health and shelter, and improvement of their living conditions.
Development is when good schools and an efficient primary educational system that educates the poorest of the poor, reaches the remotest of villages.
Development is when the neglected and declining agricultural sector is uplifted by investment through a strategy that enables-and-encourages agriculture and petty producers, small traders and agricultural workers in rural areas.
Development would work best when the rural peasantry is listened to and made to feel important.
Development would jack-up the declining rural economy and raise the living standards of common people by boosting opportunities in villages and rural areas so that urbanisation is not forced on peasants and immigration to cities is curbed.
Development is when rural people have the confidence to stay on where they are, to pursue agriculture, and pursue their own traditional professions and their arts, with dignity, and with the belief that their own areas will be lifted out of poverty and made to matter.
Development would support and develop the self-reliance and security of indigenous people (tribals), of remote, mineral-rich forest and hill areas with the confidence that they would not be ousted, and that they could preserve their lifestyle and values.
Development would empower women, by supporting women’s right to choose their own future and reduce societal constraints due to the patronising attitudes by a male dominated society.
Development is when all children are healthy and have good medical care; knowledge of hygiene is imparted to them and good sanitation is provided to all.
Sadly, this imagined idea of development has no basis in reality. We are ruled by monster corporations, the tremendously advantaged and rolling-in-it corporations, and their collaborators, the government and its officials.
Politicians and economic thinkers generally think of top-down development. They think, once the privileged are developed, their munificence will trickle down to the bottom, and development will spread from top to bottom, and from city to village, over a period of time. But in reality, it does not benefit the vast majority of people who need all the help that they can get, just to survive. Top down economics benefits the already rich and the privileged who stockpile money and create for themselves the financial clout to bribe, polarise and overpower the rest of us. Wealth never trickles down.
The magic word Development, as it is being sold to the nation by the government in India, past and present, only benefits city-dwelling, high-salary employees, industrialists and businessmen; only the upper-class elite would benefit from it. This goes down well with the aspiring, ambitious and self-absorbed middle classes too, who also do not see anything beyond their petty personal desires and are unconcerned about the holistic welfare of the people of the country, or its sustainable development.
The aspiring Middle–classes love the idea of privatisation and the top down approach.
Historically, the middle class and rich are preferred by governments and the poor are considered to be potholes in the path of development. The poor and underprivileged are neglected, and often ousted from their areas to make way for so-called ‘development’ which will benefit the already privileged that live in cities.
The magic word ‘development’, as peddled by politicians, is ‘loaded’. But we too, the aspirational middle classes with blinkers on have to move out of ‘denial’, overcome our indifference and think beyond ourselves. More compassionately, more humanely, with greater integrity, and question the legitimacy of magic words and exercise our freedom of speech and expression.
Pratap Antony, Passive activist.Active pacifist