Development: For whom and why?

Over the last two weeks, I have had a few interesting discussions on ‘development,’ both in the context of local community development and international development. One can see conflation of security discourses, humanitarian and related concerns in each of these debates.  The dominant narrative about ‘development,’ in the context of Asia and Africa seems to also stem from the need to ‘contain’ problems arising from lack of development. People are violent, anti-government etc. because they are poor, the theory goes. Only if we give them ‘goods,’ or wealth will they behave better, seems to be the governing logic. But is this true? Is poverty and lack of development really causing the ‘chaos’ that we see around us. Or is it ignorance, lack of dialogue or wrong geo-strategic decisions, by the powers that are involved – including the local actors?

While it is easy to brand someone we don’t agree with as ‘anti-national’ or ‘against our interest,’  I suggest that we must pay particular attention to the power dynamics involved on who gets to legitimize what sort of ‘development,’ a country needs and how it will be carried out. In the absence of this awareness, we may be led into arguments that are faulty at best.

Photo courtesy :
Photo courtesy :

A recent example of ‘anti-development’ rhetoric being used as a platform to shut down a civil society organization is the case of Green Peace in India. While the specifics of the case can be found here and here, the point at stake is the vision of what sort of ‘development,’ does the government of India want. While it is the right of every Indian to know and question the policies being formulated, it is a deeply anti-democratic measure to shut down a reputed NGO just because the government disagrees with its position. By this account, most (if not all) media outlets in India should be shut down, as they regularly print articles that are critical of the government. In fact, it is the job of civil society and media to hold elected officials accountable. This very crux of a pluralist democracy – which India is – by all means. Democratic pluralism demands that dissenting views be heard, incorporated in the planning processes. To want the goods of globalization and not want the criticism that comes from it, both from local and global organizations is not exactly an ‘open’ way to do business.

The context of international development also brings up questions of how ‘development’ is defined. Who are we ‘developing’ and why? What is at stake? Who gains and who loses and also, fundamentally; development at what cost?  These are some questions that need to be asked, suggests Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) speaking of the role of social scientists, in uncovering and understanding human action in a social context.

A recent conversation I was part of, involved an expert, who spoke of ‘fixing Africa,’ with his technical expertise. While to a trained social scientist / development expert, this may sound like the worst nightmare come true; in his mind, this idea of ‘fixing Africa’ was as natural as having one’s breakfast – you just do it because you can – there was absolutely no consciousness of the power dynamics involved, with the ‘American’ expert and the ‘poor, African,’ at the receiving end. The politics of what I just have pointed out notwithstanding, there are real power differentials here that need to be acknowledged. This often means that the ‘best solution,’ for the African context may end up not being what they actually need, but perhaps what the American or European (or Chinese) may think they need.  This is one big problem in the discourse of development. The one with the dollars often get to decide how the discourse of development is shaped.

Similar critiques of development have come from other scholars. Arturo Escobar (1995) places the discussion of development in his book Encountering Development, this in the context of the ‘Truman doctrine’ of the late 1940s and early 50s.  The ‘discovery’ of poverty and ‘lack’ of material goods in Africa and Asia was made then, which completely ignored the way that the natives understood community, frugality, he further points out. He argues that it is with the massive onslaught of marketization that led to the pauperization of people and eventual creation of massive levels of poverty.

This idea of ‘developing’ the world by infusing capital, industrializing the poorer countries and measuring their progress by the standards became the standard operating procedure, he argues. This ‘Orientalism, Africanism and Developmentalism,’ continues, unabated and relies mainly on the standards, metrics and systems devised as part of the discourse of creating a representation of the ‘underdeveloped’. At stake are issues of representation, autonomy of those who are at the receiving end of this development. (Escobar, 1995; Mitchell, 1988). While the critique of development that Escobar offers is valid in the context of the discourses of development, what it ignores are the local, indigenous formulations of how this development impacts the receivers of ‘aid.’

Flyvbjerg (1998) argues in his book Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice that we must pay special attention to power dynamics in the ‘rational’ planning processes. What passes for ‘scientific’ and ‘expert’ knowledge can often be deeply dogmatic and convoluted, that reinforces certain ideological ideas. This aspect of focusing on power dynamics, relations of how the parties being ‘developed’ and those doing the ‘development,’ need to be kept in mind simply because without this awareness; we cannot have a mature and critical look at ‘who gains and who loses.’  Intended development projects may end up causing more harm, than actual benefit.

So, are International NGOs working against India’s interest when they try to stop a mining project, or do all Western ‘experts,’ have Africa’s best interest , when they plan projects in Africa? I don’t think the answer to this is straight-forward. While donor relations normally dictate what gets done in a target country, I suggest, following scholars such as Escobar and others, which we need to radically re-think development. Asking some basic questions such as the ones outlined above may be a good start.

Critical questioning and thinking are the bedrocks of any democratic order, and I would argue that media, civil society organizations and active citizenry should be the ones ensuring that this function takes place, on a regular basis. In the absence of this, we would end up with massive levels of propaganda posing as actual knowledge, with media becoming the mouth-piece of those in power – both politically and other wise- and a plutocracy that serves only those in power.

Social Development in India – What do We Know?

USIPII met Dr. Abusaleh Shariff about a year ago, through a common friend. We kept in touch and promised to connect the next time I was going to be in D.C. It turned out that I was able to meet him just yesterday and spent a good hour chatting about various initiatives at the US India Policy Institute, a think-tank that he heads, as the Executive Director. As someone who is leading expert on Indian development sector former Chief Economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), Shariff is one of the most important thinkers on issues related to development in India. We spoke about his background, work on the Sachar Committee Report and work at the USIPI. His take on social development seems to be on of proactive rights, where civil society groups and individuals secure what is due to them from the state, by means of concerted action, using procedures and programs that are part of the government mandate. This is the new social contract that needs to be renewed, he seemed to suggest. While economic liberalization and a new discourse of privatization as the panacea for all ills seems to have become the norm, Dr.Shariff’s work suggests otherwise.

Speaking about the condition of minorities in India, in particular, the Muslims in India, Dr. Shariff says in an Op-Ed in The Hindu, “Empirical analysis of process indicators (literacy, higher level education, formal employment, access to banking and credit, political participation, etc.) according to religious communities excluding Hindus, confirm Muslim placement below the line of average. If the SCs/STs are singled out and compared with religious groups, one finds Muslims in most of the measures about the same or even lower. With adjustments for initial conditions, the conditions of Muslims relative to the SCs/STs have worsened over the years.”

So, is Affirmative Action (reservations) in India the only way out? It seems that this is the solution that follows from the arguments that he makes. Dr. Shariff argues that there is a systematic bias in the way that government programs benefit specific communities and leaves out others. He argues that the “The only way to eliminate such bias is to ensure equal opportunity and access to programs which generate benefits proportional to the size of the population. Naming programs specific to the deprived community even if has to be done by caste and religious identity must be the public choice. It is clear that there is no catch-22 situation as has often been made out to be and it is not even ‘unconstitutional.”

These ideas are not absolutely new, in the sense that there has been an appreciation of the idea of ‘human development’ indices, since Amartya Sen and other scholars popularized it. While the notion of development indices itself is not new, what is new is the formulation of these ideas in the context of upliftment of minority communities in India. Politically, this is a lightning rod, as those opposed to benefits reaching the minorities have historically called this ‘minority appeasement’, a pejorative word to describe bribing the minorities to vote for the ruling party. But as Dr. Shariff’s research and other pioneering scholars work demonstrates, there are huge disparities in income, wealth and health indicators that need to be fixed. It seems that the only way to do this is for the state to intervene. For all the talk of the private sector filling in the gap left behind by the state, it seems like the state withdrawal has actually left many poor and vulnerable even more vulnerable.

As the Social Development Report 2012, produced by the Council for Social Development argues, despite the acknowledgement by the government that socially, India is extremely ‘unequal’, in economic and social terms, recent policy changes don’t seem to get to the heart of addressing the challenges. As the report argues “According to the HDR, malnourishment in Indian children is twice higher than children in Sub-Saharan Africa.” It suggests further that the problem is not the lack of resources, but no perceptible change, despite more resources being allocated to the problems. So, the devil is actually in the details; in this case. The problem is not of allocating the needed resources, but making sure that they actually reach the intended beneficiaries. Economic liberalization and state withdrawal from provision of infrastructure and health facilities seems to have only deteriorated the reach and scope of services, according to the report. While the quality of services may have improved, in certain segments such as healthcare service delivery, the reach of these services for the poor and marginalized is minimal, as they cannot afford to pay for these services.

The challenges to including minorities in development seems to be an ongoing one. In a recently released District Development and Diversity Index, Dr. Shariff argues that “Given the vast geographic expanse and high population concentrations across India a meaningful development strategy that address acute poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, ill-health must occur at the level of the districts. Further, hitherto development policy decisions were made using a combination of district level per-capita averages and a small set of indictors such as average rainfall and agricultural productivity; little information on the quality of life and human development were available.” These are not ‘wicked’ problems, though policies at the district levels and access to the services provided by the government is the key to addressing them.

Amidst all this data and discourse of minority rights, one must not forget that the story of India’s minorities is also the story of India. How a country treats its weak and vulnerable is a reflection of the country’s moral and ethical compass.

Do Scholars have a social responsibility?

The amount of b&%* shit that I see in the ‘public domain’ on a regular basis makes me want to cry. Really.I am researching Islam in the U.S. and one can only imagine the amount of non-sense that there is, out there, along with genuine, credible scholarship. I would hazard a guess that at least half of the stuff on internet, about Islam is wrong or misleading information. That is another story, but in this piece, I want to focus on what responsibility scholars have, if any, to correct this anomaly.

Take the story of the Pythagoras theorem being an Indian invention or that Indians inventing flying and that they had airplanes over 7000 years ago. Absurd? Well, for some, in the hallowed corridors of power, in India, this is the ‘truth’, as absurd or illogical as it sounds. And there are well-meaning people who will point out that this is part of making India a ‘great nation’. What? A great nation, based on falsehoods and myth? One cannot build self-esteem by claiming thing that one has not done or by outright falsifying history.

Photo courtesy:
Photo courtesy:

To be clear, my beef is not with Indian culture. I love my country of birth and have no issues with my ‘identity’. I am very secure in who I am and have a lot of affection for my people and our ways of life. Thankfully, my identity is fully formed, despite having moved around, a few times. I do not place myself in the category of the self-hating Indian who wants to diss on Indian culture, while extolling the ‘West’. The West has as many problems as the East and we can talk about this till the cows come home. That is not the point.

My problem is with this self-congratulatory attitude of attributing all good exists in the world to some Indian scientist or mathematician . The same sort of myth making is at place here that exists when one speaks of the Israel/ Palestine conflict, an issue I am intimately familiar with, having studied it during my MA in International Affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. I do believe, on the contrary that tradition is important, culture is valuable and that we should draw inspiration from our past. But how do we do that?

Let’s first start with the question: Do scholars have a social responsibility? I have been thinking about this for a while, as I prepare to enter the hallowed field of the American academy. I must admit, I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with, studied and spent a great deal of time with some world-class scholars, who have contributed to the study of American society, religion, nonprofit management, international relations etc. in the past four years and have nothing but enormous respect for the time, energy and dedication that they bring to their work. But the question remains: beyond the three core responsibilities of – teaching, service and research, do University professors /scholars have a broader social responsibility? When debates of race, religion and war and peace come up, are academics supposed to provide only their ‘scholarly opinion’, i.e., specialist knowledge and not ‘take sides’ or actively jump into the fray and help the lay man make up his/her mind? Not an easy answer, that one.

In a debate of this sort, there are several large and small-scale issues involved. I list just three here,

  1. The State’s legitimizing of certain forms of knowledge
  2. Scholars own careerism and search for legitimacy
  3. What counts as ‘knowledge’

Each of these is a configuration and does not stand on its own. What the ‘state’ apparatus denotes as ‘valid knowledge’ is key. Think of the times of war and peace, when propaganda becomes ‘truth’ and all versions of truth that do not match up to this are considered ‘lies’. McCarthyism and Bush era propaganda are enough proof to show anyone that this has happened in the past, and will occur in the future. Sometimes, scholars get too cozy with the powerful, especially if they legitimize one’s knowledge. Think of Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, in the recent past and their relationship with the Bush administration. They have been discredited in part because of the policies of the government, but they also gained legitimacy and power through the regime, when their ideas were being converted to policies and these policies were being implemented. A more recent instance of blowback is that of John Yoo, who wrote the torture memos, for the Bush administration.

For a more theoretical and nuanced take on this, see Michel Foucault, here.

As the article points out, power and knowledge are not seen independently but linked – knowledge is an exercise of power and a ‘function of knowledge.’ Further:

Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. For example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that a new discourse of “sexuality” had fundamentally changed the way we think about desire, pleasure, and our innermost selves. In Foucault’s argument, discourses about sexuality did not discover some pre-existing, core truth about human identity, but rather created it through particular practices of power/knowledge.”

Applying this to any form of knowledge production, one can see how a ‘regime of truth’ produces the kind of knowledge necessary.

So, in the case of India’s glorious past or that of Israel being the ‘promised land’, power/knowledge do come together to create myths and ideas that legitimize state policy. As the ‘New Historians’ in Israel Israel’s Ilan pappe and Benny Morris have shown, Palestinians did not ‘voluntarily’ leave the region, but were forced out in 1948 and the years following. Many of the myths held by Israelis as ‘truths’ have been debunked, with recent scholarship by these two scholars. Then there is Shlomo Sand, whose book The Invention of Israel

As this Guardian article points out:

“In 2009, Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, in which he claimed that Jews have little in common with each other. They had no common “ethnic” lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken at the time of Jesus. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. So what is left to unite them? Religion? But religion does not make a people – think of Muslims and Catholics. And most Jews are not religious. Zionism? But that is a political position: one can be a Scot and not a Scottish nationalist. Besides, the majority of Jews, including many Zionists, have not the slightest intention of going “back” to the Holy Land, much preferring, and who can blame them, to stay put in north London, or Brooklyn or wherever. In other words, “Jewish People” is a political construct, an invention.”

Myths, truths and half-truths

Then there are articles such as these that speak of airplanes in ancient India that went from one country to another. Myth and facts don’t seem to be separated in any of these accounts. While fantasy, myth and the like have a role to play in life, I think we cannot base the teaching of history on these ideas. The article, in a prominent Indian magazine says “Aeroplanes existed in India 7,000 years ago and they travelled from one country to another and from one planet to another, the Indian Science Congress was told today in a controversial lecture that examined ancient aviation technology in the Vedas. The hosting of the lecture, presented by Captain Anand J Bodas, a retired principal of a pilot training facility, had recently attracted criticism from some scientists who said it undermined the primacy of empirical evidence on which the 102-year-old Congress was founded.”

Where does myth end and facts begin? For the faithful, doubt has no place in mind. Blind-faith in any ideology can be harmful – be it nationalism, religion or science. In this case, Indian nationalism is being revived with utmost force and I am guessing the consequences are not going to be good. Each time this has occurred, there has been a war or a mass murder. Think of the partition of India, Wars with Pakistan, China and of course the countless ‘communal riots’ that take place in India, on a regular basis – that pit the Hindus and Muslims each as a ‘nation’, fighting it out. It looks like some people never learn their history right. And if they do, they do it in a way that boosts their own self-image and ego.

Scholars such as Shlomo Sand, Edward Said, Michel Foucault have all challenged, questioned the existing discourses of power that have legitimated certain forms of ‘knowledge’ as being true. Countless others continue to do so, in the academy and through their writings. Teaching of history, arts and social sciences is inherently a political exercise and one can take ‘sides’, while being honest about it. But I argue, what one should not and cannot do, is to be so blind to facts and one’s own biases. One cannot  blindly follow the path that legitimizes one’s world-view without seeking out alternative modes of reality, or reality, or peddling one’s own ideology as the ‘truth’.

To sum up, here is my take on whether scholars have a social responsibility. In short: Yes. They do. They do, because they are ‘powerful’ in that they have invested a lot of time, energy and money to acquire knowledge that is not accessible to all. They also have the power to legitimate a discourse. To misuse this power, either for personal gain or for gaining others favors is not only irresponsible, but also unethical. To ensure that one acts responsibly and ethically is the greatest responsibility that a scholar has. And this, I believe will be the test of true scholarship. Scholars are supposed to produce good, credible knowledge that advances our knowledge of the world, or questions injustice. Everything else is irrelevant.

Two visions of India ?

Having spent my teen years in post-economic liberalization India of the 1990s’, I have seen the growth and transformation of my home-country over the last two decades. My hometown of Bangalore transformed from a sleepy ‘pensioner’s paradise’, as it was known to become a booming ‘Silicon Valley’ of India. All in a matter of less than twenty years or so. While this has brought obvious benefits, in terms of increased infrastructure, better access to technology and the tangible benefits of Capitalism, the other effects, in terms of societal embedding of markets is less obvious. There have been other negative impacts of this massive growth as well – with increased inequality, exploitation of natural and human resources. Indian voters hold up their voter ID car

While astronomical growth rates of 10 percent GDP are long over, there is still hope and aspiration among Indians, who are seemingly ‘tired’ of the ‘corruption’ of the Congress led UPA government, led by Dr. Manmohan Singh, the man who ushered in the economic reforms, that transformed the economy. I will briefly examine the claims made by the Congress Party and the BJP, in terms of their ‘inclusive development’ mandate and analyze how either party is likely to treat the poor, vulnerable and other minorities in a country, that has, in some measures become the standard-bearer for democratic governance in the ‘developing world’. While many of these arguments are normative, I believe that politics is ultimately about ‘vision’ and not merely about technocracy. While bureaucrats and public servants execute this vision, it is up to the leaders, who are elected, to craft this vision and present it before the people, who may or may not buy into it. Let us briefly turn to the upcoming national elections in May 2014. There are, I would argue, two visions of India before us, represented by the two largest national parties. Arguably, there is not a whole lot of difference in terms of their economic policies, and the only perceptible difference seems to be in their social vision, of what kind of a India they foresee. While the AAP Party and regional parties are definitely a part of the plurality of Indian democratic system, they do not have a national mandate and influence.

Much is being written about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial Candidate, Narendra Modi, who is the current Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. As a front-runner to the Prime Minster’s post, his personal and professional life has come under scrutiny, as is the case with any candidate, running for the national position, in the world’s largest democracy. While his supporters swear by his ability to ‘turn-around’ the economy of Gujarat and claim that he will bring about the same ‘business acumen’ to governance, larger questions about inclusion, model of governance and growth remain unexamined. While there is much rhetoric among both sides, there seems to be an overemphasis on one or the other aspect – the Gujarat riots of 2002 being argued as one of the most egregious examples of his lack of leadership. This discourse is again, one that questions the leaders ‘vision’ of leading a country.

As Dr. Abusaleh Sharief, a prominent Economist and member of the Prime Minster Manmohan Singh’s advisory team on minority affairs argues about post-Independence India’s growth and how it impacted the poor and minorities: “ During this phase of governance and development, marginalized groups had little knowledge as to the relative position they occupied in the complex web of diversity amongst the population which was explicit in terms of the caste, ethnicity and religion in India. During the early period after the Independence, the overall governance and bureaucratic structure was heavily represented by highly educated upper caste Hindus and the welfare schemes and poverty alleviation programs were in the league of pilot projects or at the most in the genre of relief programs. It is now a recorded history, however, that socialistic pattern of economic policy did not facilitate fast pace of economic growth rather it was characteristic of rigid state control and bureaucratic overbearing.”Dr. Sharief further says that there is differential in the way that communities have progressed, based on their geographical location. He says: “ There is a sort of double whammy faced by deprived groups and further the depth of deprivation and exploitation emerges from other factors such as occupational and work related exploitation, child labor and gender bias. Therefore to understand mechanism to address deprivations amongst the SCs/ STs and Muslims it is essential to lay bare all such dimensions which are a type of whirlpool or a sort of trap from which those affected have to be rescued and rehabilitated not only on the basis of empathy but with the aim of empowering whole communities so that they make their rightful claim of equal citizens of India.” Further, since the senior positions of administration are dominated by the upper caste, those in the lower levels of the caste ladder have serious educational and skill-set dis-advantage. He adds that it is important to mainstream equity, inclusion and ‘increase the pie’ that is available to be shared.  This election is being fought on issues of social equity, corruption and related matters – something that needs to be kept in mind. While Dr. Sharief and even Amartya Sen seem to be advocates of the Neoliberal framework – albeit with some constraints – there are other experts who have seriously questioned the wisdom of pursuing this growth agenda.

Congress and BJP’s development promises: A brief look at the election manifestos

Let us take a brief look at what each party has promised in its election platform for 2014. While the Congress party has stuck to its founding principles as an ‘all inclusive’ party, that brings together the masses and offers a pluralistic vision of India. The manifesto begins with “Our central values resonate the very idea of India that has come to us over the centuries, an India that rejoices in and celebrates its many diversities, and builds on these diversities to strengthen the bonds of unity through secularism, pluralism, inclusion and social justice. This is the India that Mahatma Gandhi envisaged.” While it brags about the Green Revolution, White Revolution and various other schemes launched by the Congress Party through its governance tools, it fails to acknowledge the scale of corruption that shook the government in the recent past. While corruption has been a part of Indian politics and there are even arguments made by scholars that corruption, contrary to popular belief, may be good for a developing economy, it has come to haunt the party; as it seeks to come back to power. Its 15 point program for development seems ambitious and progressive – including promises of increasing expenditure on education, women’s empowerment, encouragement of entrepreneurship among other items.

On the other hand, BJP’s manifesto is based on attacking the UPA performance over the past few years. While there is clearly an ideological orientation in its manifesto, presenting India as ‘One civilization’, while it is clearly not the case; with influx of various cultures, religions, over the centuries; and a plurality, that the BJP does not acknowledge, this is as high in rhetoric as is the Congress Party’s manifesto. Some of the contentious issues that go against its claim of a ‘united India’ are the party’s insistence on pursuing the Ram Temple agenda that has been at the heart of the party’s rise to power – an extremely divisive and religiously divisive agenda. How the party reconciles this with its vision of ‘unity’ remains questionable.

It is interesting to see that both the parties accept the status quo of market-led reforms, with neither of them questioning the international trade flows, capital flows and other macro-economic aspects of how Indian economy is structured and how it impacts the common man, on a day to day basis. This seems to be off the table, for obvious reasons. Neither party wants to question the consumption habits of the 300 million plus strong middle class.

In conclusion, one can argue that no matter who comes to power at the center, problems of corruption, lack of opportunities and lack of law and order in some parts of the country will not disappear. The rhetoric of ‘clean-governance’ by Mr. Modi seems to be just that, as his government is also accused of favoring business houses and has relied on cronyism as much as the Congress. Further, as Ram Guha, historian and popular commenter says in this interview, the tide is turning in BJP’s favor because of the disgust Indians feel towards the Congress, that has not ‘delivered’ on the promises it made. He says “But there’s such an air of disgust with the present government, so people are willing to overlook his angularities because he can’t be worse than what’s come before.  The culture of democracy has been advanced, admittedly in an ugly way, by social media, [and by] expressing opinions freely through street protests and institutions of democracy such as state legislatures and courts.” Speaking of the youth and their lack of enchantment with Rahul Gandhi, he says “But that doesn’t mean though that they are enchanted by Modi. Some will go with regional parties, or AAP. In large sections of the country, the BJP has no presence at all.” Finally, one may look at the notion of ‘development as freedom’ that Amartya Sen, India’s most celebrated economist has argued for. His is an inclusive agenda for development and this is clearly articulated in his book Development as Freedom, where he makes a case for equating development to personal freedom. Unless people are able to pursue what they want, and are able to succeed, within some measures; they are not truly free, Sen points out. He is an advocate for both the processes that would bring about freedom and also the actual result of increasing freedoms. In democratic lingo, this would be a call for both procedural and substantive freedoms. He points to notions of development and their direct relevance to freedom – that of the growth of democracy and drop in famines in a country, as an example. So the question then becomes : Which party or group of leaders are able to provide this element of societal and economic freedom to all Indians? Irresepctive of the complex relations of power, caste, hierarchy and corruption; the party that gives this to the Indian people deserves to be the one that governs for the next five years.




“As researchers, you are all artists, not just reporters of facts” – Dr. John Cameron, ISS

Photo credit :Sabith Khan
Photo credit :Sabith Khan

IMG_2750 IMG_2757I presented my paper on Arab Diaspora giving at the 11th development dialogue, hosted by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University, Rotterdam on October 10, 11 in The Hague, Netherlands. The student conference brought together 120 young researchers from across the world and despite the numbers, two regions of the world were missing, rather conspicuously – North America and the Middle East. Given this, it was quite ironic that I represented North America, while presenting my paper on Arab diaspora giving. This confirmed what Joseph Stiglitz, the eminent economist shared a few months ago, at a speech at The World Bank that the U.S. is increasingly being isolated on the world scene, when it comes to issues of development.

The issues under discussion during the two day conference spanned the entire globe – from indigenous rights to community development and environmental issues. The thoughtful presentations from the young researchers raised more questions than they answered and most of the participants seemed to agree that this was the right approach – in keeping ideas open, and exploring them deeply rather than trying to get closure, too soon and reaching hasty decisions or conclusions that may not be entirely right.

During the keynote speech, Dr. John Cameron, Associate Professor at ISS pointed out that researchers are like artists, who produce an image of reality, and one that they imagine. “You are all artists, not just reporters. Your imagination is always at play during the process of knowledge creation and one must be aware of this.” He pointed out. He spoke of the responsibility of socially responsible scholarship and reflexivity. Bringing in his own background, he pointed out how his experience of witnessing the racism against Jamaican migrant workers in his native U.K in the early 1960s’ formed his mind about the need to fight these attitudes and ultimately led him on the path to scholarship in the area. Using the metaphor of bridges, he spoke of the three levels in research: epistemological, structural and human agency. He spoke passionately about the need to look at data critically and warned that if this has not produced surprises, then perhaps we haven’t carried out real research.


Student reflections

While I could not attend all of the presentations, given that there were many parallel sessions, I did participate in a few. Here are a few key points from some of the presentations made during the conference.

Indigenous rights in Indonesia : Cypri Jehan, from Indonesia spoke about the land-grabbing issue in Papua. He spoke poignantly about the government’s efforts to take over land and colonize large parts of the indigenous people’s land. This, he framed in the context of governmentality and hegemonic discourse of “development.” “Whose development are we looking at?” he asked, pointing to the hypocrisy in much of the debate surrounding development.


Fisheries management and community based fisheries in Cambodia: Soy Sok spoke about how efforts to form fishing cooperatives in Cambodia have failed in many cases. This, he explained, is because the notion of a ‘community’ is very limited in the country. “Every family is an island” he pointed out, as he outlined the strategies used by certain groups to encourage formation of a social unit larger than the family, in an effort to facilitate and encourage growth in fisheries. He pointed out that while there is the notion of offering a ‘helping hand’ during funerals or other calamities, most of the time, Cambodians tend to think of the family as their primary unit of society.

Communal councils in Venezuela: Juan Carlos Trivino from Spain spoke about the communal councils in Venezuela and their approach to democratization. His framework was participatory democracy. His work involves proposing indicators to evaluate and analyze invited spaces of participation in a state-led model of participation. He proposed four indicators that would measure: 1. Discourse 2. Mobility of community 3. Design of community and 4. Participation of the community.

                While the themes, topics and ideas presented during the two days were all very different, the unifying theme was one of applied research and the need to question the status quo. The notion that we are a communicative species and one that is also relational came up time and again. The need for social justice, equality of opportunity and reflexivity on the role of the researchers was also stressed.

Food Security Bill in India: Debating welfare in a Neoliberal India

The Food Security Bill 2013 passed the lower rung of India’s parliament – the Lok Sabha recently and is on its way to becoming law, once it is authorized by the Upper House and the President. While the opposition sees this as yet another tactic by the ruling Congress party to garner popular support, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao,” campaign, there is more to this debate than meets the eye. I will discuss the implications of the negative discourse surrounding this bill on India’s tradition of deliberative democracy. Also, I will briefly look at the notions of social welfare in India and what it means for its democratic norms.

Photo courtesy: NY Times website
Photo courtesy: NY Times website

            To be clear, India is a democracy that has struggled to provide even the basic minimum welfare to its more vulnerable citizens. There is almost no safety net (in practical terms, apart from a barebones Public distribution system) for the poorest of the poor in India and societal norms dictate that family and wider networks support those who are in desperate need of help. While the state has failed to provide any form of welfare for the poor, there are a few schemes that aspire to provide this. One of them is the Food Security Bill that the UPA government promised to pass in their election campaign of 2009. While it has taken a long time and much deliberation to pass, the struggles before the country to feed its most vulnerable sections remains.

            While debate and discussion are supposed to be enshrined in our democratic ethos, the bill seems to have brought out quite the opposite. The opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary session that sought to debate this bill and in effect tried to dismiss it. Murli Manhor Joshi, BJP’s senior leader called it a “Vote security bill,” referring it to the upcoming national elections, in 2014. Social media is awash with conspiracy theories, implicating corruption, nepotism and a thousand other ill (that surely exist) but not debating an issue and taking a dogmatic stance against a measure that will hurt the country as a whole is not very democratic, either.

            The Hindu reported Amartya Sen, India’s eminent Economist as saying: ““You can have a different view, but not having a debate goes against the tradition of democracy. Allow arguments, rather than kill arguments, and not allowing Parliament to meet is killing arguments.” The media should “take an intelligent interest” in what was happening. “The media should, for instance, put out the cost of the Bill not being discussed and passed.”

            As Jene Dreze points out in this insightful piece, there is nothing in the bill that is out of the ordinary. There are various benefits to the poor already in place and this bill merely takes it a step forward, to making access to food a “right.” Given the poverty levels in India and impact of inflation on food prices, this should not be a controversial move, as it is being made out to be. Dreze points out : “The bill is a modest initiative. It consolidates various food-related programs and entitlements that have made gradual headway during the last decade. Provisions of the bill dealing with food grain entitlements under the public distribution system have grabbed most of the attention. Children’s entitlements, however, are possibly more important. These include cooked midday meals for all school-going children and nutritious food (either a cooked meal or a take-home ration) for all children below the age of 6. These child nutrition programs are already in place; they are mandatory under Supreme Court orders. Permanent legal entitlements could strengthen and energize these initiatives.”

            Dreze goes on to point out that the measures in the current bill are much smaller than what were originally planned. Ironically, the opposition party BJP has adopted parts of these provisions in Chattisgarh, a state that it rules and the Chattisgarh Food Security Bill seems to be quite robust, he adds. This bill includes provisions such as mid-day meal scheme in schools, a measure that has demonstrated benefits to children, not only in terms of educational outcomes, but also health outcomes. In terms of provisions, Dreze adds: “Under the bill, 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban population will be entitled five kilograms of grains (rice, wheat or millets) per person per month at a nominal price. This means that about half of the recipients’ grain requirements will be taken care of by the Public Distribution System. Further, the roadmap for system reforms that has emerged from recent experience is partly included in the bill.”

 What does the state owe its poor?

            Anecdotally, the most vehement opposition to the bill is coming from the Middle classes- the ones who aren’t recipients of this system, as much as the poor. It is good to be reminded that individual development is correlated with societal development, as Sen has pointed out in his seminal work, Development as Freedom. To paraphrase Sen’s argument: There is a deep complementarity between individual agency and social arrangements in society. We must recognize both the individual freedom and the social forces that prevent it. To counter the problems that we face, we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment. He further points out that: “This book concentrates particularly on the roles and interconnections between certain crucial instrumental freedoms, including economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.”

                While those who are opposed to the bill are opposed to it not for how it is implemented, but in its totality – as an idea of a “handout” to the poor. This seems to be against the very ethos of what a democracy is. While the idea of “freedom,” does not make any sense if a significant number of the citizens are starving, critics of social welfare policies point out that this leaves the country impoverished and is a burden on tax payers.

The Food Security Bill 2013 is a step in the right direction and makes up for some of the obligations that the state owes its poorest citizens. Attacking it purely on ideological or political grounds goes against democratic ethos and basic understanding of the social contract in a democracy. This debate, is also, in effect, about the role that the state will play in social welfare provision in a Neoliberal context. While the ghosts of India’s socialist past hang over this debate, and analysts conflate basic social welfare with ‘handouts’ to ‘appease’ the poor.