What is Development
- Vandana Shiva in Two Myths that Keep the World Poor
Big Dams are to a Nation's ‘Development' what Nuclear Bombs are to its Military Arsenal. They're both weapons of mass destruction. They're both weapons Governments use to control their own people. Both Twentieth Century emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence has outstripped its own instinct for survival. They're both malignant indications of civilisation turning upon itself. They represent the severing of the link, not just the link - the understanding - between human beings and the planet they live on. They scramble the intelligence that connects eggs to hens, milk to cows, food to forests, water to rivers, air to life and the earth to human existence.
– Arundhati Roy in The Greater Common Good
Why does anybody need “big dams” or “big irrigation projects” ? Arundhati, there is a very simple issue here that urban people - I hope this doesn’t sound too sarcastic - find hard to understand. Water is needed, not only for drinking, but for agriculture. “Rainwater harvesting” is not enough in such areas of low rainfall. The millions of people living in such areas are the drought-afflicted, suffering from years of parched earth and damaged crops; they are driven off their lands to the cities to live, or migrate to work as labourers, for instance sugar-cane cutters, in areas of irrigation. But they would prefer to be able to prosper in their homes just as much as those threatened by dam and project eviction want the alternative of not moving. You say that the thousands of dams built in India since independence have simply led to eviction on one hand and waterlogging on the other, but this is not true. So many farmers have benefited from irrigation water, and millions who have not can see this, and want such benefits also. …Development to so many people in India means getting out of traditional traps of caste hierarchy and of being held in a birth-determined play. It is not simply economic progress, but the capacity to participate in a society in which knowledge, grain and songs will be available in full measure to everyone. When you so romantically imply that such development is not possible, when you give all publicity and support to anti-development organisations, are you not yourself helping to close such doors ?
- Gail Omvedt in An Open Letter to Arundhati Roy
When India attained independence in 1947 there was a widespread consensus on development. Modern technology and modern economic ideas (such as “planning”) were welcomed with open arms. Industries, large power plants and dams, were built, and modern farming techniques introduced. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s enthusiasm for technology and that particular model of development, as well as his “temples of modern India” quote are well known. But Nehru was not the only one. Less widely known, but perhaps an even stronger votary of modernity and technology was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar played a central role in introducing large dam technologies in India (see this or this). Both Ambedkar and Nehru were enthusiastic supporters of the idea that a technological and scientific worldview (“scientific temper”), along with modern economic development, was essential to fight the obscurantist and traditionalist mindset prevalent in India. Ambedkar’s views were, if anything, even stronger than Nehru’s in this regard. Ambedkar was especially vehement in rejecting any romantic notions of traditional Indian society. He certainly did not see India’s dalits as “thriving”, or having any special “connection to the planet they live on”. In fact Ambedkar saw the traditional social and economic system existing in India’s villages as fundamentally exploitative of the lower castes – a system to be discarded lock-stock-and-barrel – the sooner the better. In this view, technological and economic change was to be welcomed with open arms since it provided the means with which to discard the traditional social/economic system and move to a new, more egalitarian one.
To a very substantial extent I agree with the view of development outlined above, though I disagree with Nehru’s emphasis on heavy rather than light (textiles, shoes, etc.) manufacturing industries, and his emphasis on the public sector. I find that in India today the most serious problems are those that exist in traditional society and in the unorganized sector. For example, there are more than 10 million bonded laborers (slaves) and an equal number of child laborers, more than 1 million manual scavengers (who clean no-plumbing-toilets with their bare hands and carry the waste on their heads), millions of landless laborers who earn barely enough to survive, and hundreds of thousands of workers in stone quarries breathing in so many stone particles that life expectancy is only about 35 years. For the benefit of these often voiceless citizens, I believe that it is imperative to (a) improve agricultural productivity, so that farm labor income increases, and (b) increase industrialization especially in the manufacturing sector in order to increase the number of decent-paying jobs, and (c) increase access to modern (i.e., rationalistic) education. Large infrastructure projects such as dams, canals, power plants, etc. are necessary for these to happen.
Some argue that large projects – especially dams – do not help the weaker sections of society. But the evidence indicates otherwise. Farmers – including marginal farmers – all over India use irrigation wherever it is available. A World Bank study shows that that irrigation and the green revolution have helped landless farm laborers even more than landowning farmers. Moreover, the increase in India’s food production – with the help of green revolution technologies such as hybrid seeds and irrigation – is there for all to see. We seem to have forgotten just how precarious the situation was before the advent of the green revolution. Here is a quote from Agriculture Minister C. Subramaniam in 1966-67, showing just how desperate and humiliating the food shortage was. “As a last resort, I told my officials and experts to identify the nearest food carrying ships on the oceans throughout the world. I said we would identify the nearest ships carrying wheat to other countries and appeal to the US President to divert it to India if other countries could wait for another six to eight weeks.” (link). And it is well known that in any food shortage, prices tend to rise, and the poor suffer the most.
This is not to say that the existing infrastructure technologies are perfect – far from it. Alternatives where they exist must be evaluated and studied, and detailed plans must be made. Then comparisons can be made and the best option chosen. However the alternatives that are generally suggested by the anti-large-projects movement today – use of traditional technologies – simply cannot deliver comparable benefits. After all, traditional technologies have existed for centuries but were not able to prevent famines, even thought the population was a fraction of what it is today. For a good discussion on this issue, see this.
Some take the view that dalits, adivasis and others (landless laborers ?) are happy where they are and mostly do not want change. If they do want change, it is entirely achievable through the use of small-scale local technologies and local arrangements based on their own traditions. I reject this view completely. In my view all human beings are essentially the same. Adivasis or dalit landless laborers are fundamentally no different from you or me. Adivisis and dalits – just like you or me – would like to get educated, make a decent amount of money, appreciate movies, literature, music, write a blog, etc. The fact that they are not organizing morchas, hartals and hunger strikes demanding education, health care, electricity, etc., does not mean they are happy without these. I subscribe to the idea of “capability approach” to social development advanced by economist Amartya Sen in which he holds that there exist a set of basic human capabilities that are intrinsically worthwhile for a flourishing human life – irrespective of cultural or geographical differences. In this view, simply a lack of protest does not mean that people are happy and flourishing. It follows that we must strive to spread modern education, modern health care, access to markets, etc. to all citizens, whether they are actively demanding these or not. This is simply not possible to do through the use of small-scale local technologies and local arrangements. After all, these small-scale local technologies and local arrangements have been around for centuries, but not been able to deliver the desired results.
Of course large dams and other large infrastructure projects must include proper resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R). In my view the govt. should announce a national R&R policy which formally recognizes that R&R should be such as to enable oustees to, at the very least, regain their original standard of living. And this should be applicable to all govt. initiated forced displacement – not just large infrastructure projects. For example millions of adivasis have been displaced by the creation of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries – 100,000 in just one instance as recently as 2002. These oustees should have the same rights as large-project oustees. Civil-society groups should take the lead in ensuring that the govt. R&R policy is actually implemented in all cases.
Some say that western countries have stopped building large dams, and so we should follow suit. But the situations are entirely different. In most western countries, industrialization and modern farming techniques are already widespread. Dams and canals have already been built, which are sufficient to support a high standard of living for almost all their citizens. So there is no pressing need to build new dams. However, the benefits that dams and canals have brought to these countries are there for all to see. I currently live in California, and in this area, the benefits of dams and canals are obvious. The vast agriculture industry in the Central Valley of California is totally dependent on dam-and-canal irrigation. A large part of the of the Southwestern United States, including mega-cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas are heavily dependent on dam-and canal networks, especially the giant Hoover Dam.
In many western countries, it has become fashionable to hold a post-modernist post-industrial view of the world. When applied in the Indian context, this view rejects the Nehru/Ambedkar concept of development outlined above, and in my view, leads to absurd conclusions. For example, this view holds that local mythology and astrology based explanations of natural phenomena are as valid in the vilage context as modern scientific explanations, that traditional medicine as practiced by the village medicine-man is as valid as modern medicine, that traditional heredity-based division of labor is as valid as modern education-and-salary based division of labor, and so on. There is much to commend in these post-modernist post-industrialist ideas, but I believe these ideas are primarily suited to those societies that have already experienced the benefits of modernity and industrialization. In my view, it will be a cruel joke for millions of people in India if we were to adopt these post-modernist post-industrialist ideas at this juncture, when most Indians are yet to fully experience the basic benefits of modernity and industrialization.
Do read this excellent article by Gail Omvedt.