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The index of development

The total unreality of the planning and budgeting processes in India, at both the Centre and in the States, is astonishing, and tragically out of sorts with the realities of the ground. Indeed, the policy discourse appears to occur essentially in a blind ideological bubble, within which the privileged classes can see only their own images, and, at best, a fuzzy and misleading blur - one that lends itself to whatever interpretation they would like to impose on it - of what lies in the vast and turbulent 'outside'.

That marginalised 'outside' is impinging with increasing insistence on the fragile fringes of the narrow domain of prosperity and dynamism in India; violence, political instability and a rising tide of destitution and distress are the manifest indices of this intrusion, but these represent only the tip of an iceberg of frustration, suffering and rage that remains the essence of the lives of overwhelming millions who have no place in the vaunting world of the 'new' and 'shining' India.

One element of the delusional nature of the planning discourse is the false dichotomy that is imposed on the 'developmental' and 'security' spheres, and the absurd debate over whether escalating political violence is best countered with greater investments in policing, on the one hand, or in a range of economic programmes and 'reforms' that would help alleviate the conditions of the poor, on the other. This debate has raged on for decades with, ironically, little real investment either in the security apparatus or in developing the rural hinterland that accounts - and will continue in the foreseeable future to account - for a disproportionate majority of our population.

If there was a measure of seriousness in this debate, one would demand some evidence of an inverse correlation between investments in the policing infrastructure in a State and its general prosperity, corroborating the notion that more and more money spent on security means less and less available for development and, conversely, the more spent productively on development, the lesser the need for outlays on the security apparatus. Indeed, the reverse appears to be the case. The States that demonstrate the worst developmental parameters are the States with the worst policing infrastructure.

The better run and more prosperous States also have better run and better equipped police forces. The only areas in which this relationship breaks down is where a major insurgency exists or existed, and where ad hoc expenditure on security - and ordinarily not systematic expenditure on strengthening of the State's policing capacities - continues to mount. This occurs, sometimes, in the absence of significant developmental allocations, but more often with more and more developmental funds also being flung into the abyss, with little to show in terms of significant benefits to the target populations and areas. Most such money is simply reclaimed by the beneficiaries of the 'suitcase economy', who are ordinarily the most vocal advocates of the 'developmental solution' to political violence.

In the meanwhile, despite the enormous growth registered by the 'Indian economy' - or more correctly, a narrow sector within this economy - rural poverty and deprivation has actually grown over wide areas of the country, even as the quality and supply of a wide range of 'public services' - education, health, sanitation, electricity and relief during times of distress - have deteriorated. State after State announces 'free electricity' for farmers, but there has been a real and progressive reduction of electricity supply in the rural areas. Free electricity, in fact, has come to mean no - or very little - electricity. So indeed, is the case of 'free education' and 'free health services', on which billions are spent each year, but for which the State's delivery infrastructure has virtually crumbled in the interior.

While a little part of India continues to 'shine', the abject poverty - and the complete absence of a shared interest in the survival of the Indian State - is the reality of growing numbers in the rural population. India today accounts for the largest number of malnourished children in the world, nearly 47 per cent of its own population of children under five years.

The State's distribution mechanisms appeared to have collapsed, even as the purchasing power of the poorest of the poor vanished. At the same time, Rural Developmental expenditure appears to have undergone rapid erosion, declining from an average of 11.1 per cent of the Net National Product (NNP) over the period 1985-90, to 5.8 per cent of NNP by 2000-2001. The truth - visible to anyone who will move out of urban concentrations and a few areas where successful commercial farming survive, and into the hinterland - is that India has rapidly been transformed into, what a commentator describes as a "republic of hunger".

The Left in India - including the Maoist extremists - despite their ideological distortions, their utopian fantasies, their proclivity to violence and intimidation, their intolerance of dissent, their hostility to freedom, and their gross historical and policy errors, appear to be able to tap into this reality, even as all other political formations - and India's economic planners - fail to recognise or address it. Crippled 'national' parties, with their perpetual and opportunistic leaning on the crutches of mobilisation in the name of mandal and kamandal, and the directionless and divisive regional groupings that have no vision beyond bribery to offer the electorate, are ceding vast territories to the Left - and this is at least partially visible in the results of the recent elections. It is more dramatically visible in the growth of the radical Left, which further exploits the spaces vacated even by the 'moderate' Left, and this, precisely, is what explains the enormous growth of Maoism in so much of the country.

Socialist tokenism, however, remains a prominent article of faith among both the Centrist and parliamentary Left parties - as is evident, for example, in the recent decision to sink as much as Rs 1,100 crore in a 'revival package' for the ailing Hindustan Machine Tools company and five of its subsidiaries. This enormous expenditure may benefit a few hundred workers in the privileged 'public' sector but will do little to contribute to national growth, and nothing whatsoever to relieve the poverty of those most in need.

A far greater measure of rationality, of realism, must characterise our planning, our budgets, our developmental programmes, and our understanding of the integral and complex linkages between security and development, and between diverse and seemingly isolated segments of the Indian population and economy. In the 'global village', the distances between narrow areas of urban affluence and the enveloping sea of rural distress, are only notional.

(Published in The Pioneer, May 13, 2006)





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