Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Focus on elementary problems

By, K.P.S.Gil

Confronted with a rising tide of violence in wide areas across the country, there is much talk today of the need for development, political and land reforms, and the social emancipation of long-neglected populations in areas of persistent or escalating conflict. Development, we are repeatedly told, is the only solution to the menace of widening insurgencies and terrorist movements; unless we address the 'root causes' of poverty, backwardness and deprivation in these areas, the extremist forces will only go from strength to strength.

There are several levels at which this perspective is wrong, and as a result of which it will necessarily produce counter-productive policies. I have written about these in the past, but they cover, basically, the fact that no unique set of 'root causes' actually explains the emergence of insurgent or terrorist violence; the administrative system and the Government's extension networks in areas of conflict simply collapses, particularly in the rural hinterland; the endemic 'leakage' of developmental resources across the country is magnified even further in such areas, as systems of accountability disintegrate; a vast proportion of the developmental allocations actually find their way to insurgent and anti-state groups; and little benefit eventually accrues to the target populations. Essentially, finally, you cannot 'out-develop' a full-blown insurgency.

But there is an even more fundamental difficulty with this approach: A modern Government is required to address the problems of backwardness and mass distress not because and where there is anti-state violence; it is required to address these problems across its entire jurisdiction because that, precisely, is what it exists for.

A corollary, here, is that by disproportionately allocating resources and efforts for reform (however unsuccessfully) to the 'development' of violence-riven areas, the state validates the idea that social and economic transformation cannot be secured in the absence of such violence, thus producing a demonstration effect that catalyses a further spread of violent ideologies.

The failure of the Indian state that is producing widening spheres of violence across the country, is a failure, at the most basic level, of the very concept of development that has become entrenched in the policy establishment. By and large, the 'developed' States of India are States that have one or two, and only occasionally more, flourishing industrial or commercial cities; but even in these States, the general conditions in the rural 'hinterland' are abysmal.

That, precisely, for instance, was the root of the contradiction of Andhra Pradesh under Chandrababu Naidu - often referred to as the Chief Minister of Hyderabad, rather than of the State - which eventually brought him to grief in the elections of 2004. Mr Naidu focused so overwhelmingly on the tiny, though flourishing IT sector, and on the provision of 'infrastructure' and securing of greater investment to feed this niche, even as rural Andhra spiralled into unprecedented distress.

Even a State like Maharashtra, with Mumbai long regarded as the country's financial capital, and dotted with industrial concentrations of great vintage and wealth, has areas of productivity and prosperity that are little islands in a sea of poverty. At least parts of these vast areas of deprivation in India's richest State are now being occupied by the Maoist menace.

Many of India's bigger cities are now decaying, or are being overwhelmed by desperate waves of rural migrants, because they have not taken care of the hinterlands that, in fact, fed their growth. The destruction of the rural economy has been the result of a continuous drain of resources, through complex processes built into the adverse terms of trade vis-?-vis the urban sector, which have systematically destroyed rural artisanship, industry and independence, throwing the entire rural population into reliance, overwhelmingly, on subsistence or low-productivity agriculture.

The failure to bring about a greater and mutually beneficial interaction between the villages and the cities has pauperised most of the villages of India. Indeed, development continues, in so many cases, to expropriate and marginalise the rural poor. And unless this process is reversed, the countryside is going to 'surround' the towns, increasingly through violence. This rising danger is compounded by the grinding tragedy of human suffering, and the incalculable waste of vast human resources that could contribute so much to the nation's growth.

The conventional 'poverty alleviation' and 'rural development' approaches, in this context, are designed to fail, and must now be abandoned. The state simply does not have the resources to directly create employment for a rural population rapidly approaching the 800 million mark. Worse, most developmental programmes have been misconceived or have been undermined by corruption. A tiny Jatav village of 74 families some 15 kilometres from Mathura presents an interesting example. Some 30 years ago, a solar power project brought electricity into every home in the village.

Today, however, the equipment is decrepit, broken, or has disappeared - the planners had forgotten to make a provision for maintenance and replacement costs. After waiting for the Government to revive the project for over a decade, two of the less impoverished families in the village got their own solar panels and restored electricity - enough for a few light bulbs and a TV set - to their homes; but the lives of the rest have lapsed into darkness. In another village not much farther, a small accident a few years ago resulted in a young girl losing an eye, because the Government hospital, itself over four kilometres from her village, had no ophthalmology section, and the city hospitals were too far away for the poor family to access.

These are peaceable, courteous, people; their aspirations are minimal, but the state cannot meet even these meagre needs. Creating opportunities for gainful employment for a sufficient proportion of this vast population through direct state intervention and beneficiary oriented programmes is an impossibility within any acceptable timeframe.

In any event, the success of all such programmes hinges on the performance of State Governments, many of which have a disastrous record of implementation, of falsification of accounts, of diversion of funds to unauthorised and often wasteful use, and of corruption. Pouring more money into backward rural areas through this decaying structure of implementation will not take these populations far down the road to development.

Unless conditions conducive to massive private investment and decentralised, widely dispersed, rural enterprise can be created, various 'packages' for areas of conflict or of endemic poverty will have inconsequential impact. Public expenditure needs, now, to be directed forcefully to the creation of these conditions, of productive assets and capacities, of a minimal modern infrastructure and facilities in India's villages, which can help them integrate with the booming urban economy, and through this, to the globalising world.

All that the villages need is security with justice, adequate connectivity - Punjab gave its villages good quality metalled roads, and the impact was palpable - with no child deprived of a good, globally competitive, education, and basic health and sanitation services. Given these, they will find their own way, and far from burdening the nation, will become its best assets.

Law and order is a precondition for this, and must be maintained across the country and throughout the year, not fitfully, when a particularly urgent challenge confronts us, or when a high profile target or victim is affected. Unless disruptive anti-state violence is contained and conditions of security prevail, none of the other terms for this process of reconstruction can be met. There is a great urgency attaching to these undertakings. In far too many areas of this country, travelling just two kilometres off the highway, you enter another century, indeed, another millennium. This time warp, if it is not corrected, will consume our future.
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