The story goes that a man goes to a Chinese acupuncturist for treating his headache. The doctor examines the man thoroughly and then starts to stick needles into the patient’s forearm. “Doctor,” the patient complains, “I have a headache. Why are you concentrating on my arm?” The doctor smiles and says, “See arm, see head. See! they are connected!”
Simple story but has a great deal of wisdom. The body is a unity and when one bit hurts, it is a signal that there is something wrong with the system. The pain may be localized but that does not necessarily mean that the cause of the pain is in the same location. In fact, it may even be that treating the pain will merely mask the symptom and not address the deeper cause. Superficial treatments could make things a lot worse because resources may be misdirected and precious time would be lost. In any sufficiently complex system, a holistic approach is a must for diagnosing and treatment of problems.
A personal anecdote. A friend’s wife who was in her late 20’s suddenly started having severe backache. They spent several months going to doctors who concentrated on the muscular-skeletal system and various chiropractors treated her. But unfortunately the back-pain was in fact just a symptom of kidney cancer. By the time they diagnosed that, it was rather too late.
An economy, much like the human body, is a complex system with various interconnected bits and dependencies, both internal and external. A holistic approach to the diagnosis and treatment of underdevelopment of economies is absolutely essential. Any competent development economist realizes the above of course. The catch is that to operationalize that insight is a non-trivial task. Furthermore, while the basic diagnosis and the treatment can be articulated by economists, the implementation (at least in a major part) involves politics, culture, and other such areas that are even more messy than economics.
The point to remember is that the problem we are addressing is not simple and simplistic solutions, however politically feasible, may be inadequate. One of the greatest dangers is posed by an incomplete understanding of the real problem. I call it the “Spurious Pain” problem. The so-called “Digital Divide” is one such. Among the more brain-damaged solutions to that spurious pain: PCs in every village. (I have written about this elsewhere in this blog.) Another example: farmers cannot pay for electricity. Solution to that spurious pain: free electricity for farmers.
The matter with spurious pain solutions is that instead of solving the problem, it actually accentuates the causes of the problem and one is faced with a bigger problem down the road than the one that one started off with.
Now on to the larger matter at hand. India’s development engages a lot of attention. India’s development is predicated—correctly, in my considered opinion—on rural development because around 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas. The first impulse, therefore, is to conclude that for India to develop, rural areas must be developed. For the moment, let us set aside the issue as to what exactly do we mean by “development.” Let us assume that meaning of “development” is common knowledge, knowing full well that it needs to be rigorously defined if we are serious about solving the problem of development.
The question I would like to explore here is this: Is rural development the same as development of rural areas, or is it development of the people who live in rural areas? My contention first is that the two are not the same. The solution to rural underdevelopment (and consequently to the development of the entire economy) would depend on that distinction. Second, I contend that, under certain conditions which exist in India, development of the rural areas may not be feasible at all. I argue that we should be addressing ourselves to the development of rural people, and not rural areas. In fact, I submit that it is the misplaced emphasis on the development of rural areas which is posing an impediment to India’s economic growth.